Category: Agriculture

How fungi can help create a green construction industry

How fungi can help create a green construction industry

By Ian Fletcher, Leeds Beckett University

The world of fungi has attracted a lot of interest and seems to be becoming very fashionable of late. A new exhibition at Somerset House in London, for example, is dedicated to “the remarkable mushroom”. No surprise: we’re being promised that mushrooms may be the key to a sustainable future in fields as diverse as fashiontoxic spill clean ups, mental health and construction. It’s in this last field that my own interests lie.

Climate change is the fundamental design problem of our time: buildings are hugely complicit in the crisis. Together, buildings and construction contribute 39% of the world’s carbon footprint. Energy used to heat, cool and light buildings accounts for 28% of these emissions: households are the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases since 2015, accounting for a quarter of total UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017.

The remaining 11% of buildings’ carbon emissions consists of those associated with construction and building materials. The UK construction industry, for example, uses around 400 million tonnes of materials each year and approximately 100 million tonnes become waste. Cement alone is responsible for a whopping 8% of global CO₂ emissions. Compare this to the much maligned global aviation industry, which emits 2% of all human-induced CO₂ emissions. Buildings and, by association, the construction industry, are profoundly responsible for climate change.

Cement – the key ingredient of concrete – is responsible for an astonishing 8% of all carbon emissions. Ricardo Gomez Angel/UnsplashFAL

There is evidently a real need for the construction industry to reduce the impact of its material and energy use and to take part in the transition towards a more sustainable economy by researching and using alternative materials. This is not an absurd ask: such materials already exist.

Mushroom materials

And yes, one such material happens to be derived from fungi: mycelium composites. This material is created by growing mycelium – the thread-like main body of a fungus – of certain mushroom-producing fungi on agricultural wastes.

Mycelium are mainly composed of a web of filaments called “hyphae”, which acts as a natural binder, growing to form huge networks called “mycelia”. These grow by digesting nutrients from agricultural waste while bonding to the surface of the waste material, acting as a natural self-assembling glue. The entire process uses biological growth rather than expensive, energy intensive manufacturing processes.

Close-up image of mycelium showing interwoven fine hyphae. © Ian Fletcher

Mycelium materials offer an exciting opportunity to upcycle agricultural waste into a low-cost, sustainable and biodegradable material alternative. This could potentially reduce the use of fossil fuel dependant materials. The materials are low-density, making them very light compared to other materials used in construction. They also have excellent thermal and fire resistant properties.

Fungal architecture

To date, mycelium materials have been used in a number of inventive ways in building projects. One particular company of note is The Living, a New York based architectural firm which designed an organic mycelium tower known as “Hy-Fi” in the courtyard of MoMA’s PS1 space in midtown Manhattan. Designed as part of MoMA’s Young Architects Program, the structure illustrates the potential of this biodegradable material, in this case made from farm waste and cultured fungus grown in brick-shaped moulds.

Mae Ling Lokko, Mushroom Panels and Pentagram interactive work. Part of Somerset House exhibition: Mushrooms The Art Design and Future of Fungi. © Mark Blower

Another project of note is MycoTree, a spatial branching structure made out of load-bearing mycelium components. This research project was constructed as the centrepiece for the “Beyond Mining – Urban Growth” exhibition at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism 2017 in Seoul, Korea. The project illustrates a provocative vision of how building materials made from mycelium can achieve structural stability. This opens up the possibility of using the material structurally and safely within the construction industry.

Mycelium materials have also been analysed for uses ranging from acoustic absorbers, formed packaging materials and building insulation. And NASA is currently researching using mycelium to build habitable dwellings on Mars.

Recycled buildings

I am investigating the development of mycelium materials using locally sourced materials such as wheat straw. Wheat straw is a cheap and abundant source of waste in the Yorkshire region, so would be a fantastic raw material for construction. My main objective is to develop a material for use in non-load bearing applications, such as internal wall construction and façade cladding. The material displays similar structural properties to those of natural materials like wood.

Close-up image of mycelium of P. ostreatus growing around wheat straw. © Ian Fletcher, Author provided

The development of mycelium materials from locally sourced agricultural waste could reduce the construction industry’s reliance on traditional materials, which could improve its carbon footprint. Mycelium composite manufacturing also has the potential to be a major driving force in developing new bioindustries in rural areas, generating sustainable economic growth while creating new jobs.

The construction industry is faced with a choice. It must be revolutionised. If we carry with business as usual, we must live with the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.


This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Cover Photo by Elisa Kerschbaumer on Unsplash
Climate heat means new wine from familiar places

Climate heat means new wine from familiar places

By Tim Radford

Each great wine is a unique product of place and climate. Rising heat could force new wine into old, prized bottles from famous cellars.

LONDON, 30 January, 2020 – As global average temperatures rise, so does uncertainty for the world’s wine-growers – with new wine the likely result. The great Bordeaux region of France will survive – but only if it stops serving claret.

Burgundy will still value its vines, but these won’t produce the high-priced tipple that the law defines as burgundy. Instead, what comes out of the cellars of Beaune or the Cote d’Or will be more like the output now from the southern Rhone.

That is always supposing that the growers keep up with rising temperatures by choosing grape varieties more likely to flourish with climate heating. A new study by European, Canadian and US scientists suggests that, even if the world’s most prized vineyards do abandon the grape varieties that made them prized in the first place, they will still lose up to a quarter of the space now in cultivation.

And if they don’t, the great wine regions of Europe could say goodbye to half their vineyards altogether. Producers in cool climates – Germany, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest – could avoid major losses, but they will be tempted to switch to later-ripening varieties.

“Wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive”

In the United Kingdom, where until very lately any wine harvest has been a gamble, the terrain might become suitable for at least five new varieties. New Zealand’s range of grape choices could double.

