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Covid-19 crisis and Earth Hour: An opportunity to reflect on the deteriorating health of the planet

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Earth Hour 2020 on Saturday 28 March presents a unique opportunity this year: shining a light on biodiversity loss and climate change during the coronavirus outbreak. All of us will be able to share our voices and concern for nature by observing Earth Hour from home – to ensure social distancing – turning off all non-essential lights at 8:30 p.m. By doing so, we draw attention to the climate and biodiversity crisis globally. Meantime, the coronavirus pandemic crisis which should keep most of us at home also offers a chance to reimagine our approaches to managing and valuing natural resources in the future. 

In the past months, we all witnessed shocking news about the devastating fires in Australia and the Amazon, and these were just two of the most recent examples of the crisis we are facing. 2019 has been a critical and unprecedented year for nature as global carbon emissions reached unparalleled levels, the artic continued to melt, and global temperature rise set new records on every continent.   

It is ironic to think, then, that nature and the new coronavirus pandemic are closely interconnected. Our voracious demand for crops, timber and other resources has led, and still leads to the degradation and destruction of entire landscapes, causing disruptions to natural ecosystems and loss of biodiversity. This encroachment into natural frontiers means that animal-human interactions now exist which did not previously, enabling pathogens formerly exclusive to animal species to jump to a new, unsuspecting, human host. It is now well understood that many emerging infectious diseases, such as the novel Covid-19, originate from animals. Habitat destruction further exacerbated by climate change and fuelled by economic growth is, therefore, providing the perfect opportunity for new disease emergence. 

Likewise, scientists and others have long been alerting us to the climate crisis, and in particular, its need for a swift and effective response. A fundamental piece of the puzzle in that response is tackling deforestation and restoring forests. 

Yet the climate emergency hasn’t received the same sort of urgent and immediate response which the new coronavirus emergency has. For instance, many of the world’s biggest brands are set to fail to meet their 2020 deforestation commitments, despite making clear their ambition for sustainable supply chains. 

In stark parallel, we’ve been jolted into almost immediate action by continuous information flows about the coronavirus outbreak, with its effects on entire countries and their populations serving as a signal for action to governments and individuals, even if they themselves weren’t yet experiencing its effects. 

When facing the new coronavirus crisis, everyone has a role to play – governments have had to quickly develop and implement new policies; many organisations have had to transition into remote ways of working; and individual actions have, more than ever before, been crucial for the wider public good, with individuals being forced to completely change their daily routines in an effort to protect those in high-risk groups. 

It has been very encouraging to see how communities, industry and individuals have rallied together over the last weeks to support each other, focusing on the things that really matter in order to maintain some sense of order and joint ambition to tackle the crisis. 

Perhaps the global system had reached breaking point, like a computer system overloading with processes running alongside each other without being able to connect and coordinate. Perhaps it was time to shut down and reboot.  Whatever the reason, we should see this as a chance to rethink and reimagine our approaches to managing natural resources. How we interact. What really is of value to us. It is time to pause and reflect on how to be the best stewards for a healthy and resilient planet. 

We all question what the long-term economic effects of the pandemic will be. Early analyses from China show a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. But will efforts to revive the global economy reverse this effect and accelerate the destruction of natural ecosystems – and in turn climate change – in a race to make up for the economic losses endured? Experts are warning that efforts to combat climate change could be jeopardised by compromising global investments in clean energy and weakening industry environmental goals such as to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, it will be key for governments, industry and the private sector to enact green growth policies and realise the interconnectivity of human, economic and natural systems that determine planetary health. 

We have all the necessary tools to help support our planets tenuous life support system which is untenably our own: to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and not just halt but reverse land degradation and biodiversity loss. So, let’s reimagine how society works, from human interaction to political and economic infrastructure, and from natural resource management and ecosystem protection to life on land. 

As Landscape News reported recently: “Procrastination, short-termism and scientific denial are the hallmarks of our inaction on climate change – but the coronavirus provides an opportunity for us to kick those long-standing habits.” 