But Burgundian growers might have to forego the famously temperamental pinot noir grape and switch to grenache, or mourvedre, known in Spain as monastrell. The vintners of St Emilion, Pomerol and Medoc could see their cabernet sauvignon and merlot varieties replaced by mourvedre, according to research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In fact, Europe’s growers have already had several warnings: hot and dry summers are now, for France, the norm. Extreme summer temperatures take their toll not just of the yield on the vine, but also of the people who have to pick the grapes, and even of the oak trees that provide the bark for the corks in the finished product.

Temperatures have already risen by more than 1°C worldwide, and the cool region of Champagne could be about to lose its sparkle.

Medieval records

But the new study is about far more than just the high-priced product of high-status wine regions. There are more than 1000 varieties of the grape Vitis vinifera, many of them sensitive to specific temperature and rainfall conditions. Even more helpfully, scientists can call upon harvest records that date back to medieval times.

So the grape seemed a good proxy for all of agriculture: from apples to wheat, from bananas to brassicas, the world’s growers can call on a huge range of crop varieties to buffer them from the shock of climate change driven by ever-increasing use of fossil fuels and ever-greater emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“In some ways, wine is like the canary in the coal mine for climate change impacts on agriculture, because these grapes are so climate-sensitive,” said co-author Benjamin Cook, of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in the US.

The scientists considered 11 kinds of cultivar and dates of budding, flowering and harvest matched to seasonal temperature records, and found that if global temperatures rise by 2°C – and there is every indication that they could rise by more than 3°C – at least 51% of current wine-growing regions could be wiped out.

Higher warmth difficulties

“These estimates however ignore important changes that growers can make,” said Elizabeth Wolkovich, of the University of British Columbia, another author.

“We found that by switching to different varieties, vintners can lessen the damage to just 24% of areas lost. For example, in Burgundy, France, vintners can consider planting more heat-tolerant varieties such as syrah and grenache to replace the dominant pinot noir. And growers in regions such as Bordeaux may swap out cabernet sauvignon and merlot for mourvedre.”

But that’s if warming is limited to just 2°C. “At four degrees, around 77% of all areas may be lost, and planting new varieties will limit this to 58% losses,” said Ignacio Morales-Castilla, of the University of Acalá in Spain, who led the study.

“Wine-growing regions can adapt to a lower level of warming but at higher warming, it’s much harder.”


This article was originally published on the Climate News Network
Cover image by Alex Gorbi on Unsplash
2019 picks from the Acclimatise article archive – Food & Agriculture

2019 picks from the Acclimatise article archive – Food & Agriculture

Our fifth article of top picks from our 2019 article archive features four articles related to climate impacts on food and agriculture. Additionally, we have featured a fifth article pick that further explains the complex climate-conflict narrative.

The agricultural sector remains highly vulnerable to climate change impacts and has a direct implication on global security. In fact, climate change can disrupt food availability, reduce access to food, and affect production quality due to variations in precipitation patterns and extreme weather events. Further perpetuating the urgency of the matter, this heavy impact on food production comes at a time when there is increasing pressure from population and consumption growth.

To strengthen resilience and better manage climate shocks within the agricultural sector, adaptation remains vital. The agriculture sector must become better-suited to handle the challenges of a changing climate by sustainability increasing agricultural productivity whilst helping food systems adapt and build their resilience. Acclimatise has been and remains heavily involved in identifying the agricultural risks certain locations face, whilst providing a multitude of options in the reduction of climate change vulnerability and the enhancement of adaptive capacity.

India is waking up and smelling the coffee when it comes to climate change

By Devika Singh

Coffee has been fuelling our energy levels, productivity and the global economy for over 500 years now and remains one of the most valuable agricultural commodities traded internationally. However, coffee is a climate-sensitive crop. With falling coffee prices, increasing costs of production, changing climatic patterns, and the low profitability for producers, coffee production is becoming increasingly unprofitable.

Read the full here.

This New Climate – Episode 6: Sharing supply chain risk – Everyone’s a WINnER?

By Acclimatise News

In the sixth episode of This New Climate, host Will Bugler takes a deep dive into the intricate network of suppliers, traders and retailers that make up the food supply network. This episode explores how the risks of climate change are being disproportionately shouldered by smallholder famers, and presents an innovative project called WINnERS, that has helped farmers in Tanzania to share the cost of climate change more evenly across the supply chain.

Listen to the podcast here.

This New Climate – Episode 5: Climate change and the 4th agricultural revolution

By Acclimatise News

In the fifth episode of This New Climate, host Will Bugler explores a suite of innovations promoted by EIT Climate-KIC through their Climate Smart Agriculture Booster that are helping farmers to adapt to climate change while shedding light on how European farmers have suffered under recent drought conditions.

Listen to the podcast here.

Climate change adding to pressure on land threatening global food security finds landmark IPCC report

By Will Bugler

Climate change is undermining human’s ability to provide enough food as pressures on soils mount. At the same time, poor land use practices are increasing global greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change and making adaptation and resilience efforts more difficult. This stark warning comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land, released in August 2019.

Read the full article here.

Climate Wars: A Review on the Complex Climate-Conflict Narrative

By Erin Owain

Remarkable progress has since been made in the understanding of the climate-conflict nexus due to advancements in data availability, quality and analysis. But despite such developments, a recently published article reviewing the climate-conflict literature concluded that there still exists “a failure to converse on a single narrative”.

Read the full article here.


Climate linked to largest locust swarms in 25 years threatening East Africa food security

Climate linked to largest locust swarms in 25 years threatening East Africa food security

By Will Bugler

Billions of locusts swarming through East Africa are the result of extreme weather swings and could prove catastrophic for a region still reeling from drought and deadly floods, according to experts.

While desert locusts are not uncommon in the region, this years’ exceptionally high numbers have been driven by a dangerous mix of extreme weather events. At the end of 2019, the extremely wet conditions and a series of typhoons created favourable conditions for locusts to breed, and enter Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.

Affected countries have tried to contain the swarms by spraying chemicals, but the sheer number of locusts thriving in the wetter conditions are overwhelming their efforts. Desert locusts eat their own weight in food every day. So far, experts estimate that the swarms have caused considerable damage to grazing areas and animal pastures. Many of the food crops were already mature by the time the locusts hit, which meant that they fed mostly on the green leaves. Much of the harvest was therefore saved.

Further studies are being conducted to estimate the true cost of the swarms on food security in the region. However, experts from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) expressed their considerable concern. Saying that the invasion poses an “unprecedented threat to food security in the entire sub region”, where more than 19 million people in East Africa are already experiencing a high degree of food insecurity.

Keith Cressman, FAO’s senior locust forecasting officer said that “If locusts are left untreated by control measures, swarms can potentially grow 400 times larger by June.”  The desert locust is the most destructive of all food-eating locust species because of its speed and ability to multiply rapidly. A swarm the size of Paris can devour as much food as half the population of France.


Cover Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash
Adapting to climate risks ‘hidden’ in company value chains requires new approach says new research

Adapting to climate risks ‘hidden’ in company value chains requires new approach says new research

By Laura Canevari

There is an evident weakness in current private sector adaptation responses: they fail to incorporate adaptation measures taken by others into their strategic planning, and miss a range of risks and opportunities embedded in business networks operating at transboundary scales. New research done by researchers at King’s College London has found that by establishing a greater awareness of wide value-chain impacts and working collaboratively to share resources and manage risks, the private sector can adapt more efficiently, and greatly increase its resilience to climate change. This is likely to have far reaching impact as it is widely acknowledged that the private sector plays a crucial role in in fostering climate action and addressing the adaptation investment gap. In response to the recommendations of Task Force for Climate Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), companies and financial institutions have started to evaluate climate risks and opportunities to adapt to a changing climate. Whilst researchers and scholars have started to investigate how businesses’ internal capabilities may shape adaptation responses, little is known about the influence of value chain relationships on businesses’ adaptive behaviours. Yet no business adapts in isolation: they do so within a context of interactions and interdependencies forged within their operational environment. What’s more, many of the skills and knowledge needed in order to adapt extend beyond traditional organisational boundaries.

This new research looks at agricultural value chains in Jamaica, understanding the importance of managing business relations strategically, and demonstrates the need to better allocate resources in order to build climate resilience along value chains. By mapping all the material, financial, and information exchanges amongst actors in three agricultural value chains, this research reveals how business-to-business interactions – as well as the structure of whole value chains – can influence actors’ adaptive behaviours and capacities.

Business networks generate constrains and opportunities that affect the adaptive behaviour of firms

Investigations of adaptation responses to drought in agricultural value chains in Jamaica (access resources at the end of this article) show that business network dynamics can impact on network sensitive elements of the exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity of businesses. Actors are sensitive to the adaptation responses of their partners, depending on how much they rely on the critical resources that these partners hold. For example, value chain actors that rely on water utility providers and lack access to private wells or lakes are highly sensitive in times of drought. These water utility providers will impose water restrictions and rationing schedules that can increase the costs of production, potentially disrupting value chain operations.

Similarly, the research finds that the terms of contractual arrangements can strongly limit the ability of businesses to transfer or share climate risks, which changes their exposure to climate impacts. Most farmers in Jamaica do not have formal contracts with agricultural processors, and are therefore able to respond to the effects of droughts on their crops by increasing the price of their raw produce (hence transferring the risk). Processors, however, tend to have fixed price agreements with retailers, exporters and distributors. This means that, in times of drought, farmers can increase the price of the raw produce, whilst processors will have to absorb the increases in the price – even to the extent of having to cut down production in order to cope with the impact.

But the effects of network dynamics on business adaptation are not wholly negative. Businesses can draw on the strategic relationships that they have with others in their network to access valuable resources for adaptation, such as information and investment capital. In the cassava value chain in Jamaica, for example, it was found that processors can act as reliable providers of information or financial resources for small farmers they trust and with whom they have developed strong relationships. This increases the chances of access to capital for adaptation for small farmers, which is particularly important when other potential sources of capital (e.g. bank loans) are not available.  Businesses can also engage with their customers and suppliers in joint problem solving. By managing the decision-making process in this collaborative way, workable solutions can be developed more efficiently, which is of particular benefit in times of environmental turbulence. Collaborative problem-solving can expose hidden risks, and help developing management strategies for them, reducing the uncertainties experienced in the longer-term.

The level of resilience of value chains can also influence the capacity of individual businesses to adapt

In order to better adapt to a changing climate, it is not enough for individual businesses to forge and sustain strategic relationships with their direct partners. Businesses’ adaptation is also affected by how these partners manage their relationships with others. This means that the ways in which entire value chain networks are structured can influence value chain resilience and the adaptive capacity of individual actors. In fact, value chains that are more resilient tend to display greater levels of connectivity, collaboration and information sharing, which makes them more agile to respond to change. They also have the ability to re-engineer themselves by being both flexible (i.e. able to take different paths to respond to a disturbance) and preserving redundancies within their business functions (such as having multiple and backup suppliers and safety stocks). These network characteristics also enable individual actors to better adapt to a changing climate. However, they may also generate trade-offs; for example, between building redundancy and efficiency, or between consolidating core capabilities for competitive advantage or developing new ones for adaptation.

With the use of value chain network analyses, it is now possible to inform the design of value chains in order to increase their climate resilience and support the adaptive capacity of value chain actors. For example, the network structure of resource flows can be investigated, in order to understand how resources are exchanged between value chain actors, which actors hold critical positions within the network, and what levels of diversity and redundancy the whole network holds. From a government perspective, this information can be used to inform and justify the allocation of resources for value chain development.