As our life on land navigates an uncertain period, we must learn to replicate the same responses to Coronavirus to the climate emergency.  This crisis must remind us of the delicate balance within the natural world so that we can turn this systemic threat into an opportunity to ensure our own wellbeing.  

A version first published in Business Green 20 March 

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Green Planet

Climate Change and its Effects on Europe

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If one thinks Putin has become a headache, then the future of Europe under the forecast climate change regime is pneumonia. 

According to this scenario, ice melt from Greenland and the Arctic will raise sea levels around FloridaAside from greater and wider coastal flooding, this change will inhibit the regular Gulf Stream Drift that makes its way across the Atlantic warming northern Europe and ensuring the English climate is even milder.  Part of it of course is due to Britain being an island and so enjoying the moderating effects of the sea — again more so because of the Gulf Stream. 

This relatively even weather in England has undergone change.  More frequent 90F and higher days in summer, once relatively rare, is one symptom — the UK just recorded its highest ever temperature of 104.54F.  There have also been heavy rains and flooding notably in December 2020 when a wide belt across the south suffered catastrophic inundation of historic proportions. 

Scientists and the UN confirm an increase in the frequency of natural disasters.  This includes forest fires, hurricanes or typhoons, excessive rains and floods. 

July 14 might be celebrated as Bastille Day and a national holiday in France but in neighboring Belgium it now commemorates the devastating floods in 2021.  Heavy rains and the Meuse river overflowing its banks turned streets into canals in the eastern city of Liege. The floods extended to the Netherlands and western Germany, caused by a low pressure system that stalled for two days over the region.  Rain falling on soil already soaked by spring rains and overflowing rivers (the Meuse in Belgium and Netherlands, the Rhine and the Ruhr in Germany) devastated the area.  At least 243 people lost their lives and property damage was estimated at $12 billion. 

If last year was one of floods, this year it’s drought and dry heat and forest fires — temperatures hitting 117 F in Portugal and an estimated 75,000 acres lost to forest fires; also dry as tinder Italy where the river Po, the country’s longest river, has been reduced to a trickle.

England has been subject to a similar pattern, suffering some of the worst flooding in its history last year and now reeling from forest fires. “I’ve fought wildfires for decades.  None of it prepared me for the infernos this week,” screams a Guardian (July 22, 2022) headline quoting a firefighter.  London fire fighters have just had the busiest day since the Second World War.

When will governments understand that the earth is changing, that natural disasters piling one on top of the other, and that forest fires in Europe, in Australia, in the US and elsewhere plus floods and typhoons etc., are not coincidences? 

One hopes it is soon, and we humans learn to moderate damaging behaviors.

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The Greater Frequency of Natural Disasters and our Response

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Photo: NASA

While no one can ascribe specific natural catastrophic events to global warming, their frequency appears to have increased.  So it is that forest fire seasons have lengthened, and more fires occur more often and of greater intensity.

The current disaster in the news is in the Iberian peninsula and across to southwest France.  Almost uncontrollable wildfires have devastated thousands of acres, and one observer pilot flying too close has been killed reports the BBC.  The fires in La Teste-de-Buch and south of Bordeaux have destroyed 25,000 acres.

In Portugal, 75,000 acres have been devastated by fires this year.  One cause is the dry heat and soaring temperatures, drying out the countryside.  They have hit 47C (117F) in Portugal and above 40C (104F) in Spain.  Residents have been evacuated from the danger areas and a pet rescue operation is ongoing.

Planes are dropping fire retardant chemicals, and helicopters collect sea water from the coast then return to douse the flames.  The high temperatures, the drought and their consequences have not spared neighboring countries.

In Italy, the country’s longest river, the Po, has diminished to a trickle in places and the tinder-dried countryside in its valley is under a state of emergency.

Along other parts of the Mediterranean, the conditions are similar.  In Greece, there are fires southeast of Athens about 30 miles away in Feriza; also on the northern coast in the island of Crete where seven villages near Rethymno have been evacuated. 

The opposite side of the Mediterranean has not been spared.  Fires swept through several provinces in Morocco and one village in the Ksar el-Kebir area was destroyed. 

According to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the earth should respond naturally to ameliorate global warming.  Unfortunately, human interventions like cutting down forests have damaged its ability to do so.  Is runaway global warming then our future?

The answer has to lie with the same humans, being the only species with the knowledge and faculty to respond to the challenges.  The means are available, from CO2 capture to altering our own behavior.

Work on additives (like oil and fats) for cow feed have helped reduce emissions by 18 percent in Australia where almost 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from ruminants.  Even more promising has been the addition of seaweed which when mixed in small quantities (3 percent) to the diet have reduced their emissions by 80 percent.

In the meantime, we have to change our ways:  Growing our own vegetables — delicious and easy as they grow themselves with minimum care … and have you tried ripe tomatoes fresh from a vine?  Even easier to buy now as plants are sold at food supermarkets.

Eating less meat, walking or cycling instead of driving for short trips and so on.  It is easy and just a matter of habit.  In the end, it is up to us as to the kind of earth we want to leave behind for our children and grandchildren. 

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Interviewing Fabio Domenico Vescovi – Agronomist and Earth Observation Specialist

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Fabio Domenico Vescovi is an Agronomist & Earth Observation Specialist. He is currently Senior Data Scientist & Technical Lead at Cropin. Fabio develops applications of satellite technologies in tropical countries for the insurance sector (drought and floods). He studies crop biophysical parameters to inform an index-based insurance system and develops AI algorithms based on DataCube and Machine Learning. Fabio has had an international career spanning Germany (Bonn University), Italy (OHB) and UK (Airbus). He has also been deeply involved in various African countries, working with different stakeholders to enable easier data-based access to micro-credit and micro-insurance for farmers. Fabio has a PhD in remote sensing applications in agriculture.

You are using satellite data to track droughts and floods to grow crops more efficiently. Which other companies are doing this globally? 

At Cropin we use satellite data along with other types of data such as weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics etc. to create AI models that bring predictive intelligence to agriculture and make it more efficient, productive, and sustainable.

There are a host of organisations in this sector offering services which target this challenging area. We believe that the challenges faced by this sector are many and complex and not one player can solve them all and thus a thriving global agritech ecosystem is a great enabler to truly accelerate progress of the agriculture ecosystem. The industry itself is at an evolving phase and technology adoption in the global agriculture arena is still a long way to go. Arable land across the planet is estimated to be 1.4 billion hectares and in terms of being able to digitize and impact the planet’s agri-value chain, the agritech sector is still miles away, but we sure are headed in the right direction.

Why are you passionate about the agriculture sector? What has inspired you to be a part of this field? 

My family and ancestors were all Italian farmers and despite growing up in an urban environment I always had a passion for environmental sciences, agriculture and the socio-cultural connections between our environment, our people and myself.

Tech-enabled services for farmers can be unaffordable for many farmers in a country like India. Do you think India can implement them at a mass scale? 

We are very aware that farmers will face challenges to afford high-end digital and predictive intelligence solutions which brings a meaningful difference to their lives. This is the reason Cropin works via a B2B and B2G business model. We work with large food processing companies, food retailers, seed and agri-input manufacturers, agri-lenders and insurers, governments and development agencies who in turn work with huge numbers of farmers and large areas of farmlands. So, the cost of the technology is borne by our customers and the benefits of higher efficiency, improved yields, lower inputs costs and better sustainable operations benefit all the stakeholders including the farmer. Another important benefit of our B2B and B2G approach is that it also helps us create impact at scale in global agriculture vis-à-vis working directly with individual farmers.  

What is Carbon farming? Which countries is it being implemented in? 