Network analyses have also been used to demonstrate how business associations can improve information sharing, helping to promote greater value chain climate resilience and positively influencing actors’ adaptive capacity. In Figure 1 below, a representation of the cassava value chain network illustrates how different categories of actors currently interact in the exchange of different resources (i.e. information, material and financial resources), and how diverse the cassava value chain is in terms of type of key actors holding the network together. Each circle represents an actor, and the links between them show the resource flows between them (material, financial and information). The map is generated using a software called Gephi, which determines the spatial location of actors according to the level of attraction between the links to eachother. We can see in this diagram that a lot of the lines are yellow. These yellow lines are showing the resource flows among actors in the promoters group (an industry cluster composed of different value chain actors that work collaboratively to promote value chain development). In Figure 2, we see what the resource flows look like for information in this network. This figure shows the information network and how it changes with and without the presence (and connections) of the promoters group. When examined quantitatively, analyses show that the presence of this group increases the overall level of connectivity of the network in a number of ways: first, by increasing its overall density; second, by lowering the average path length of the network (i.e. the number of steps information needs to make in path between any two actors); and third, by reducing the network’s modularity (a measure used to understand how fragmented the network is into smaller sub-groups). This means that actors are more capable of accessing relevant information that may guide their adaptation practices when the promoters group is active, than when it is not.

Figure 1. Diagrams showing the information, material and financial flows in the cassava value chain, and the relative importance of different stakeholders and exchanges.
Figure 2. Diagram showing the difference in network connectivity with and without the presence of the promoters group.

A relational view of adaptation in the private sector can enrich our understanding of cross-scale interactions and transboundary climate risks

What makes the identification and management of climate risks increasingly challenging is the proliferation of business models promoting greater interdependency between actors located in different geographies. This facilitates the transmission of climate impacts across boundaries to completely different parts of globe and to completely different populations. The lack of appropriate climate frameworks enabling transboundary collaboration between institutions is caused, in part, by a shortfall in knowledge about how value chain network dynamics influence climate risk exposure and vulnerability at these transboundary scales. Developing relational approaches to study climate adaptation in the private sector can possibly play a role here. By assisting in the exploration and diagnosis of management problems at multiple scales, relational approaches can help to better characterize the dynamics that influence systemic risk. Furthermore, relational (or network-based) approaches offer tools to help appraise the complex connections between local (e.g. inter-sectorial) and transboundary factors affecting business vulnerability, by accounting for business constraints and enablers spanning beyond traditional organisational boundaries. Research in this area is still in its infancy, and more needs to be done to promote studies investigating the relational aspects of climate adaptation. Greater understanding of the role exerted by business relationships on adaptation will help decision makers to navigate the complexity of climate adaptation challenges and make the private sector more resilient to climate change.

This article is based on the research studies carried by Laura Canevari and peers at King’s College London. Free access available below.

Canevari-Luzardo, L. (2019). Climate change adaptation in the private sector: application of a relational view of the firm. Climate and Development. doi:10.1080/17565529.2019.1613214[

Canevari-Luzardo, L., Berkhout, F., & Pelling, M. (2019). A relational view of climate adaptation in the private sector: How do value chain interactions shape business perceptions of climate risk and adaptive behaviours? Business Strategy and the Environment. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/bse.2375

Canevari-Luzardo, L. M. (2019). Value chain climate resilience and adaptive capacity in micro, small and medium agribusiness in Jamaica: a network approach. Regional Environmental Change. doi:10.1007/s10113-019-01561-0


Cover photo features photos illustrating key steps along the Cassava Value Chain in Jamaica. Photos by Laura Canevari
Christmas tree shopping is harder than ever, thanks to climate change and demographics

Christmas tree shopping is harder than ever, thanks to climate change and demographics

By James Robert Farmer

If you’re shopping for a live Christmas tree this year, you may have to search harder than in the past. Over the last five years Christmas tree shortages have been reported in many parts of the U.S.

One factor is that growers sold off land and planted fewer trees during and after the 2008 recession. In the lifespan of Christmas trees, the decade from 2008 to the present is roughly a single generation of plantings. However, in my research on the human dimensions of farming and food systems, I also see other factors at play.

Christmas trees take 6 to 12 years to mature, and consumer preferences often change more quickly than farmers can adjust. Climate change is altering temperature and rainfall patterns, which severely affects growers’ ability to produce high-quality trees and the varieties that customers seek. And like the overall U.S. population, Christmas tree growers and shoppers are aging.

Collectively, these trends don’t bode well for Christmas tree lovers, the growers or the industry. However, there are opportunities for younger farmers to enter this market, either full- or part-time. If new and beginning growers live in an area with appropriate environmental conditions, Christmas trees are a high-quality complementary crop that farmers can use to diversify their operations and provide off-season income.

Workers deliver the 2018 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree to the U.S. Capitol Building, Nov. 26, 2018, from Willamette National Forest in Oregon. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Evolving consumer preferences

As of 2017, there were about 15,000 Christmas tree farms across the U.S. Most are around 23 acres in size, and nearly half of them gross less than US$25,000 annually. A great number of Christmas tree ventures are part of larger farm operations, and many growers hold off-the-farm jobs.

Our team recently sent a survey to 1,500 randomly selected Indiana residents to see how consumer behavior could affect the state’s tree farmers. Christmas tree shoppers told us that they predominantly seek short-needle trees, such as firs and spruces (38%), followed by medium-needle varieties like Scotch pines (24%).

Over 42% of respondents purchased their tree from a Christmas tree farm, while nearly 32% bought them from a tree lot or other small business, and approximately 20% got their tree from large chain or retail stores such as Home Depot or Lowes. A national consumer survey conducted by the National Christmas Tree Association found that shoppers equally purchased trees from Christmas tree farms (28%) and large chain retailers (28%), followed closely by retail lots (23%).

According to the association’s data, from 2004-2017 the number of real Christmas trees sold stayed relatively steady, while the number of artificial trees sold more than doubled. Real tree growers have lost market share to increasingly popular artificial trees, and may have trouble seriously competing for the foreseeable future, due to climate change and an aging population.