Carbon farming is a new term but an old practice. I think that people practiced Carbon farming since the time agriculture was invented. One of the simplest examples of Carbon farming is the circulation of organic matter in the form of manure from the stall to the soil. In turn the soil provides food to the animals in the stall. There were many similar Carbon cycles and sub-cycles across people and cultures, where organic matter was recirculated and eventually regenerated.

Nowadays this circularity in Carbon has been slowly destroyed by a mixture of industrial and commercial processes, which though very productive, are not sustainable for the environment.  Just to give you a negative example, Europe is a strong importer of soya, sunflower, and cereals from Brazil, which is now clearing their forests and depleting their soil organic matter to farm these products. However, there is no process in place to return that Carbon from Europe to Brazil to the soil from where it was taken. Only money is returning. We were able to put in place a system which is perfect economically but unsustainable ecologically. Like in a bank, what the soil gives us is a loan, not a donation.

How can AI be used for sustainable agriculture? 

Digitization and AI can be leveraged at scale to increase efficiency, productivity, and sustainability in farming. To leverage AI for farming, Cropin undertakes the complex process of ‘agri asset computation’ which brings together satellite imagery, historical and forecasted weather data, soil information, agro-climatic conditions, seed genetics, global crop sowing and harvesting patterns, agronomics, and other farming insights all under one umbrella to build knowledge graphs for hundreds of crops and crop varieties across the globe. This data is then used to build AI models for any farm plot, region, country, or crop in the shortest possible time. This provides insights and recommendations on various aspects of farming operations – from selecting the right crops and seeds, the right time for sowing and harvesting, the optimal use of water resources and adoption of the right farming practices etc. All this enables much more sustainable farming.

At Cropin, we have already computed 0.2 billion acres of farmland in 12 countries, and we have an ambitious target to compute and build predictive intelligence “on-tap” for 1/3rd of the planet’s cultivable lands by 2025. By doing this, we are helping solve planet scale challenges such as food security, environmental sustainability and better livelihoods for farmers.

How can farmers be empowered globally? 

Farmers are supposed to be the most empowered category in the world, they should dominate even kings, like for example in the American and French revolutions. But the world has become oblivious to this. People forget about farming and the role of farmers, especially the small holder ones. Nowadays if you ask a European child: “Where does this milk come from?”, the answer you may get is: “Well, from the fridge!”. So, milk is perceived as an industrial product and this is ironically not wrong, because the number of industrial processes occurring on every drop of milk from milking to drinking is overwhelming. So, behind a common farm or diary product, we do not see a natural environment anymore but rather a complex system of industrial procedures.

Farmers can be taken onboard of the political arena only if they speak the language of marketing, behave like industrial entrepreneurs, have the knowledge of engineers, act like politicians and talk like salesmen! How can we figure out the farmers role in a complex society which forgotten the importance of farming?

Even in climate change, the only ones empowered to make a significant change on millions of hectares are the small holder farmers. They can play a key role in agro-forestry and Carbon sequestration, much more than any other industrial process. But they are not aware of the processes and of their potentials, and neither is society. We need an educational process involving both agricultural and industrial sectors to raise awareness on their potential.

Finally, a personal question – Is doing a PhD and life as a researcher fulfilling? 

It is, but I must accept that the academic context of a PhD and the lifestyle of a researcher moving across various countries to attend congresses are so different than the cultural context and environmental conditions of a farm. I can’t simply mix the lifestyle of a farmer and that of a researcher. Anyway, whenever I try to do so or I spend some few days in a family-run farm in an African context (e.g. currently I am writing from a small holder farm in Mwingi, a rural area in central Kenya, not even completely electrified) then I get the best results of my research and I grow in the knowledge of how the farming world really is, when we speak about farming, even Carbon faming. My lovely farmers and I dream to raise our common voice and bring awareness on the real role which farming and research can play together: my PhD is not a barrier, it is the way to open my mind to their culture and learn more.

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