Noble Mountain Tree Farm in Oregon harvests trees by helicopter.

Weather woes

Climate change is directly and indirectly affecting Christmas tree growers across the U.S. Droughts in 2012 and 2014 and spring floods in 2019 have taken a toll on plantings, particularly young saplings. A farmer in southern Indiana recently told me that 2019 was the wettest spring and the driest summer and fall he could recall over the past 29 years.

These extreme conditions decrease sapling success rate, which contribute to tree shortages when the planted stock would have matured for harvesting. In addition, higher average summer and winter temperatures are increasing tree mortality by worsening disease and pest pressures, making trees less resilient.

In a 2018 survey that our program distributed to 95 Indiana Christmas tree growers, 60% of respondents said that environmental conditions were challenging their operations. Among the growers, over 70% highlighted droughts as a major challenge. More than 50% of respondents reported having problems with disease, insect pressure, and heat waves. About 30% indicated that consumers were searching for trees that were difficult or impossible for them to grow, such as Fraser firs, which are native to higher-elevation areas of the southern Appalachian mountains.

Christmas tree production is concentrated in cooler regions of the U.S. USDA/NASS

Aging farmers and shoppers

U.S. farmers are getting older, and Christmas tree growers are no exception. Across the farming industry, the average farmer’s age rose from 56.3 in 2012 to 57.5 in 2017.

In our survey of Indiana Christmas tree growers, we found that their average age was 64 and that 62% of farm operations did not have a transition plan in place. Additionally, 28% of growers intended to stop planting trees in the next five years. These results suggest that many new Christmas tree farmers will need to enter the business just to maintain current production levels.

Buyers are also aging. In our consumer survey, shoppers buying either real or artificial trees were in their mid-50s on average, while those who did not purchase trees were 64 on average. Written comments suggested that people were less likely to put up a tree when fewer people, particularly children, were in the house and the work fell to one or two individuals.

Planting for the future

For Christmas tree farms to survive, shoppers will need to be more flexible. They may have to settle for a Scotch pine instead of a Fraser fir, or for buying a harvested tree rather than cutting their own. This is particularly true for buyers who wait until late in the season or want a tree variety that cannot be grown in their local environment.

Who will grow the next generation of trees? The good news is that for potential growers, competition is sparse and demand is stable. Aspiring Christmas tree farmers should consider working with aging local growers who are seeking to slow down or transition out of the industry. Farmers in other sectors, such as fruit and vegetable producers selling locally, might consider Christmas trees as a way to bolster off-season income.

The allure of a fresh-cut tree is unlikely to fade, so Christmas tree farming could be a gratifying venture for growers who are patient enough to plant now for customers in 2027.


This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Cover photo by Josh Bean on Unsplash
Harnessing the potential of Zambia’s informal food sector

Harnessing the potential of Zambia’s informal food sector

By Mangiza Chirwa and Chenai Mukumba

Like many developing countries, Zambia’s informal food market is growing, driven largely by rapid urbanisation. Selling a variety of products at relatively low prices, informal food vendors offer access to healthy, nutritious and affordable food. With low-income households purchasing more than 90% of their food in informal outlets, they play a crucial role in feeding Zambia’s urban poor.

The government’s approach

But given the nature of informal markets, managing them has been a complex task for the government. Despite providing food security for the growing urban population, the authorities regard informal markets as unhygienic food sources that contribute to health and safety problems and offer low-nutritional food.

In early 2018, the government attributed Zambia’s cholera epidemic to street vending and poor sanitation in marketplaces, razing makeshift stalls and introducing more stringent laws. These have since been relaxed and street vendors are back on two streets in the capital’s central business district.

Although the government acknowledges the importance of the sector, urban food planning and policy discussions take little account of informal markets. The new report, Informal food markets in Zambia, shows that where they do consider them, there is a strong bias towards formalisation.

The country’s main national planning documents discuss the importance of broad-based economic growth, of ensuring that economic growth benefits all and of accelerating development efforts while leaving no one behind. But they do not mention the informal sector or how to integrate it into the economy.

The Ministry of Agriculture, the Citizens’ Economic Empowerment Commission and the National Pensions Scheme Authority should all respond to the needs of informal sector players. But instead they target formalised groups such as co-operatives, overlooking the challenges faced by informal vendors such as low education levels and limited access to social security services.

Ultimately, the government’s approach to engaging with the informal sector is attempting to eradicate it through formalisation.

Taking a different view

But formalisation is neither easy nor straightforward. On the contrary, it is something that needs to be done gradually over time.

In the meantime, there are several opportunities for improving the daily life of those who work in, and benefit from, the informal food market. These include upgrading infrastructure, simplifying market levies, increasing access to capital and credit, supporting self-help savings groups and promoting value addition.

And rather than view such opportunities as an expense to improve the lives of a few vendors, the authorities should consider them investments that benefit the millions of people who rely on informal vendors for their food.

Giving the sector a voice

The Sustainable Diets for All programme (SD4ALL) works with local partners in Zambia advocating the inclusion of the informal sector in broader policy discussions. We make change happen in two ways: from the top via policy change and from the bottom by working with people at the grassroots.

SD4ALL partner CUTS (Consumer Unity & Trust Society) International informed high-level policy dialogue in the Zambian parliament on a new food safety bill, strengthening the proposed text so it clearly outlined how the government would engage informal markets. CUTS also works with local authorities to promote sustainable diets in Lusaka, formulating a food policy that acknowledges the informal food market’s role in the urban food system.

At the grassroots level, SD4ALL embraces a citizen agency perspective that challenges the common pattern of expert-driven policies and interventions. Our partners Alliance for Zambian Informal Economy Associations (AZIEA) and CUTS work directly with market actors in Zambia’s two largest cities to better understand their priorities and dispel assumptions associated with the informal sector.

In Kitwe, AZIEA has created a formal relationship between farmers, transporters, traders and the city council to address poor hygiene, safe chemical application and foodstuff pricing issues. In Lusaka, CUTS has brokered a more direct dialogue between the city council and informal food sector actors, enabling local traders to talk about the challenges they face and offer solutions for improvement.

Working with Lusaka City Council, CUTS also trains food vendors in basic nutrition and the importance of diversified diets so they can convey these messages to their peers and customers. These actions complement policy advocacy and help create voices that can demand change beyond the life of the SD4ALL programme.

Towards a new relationship

To date, conversations have tended to focus on policing and clamping down on the informal food economies, mostly ignoring the state’s roles and responsibilities in providing public services that ensure and maintain food safety.

It is time for city authorities to reassess their approach of sidelining the informal sector and focus instead on harnessing the potential that lies within. Finding ways to integrate the informal market into urban policy planning will help Zambia promote ‘zero hunger’ and also seek to ensure that all income groups can eat nutritious food.


This article was originally posted on IIED blogs and has been reposted under Creative Commons licensing.
Cover photo/Selling food by the raod in Zambia/ Wikimedia Commons
French wines show hot dry years are now normal

French wines show hot dry years are now normal

By Tim Radford

LONDON, 6 September, 2019 − French wines tell a remarkable story: climate scientists and historians, with a new wine list to savour, have carefully reconstructed the harvest dates for Burgundy – one of the most important wine regions of France – to highlight the dramatic change in global climate.

Grapes in Burgundy are now picked 13 days earlier than the average for the last 664 years. And the advance in harvest dates has been dramatic: almost all since 1988.

The finding is based on painstaking study of data going back to 1354. From medieval times Burgundian growers and civic authorities had an unusual communal arrangement: they each year collectively considered the growing conditions and imposed a date before which no grapes might be picked.

And scientists from France, Germany and Switzerland report in the journal Climate of the Past that they worked through all surviving records to provide an accurate record of the harvest date around the city of Beaune.

“The transition to a rapid global warming after 1988 stands out very clearly. We hope people start to realistically consider the climate situation in which the planet is at present”

Since grapes are highly sensitive to temperature and rainfall, and the quality and reputation of Burgundy has been well-established for centuries, the researchers are confident that the data confirm a dramatic warming trend.

Even in a much cooler past, exceptionally early harvests were not unknown. The researchers counted 33 altogether, and 21 of these happened between 1393 and 1719, and five between 1720 and 2002. In the 16 years since 2003, there have been eight outstandingly warm spring-summer seasons, and five of those have happened in the last eight years.

“In sum, the 664-year-long Beaune grape harvest date series demonstrates that outstanding hot and dry years in the past were outliers, while they have become the norm since transition to rapid warming in 1988,” they write.

Historical reconstructions are not easy: data had been assembled before, but these records turned out to be riddled with copying, typing and printing errors. There were administrative changes (after 1906, city authorities in the Burgundian capital of Dijon ceased to set or record a harvest date).

Narrative verified

There were accounts kept by the dukes of Burgundy, and records of payments for grapevine labourers maintained by church authorities in Beaune, evidence of purchases of food for the harvesters, and records of sales to the King of France.

But those six centuries were also marked by the Little Ice Age, the Thirty Years War between Catholic and Protestant states from 1618 to 1648, several epidemics of plague, and the arrival of the vineyard-destroying infection phylloxera.

So the researchers had to verify their proxy history of regional climate from tree-ring data, and from vineyard records kept in Switzerland, as well as temperature records from Paris.

The wine industry is vulnerable to climate change: researchers noted three years ago that harvests in Burgundy and in Vaud in Switzerland were up to two weeks earlier and that climate change had begun to warm southern England’s chalky soils to the a degree that made them yield sparkling wines to match qualities pursued in the Champagne region of France.

Inescapable conclusion

But the same soaring temperatures that for the moment have helped the grower have begun to impose costs on the grape pickers, who become less productive as the mercury rises.

So the confirmation that harvests are earlier is not in itself news. The data from Beaune and Dijon are best seen as another example of painstaking phenological research. Phenology is the science of when insects hatch, trees bud and birds nest, and in the Burgundian series climate scientists now have a continuous record stretching back 664 years. The story told by the series is unequivocal.

“The transition to a rapid global warming after 1988 stands out very clearly,” said Christian Pfister of the University of Bern in Switzerland, one of the authors.

“The exceptional character of the last 30 years becomes apparent to everybody. We hope people start to realistically consider the climate situation in which the planet is at present.”


This article originally appeared on The Climate News Network.
Cover photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash.
Hawaii turns to traditional aquaculture to boost food security in the face of climate change

Hawaii turns to traditional aquaculture to boost food security in the face of climate change

By Joe Gasowski  

The small island archipelago of Hawaii, today imports over 85% of its food and in 2012 the Hawaii State House’s self-sufficiency bill, said that the islands were “dangerously dependent” on food imports. In fact, the most geographically isolated State in the U.S. only has domestic supplies of fresh produce to last ten days. This represents a substantial threat to the islands’ resilience to economic and environmental shocks and stresses, such as those posed by climate change. Today, in an effort to strengthen food security, Hawaiians are turning to traditional knowledge to restore the islands’ fishponds, providing a sustainable source of protein for Islanders and also restoring and protecting marine ecosystems.

Hawaii was not always so reliant on imports to sustain its people. In fact, in the early 1900s, it would even export large quantities of their food production abroad. Hawaii’s rich tradition of aquaculture dates back over 800 years and at one time the islands’ 488 fishponds were able to feed over a million Hawaiians. However, the islands were flooded with cheap US food imports in the later part of the 20th century, making key crops cheaper to import than to grow locally.

By 2010, Hawaii was importing over 50% of its seafood and around 85% of all its food. The focus of the economy had shifted to tourism, bringing with it considerable coastal development and urbanisation. The islands fishponds were left to decay. Today, just thirteen fishponds have been restored to some level and six are in active use. However, climate change, coastal erosion and the degradation of marine ecosystems have helped to spark a resurgence in interest in restoring the fishponds.

Building resilience through fishpond restoration

Climate change is driving significant changes to Hawaii’s ecosystems. Increasing water temperatures, saline intrusion in coastal areas and more erosion from storms and sea-level rise, are putting a strain on the marine environment and damaging other forms of agriculture. With increased incidence of drought and the degradation of the islands’ soils, aquaculture is becoming increasingly important as a source of food production.

The mounting threats to the Islands’ resilience caught the attention of local activists, such as Walter Ritte who have since then battled hard to rebuild the network of fishponds. In 2012 they helped pass state legislation to help speed up the legal processes that facilitate the restoration of fishponds.

Walter and other researchers on the islands, realised that the methods that to create the fishponds had many benefits for strengthening ecosystems. The process for creating a fishpond starts high in the mountains, where rivers flow through nutrient-rich forests. As the waters reach the lowlands, islanders plant fields of the root vegetable taro along the river’s path, and as the waters spread across the land they collect nutrients in mud and algae. The wider the rivers spread, and the slower the water moves, the more silt and mud is transferred to the coast, which is then used to combat erosion.

Image: Tarot is planted in wide fields adding nutrients to the waters that flow through them.

The fishponds themselves are stone circles built into the sea with specially designed mākāhā (gates) that allow fish to come in at high tide. The nutrient-rich river waters flow into these ponds, attracting small fish, which in turn attract larger fish to predate on them. Eventually, when the fish are ready to spawn, they leave the ponds, through the mākāhā at high tide. Local fishermen then capture the fish that they need, letting a proportion go back to the ocean to sustain stocks.

Image: The wall and gate of a fishpond under restoration in Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. Credit: National Park Service.

IOngoing climate challenges

Today though, the sustainability of the fishponds faces new threats from climate change. Reduced rainfall and increased temperatures have reduced the amount of fresh water on the islands, reducing river flow rates. At the same time, increased temperatures are making it harder to grow native plants including taro and warmer waters are disrupting delicate marine ecosystems.

Scientists from the University of Hawaii have been closely working with local communities to monitor in the He’eia fishpond on Oʻahu Island. Between 2004 and 2016, they are observing the consequences of climate change and the El Niño effect on the ecosystems around the fishponds. In 2009 there were two incidents that led to substantial numbers of fish dying in the ponds at He’eia; one in May and on in October. The researchers found that on both occasions, the mortality rates were the highest when there had been a drop in wind velocity and the surface water temperatures increased 2-3˚C higher than the baseline. This caused the hypoxia in the ponds, suffocating the fish. The unprecedented events show the significance of El Niño on Hawaii’s marine ecosystems. This type of El Niño impacting Hawaii has become 3 times more frequent in the last 30 years.

As climate change and its impacts are expected to worsen over the coming decades, researchers and local communities have been devising ways to adapt Hawaii’s aquaculture. Together they have come up with three ideas to lower the death rates of these fish:

  1. Moving the net pens closer to the mākāhā (gates) where the fish will be in higher water flows. The other gates can be used as a way of decreasing temperature in the fishponds and also to increase the aeration of these ponds and keep them breathing. 
  2. Install artificial aeration systems to oxygenate fishponds at times of highest risk (like during El Nino events).
  3. Changing the time of the fish harvest to be at the start of the heatwaves, reducing the potential for losses and allowing fish to escape into cooler oceans.

Other pressures such as pollution from human settlements are also being considered. On the island of Molokai, for instance, they are using swales to help filter polluted water and use wastewater to help irrigate crops.

Through these efforts, Hawaii’s fishponds are gradually being brought back to life, with 19 fishponds either in operation or being actively restored. The methods used by islanders have the potential to build the resilience of ecosystems in the face of considerable climate threats, as well as increase the food security of the isolated island archipelago.


Cover photo of Fishpond near He`eia of Oahu, Hawaii. Credit: State of Hawaii.
India is waking up and smelling the coffee when it comes to climate change

India is waking up and smelling the coffee when it comes to climate change

By Devika Singh

Coffee has been fuelling our energy levels, productivity and the global economy for over 500 years now. Since the 16th century, coffee has been one of the most valuable agricultural commodities traded internationally, with tropical and developing countries being the largest producers and suppliers to consumers in temperate countries. While the coffee industry is growing at a high compound annual growth rate of 5.5%, the economy of the industry is volatile and highly sensitive to weather in the producing countries.

How do you value your cup of Joe?

The global coffee industry is valued at around US$ 42.5 billion, however, the economic impact of the industry is much higher; in the US alone it was valued at US$ 225.2 billion in 2015. As of 2006, the number of people involved in the coffee supply chain from cultivation and management to the final product is around 500 million. Around 25 million small-scale family farmers across the coffee producing countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia contribute 80% of the world’s coffee; Brazil and Vietnam are the two largest coffee-producing countries in the world, followed by other Latin American and African countries, with India being the 7th largest coffee producer in the world.

The global coffee market is complex and highly interconnected, with coffee supply (imports and exports) and pricing being regulated by the International Coffee Agreements. The Agreements helped promote coffee consumption and demand while strengthening the economy of coffee-producing nations in Latin America and Africa.

However, with a lack of consensus in negotiations by the International Coffee Organisation (ICO), dismantling of pricing regulations, market fluctuations and exploitation by roasters and retailers in the early 1990s, coffee prices fell to their lowest levels by 2001 (reaching less than a third of their 1960 levels). This fall in pricing was also influenced by a 1400% increase in Vietnam’s coffee production in the 1990s, making it the largest Robusta producer in the world. The fall in prices in 2001 impacted over 25 million households across Latin America, Asia and Africa, the majority of whom were small-scale farmers.

A climate-sensitive crop

Globally, as of 2015, for every pound of coffee sold (retail), the farmer received only 0.7 cents, while the distributor received 159 cents. With falling coffee prices, increasing costs of production (including labour wages), changing climatic patterns, and the low profitability for producers, coffee production, especially for the small farmers is becoming increasingly unprofitable. Mr Madhu Bopanna, a coffee plantation consultant in Kodagu, India, has revealed that the dependence on coffee as a source of livelihood is slowly being replaced due to multiple instabilities: reduced prices in the global market for coffee due to an increase in global coffee production; climate variability; an increase in diseases and pests; reduced soil moisture levels and reduced water availability. In Kodagu, which produces more than 50% of India’s coffee, coffee is slowly becoming the secondary source of income, while pepper and timber have taken centre-stage.

A recent study has found that 60% of all wild coffee species are facing extinction, making the plant group one of the most threatened in the world. This is of significance to coffee cultivation as Arabica and Robusta, the two main coffee species forming 100% of the coffee market, have very low levels of domestication, i.e., their variance from the wild species is minimal. Impacts based on climate change projections, especially drought and changing rainfall patterns, combined with other anthropogenic factors causing environmental degradation, contribute to the high level of extinction risk, threatening agricultural production.

Wild coffee species are largely forest-dwelling and have narrow climatic envelopes (climatic envelope refers to the climate within which the species currently lives, i.e., the specific rainfall and temperature patterns). They have low adaptive capacity to changing environmental factors.

With the majority of coffee plantations belonging to smallholders, the sensitivity of ecological balance, plantation management, wealth distribution and the maintenance of rural lifestyles becomes increasingly difficult. Variations in temperatures up to ±5°C result in changes in humidity, dry periods, variations in rainfall, wind shears, advection, wind stress, and cloud cover all leading to the depression of coffee yield and loss of quality. The frequency of droughts in coffee-growing areas has increased globally and is considered to be one of the highest environmental stressors in coffee production. Marginal areas without irrigation may experience reductions in yield of up to 80% during dry years.

Robusta plantation in Somwarpet taluk, Kodagu district, Karnataka. Photo taken by the author.

A history of coffee production in India

Coffee has been produced in India for over 3 centuries, traditionally in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, with Karnataka accounting for more than 70% of the country’s coffee production. The coffee sector in India has over 300,000 holdings (2016-17) with around 659,865 people forming the labour pool (based on the average number of casual and permanent labour employed). Within Karnataka, the Kodagu district (Coorg) is the largest coffee-producing district, with more than a 50% share of total coffee produced.

The ecology of the coffee agroforestry systems of Coorg has traditionally provided climate resilience to the hill communities, economic sustenance (making it one of the wealthiest districts of India), as well as water flow to the Cauvery river. The fluctuating rainfall patterns with their high impact on coffee production have resulted in a move towards irrigation, which has replaced the traditional rain-fed agroforestry ecosystem in order to sustain coffee production and ensure a sustained income to coffee farmers.

Mixed cropping visible in the coffee agroforestry system of Kodagu. Photo taken by the author.

Reports from the Coffee Board of India (CBI) indicate a rainfall deficit of 19% between 2015-2016, resulting in production deficits of up to 25%. The length of the rainy season has seen a decrease of 14 days over the last 35 years, along with strong fluctuations in annual rainfall. While this has directly impacted coffee production and its output, it has also caused a 31% deficit in the Krishna Raja Sagara dam reservoir (built across the Cauvery river), downstream of Kodagu. In 2019 again, the district witnessed severe drought in May followed by spells of intense rainfall in July and August leading to destructive flooding. The impacts of the drought and flood on coffee plantations in 2019 are yet to be estimated.

Climate impacts on coffee productivity

According to Christian Bunn’s Modeling the climate change impacts on global coffee production, the total area under coffee production is expected to double from 2000 levels by 2050. At the same time, total production is projected to fall by at least 20% in all GCM scenarios. Between 1977 and 1997, the district of Kodagu lost up to 30% of its forest cover and doubled its area under coffee cultivation. The productivity of coffee in Kodagu fell from 3,596 kg/ha. in 2014-15 (for Arabica and Robusta) to 1,174 kg/ha. in 2016-2017, while the area under coffee production in Kodagu increased from 106,527 ha. in 2015-16 to 107,089 ha. in 2016-17.

Burning of an Arabica plant affected with White Stem Borer in Kodagu. Photo taken by the author.

The declining productivity has been attributed to climatic variations, an increase in diseases and pests such as the white stem borer which destroys Arabica crops, lower returns on investments (due to current price trends in the global coffee market) and the shift from traditional agroforestry plantations to irrigation systems.

Looking towards adaptation options

Most large planters have started taking definitive steps to reduce their vulnerability to unstable rainfall patterns by establishing irrigation systems and rainwater harvesting, and using technology. For instance, Mr Bopanna has begun the use of Hydrogel, a gel-based humectant that can retain up to 300 times its original size in water. This gel is mixed into the soil base of every individual coffee plant to make up for the loss in soil moisture due to rising temperatures and changing rainfall trends.

Water storage ponds-cum-fishing ponds within a plantation in Kodagu. Large planters are increasingly creating these ponds to combat periods of rainfall deficit. Photo taken by the author.

While large plantation owners can invest in individual adaptive systems, small planters are unable to afford these technologies and are therefore unable to cope with the impacts of climate variability. They are dependent on the policies and schemes of the Coffee Board. The Coffee Board of India (CBI) has taken numerous steps to address planters’ concerns and climate change challenges. However, a majority of its plans are centred around providing development support, subsidies, insurance and extension services.

Policy actions focused on adaptation are required to restore the ecological balance of the coffee agroforestry system and build its resilience to climate change. Investing in local dialogue and capacity building with planters across the state and aggregating the wealth of experience and data collected by each planter are necessary first steps towards developing an adaptation strategy for the sensitive region and its economy.


Cover photo was taken by the author.