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Green Planet

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. 

Dr. Arshad M. Khan is a former Professor based in the US. Educated at King's College London, OSU and The University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. Thus he headed the analysis of an innovation survey of Norway, and his work on SMEs published in major journals has been widely cited. He has for several decades also written for the press: These articles and occasional comments have appeared in print media such as The Dallas Morning News, Dawn (Pakistan), The Fort Worth Star Telegram, The Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and others. On the internet, he has written for Antiwar.com, Asia Times, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, Eurasia Review and Modern Diplomacy among many. His work has been quoted in the U.S. Congress and published in its Congressional Record.

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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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Green Planet

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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Green Planet

Types of Natural Fibers from Plants and Their Characteristics

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Nature has provided abundant resources and can be used into various processed products that can help ease human life. With the enormous potential of nature that is already available, it is the human task to utilize it and maintain the preservation and balance of nature so that it does not become extinct or lost due to excessive use without being accompanied by environmental conservation. One of the wealth that is widely available in nature is natural fiber. Natural fiber is a raw material used in the textile industry which can then be processed into various useful needs, not only into cloth, but many products actually require fiber as a raw material, one example is composites. Composites are generally made of powder or particles which are usually used to increase the strength of the material. However, in the era where technology began to develop, various composites derived from fiber. Fiber composites themselves are the same as composites in general, but the material used is not wood powder or particles but the main ingredient is fiber. So that the type of fiber greatly affects the strength of a composite made.

Generally, fiber comes from 2 sources, namely synthetic fiber and natural fiber. Natural fiber itself can come from animals and plants. Animal fibers such as wool, silk, alpaca, camel, etc. The highest content of animal fiber origin is protein. Then the fiber from plant can be further divided into several types according to its origin, fiber from seeds, stems and leaves. Fibers from seeds such as cotton and kapok, fibers from stems such as ramie and bamboo fibers, fibers from leaves such as pineapple and sisal leaf fibers. Chemically, all fiber derived from plants, the main element in the fiber is cellulose, although other elements in varying amounts are also contained in it, such as hemicellulose, lignin, pectin, ash (Hidayat, 2008).

The trend of using natural fiber to be processed into objects that have benefits and selling value continues to increase from year to year. This happens because many people have realized the importance of protecting the earth, so many have started to use materials that come from nature so that they can be decomposed and do not create waste that is difficult to decompose such as plastic, metal, and styrofoam. The trend of using sustainable materials is very positive and has a good impact in the long term. Because with increasing public awareness about the importance of protecting this aging earth, it can help protect nature and reduce the extinction of animals and plants.

Here are some examples of types of natural fibers and their unique characteristics.

Pineapple leaf fiber

Who would have thought if it turns out that pineapple leaves can be made into fiber that has a high selling value. Pineapple leaf fiber is fiber taken from pineapple leaves. The extraction of fiber from the leaves is carried out by a series of special processes. Pineapple leaves have an outer layer consisting of an upper and lower layer. Between these layers there are many bonds or strands of fibers that are bound to one another by a kind of gummy substance in the leaves. From the weight of fresh green pineapple leaves, approximately 2.5% to 3.5% of pineapple leaf fiber will be produced (Hidayat, 2008). The properties of this pineapple leaf fiber include being able to absorb moisture, its unique color because it has a whitish or silvery accent, it has a very high cellulose content, this fiber is quite strong and does not shrink easily, has antibacterial properties, has a distinctive smell and is shiny.

Hemp fiber

Is a fiber produced from the stems of the flax or flax plant. According to several sources, hemp fiber is one of the fibers that has been used for hundreds of years and is still being processed and utilized. Hemp fiber has a low lignin content, which makes this fiber have a white color. The characteristic properties of hemp fiber are its relatively long fiber, this fiber has better tensile strength than cotton, the absorption capacity of this fiber is quite high, and it has resistance to bacteria and fungi (Fitinline, 2020).

Bamboo Fiber

Is a type of fiber that is processed from the bamboo plant. There are many types of bamboo in this world but the most commonly used bamboo for processing into cloth is banbu moso (Phyllostachys edulis). The process of processing bamboo into fiber is quite complicated but it is comparable because it turns out that bamboo fiber has many advantages. Some of the characteristics of the properties of bamboo fiber include antibacterial and antifungal properties, even after washing it many times, these properties do not disappear but remain, can absorb and reduce odors, have a good absorption rate, and this fiber is very smooth and soft so it is suitable for several applications. people who have sensitive skin (Bamboo, 2016).

Sisal Fiber

Is a fiber that comes from the agave plant, types of agave cantala and agave sisalana. Agave itself is one of the unique types of plants because the stems and leaves are united and the fiber contained in the leaves is quite strong. Sisal fiber itself has the characteristics of hard, rough, very strong and yellowish white. Sisal fiber has many functions that can be used, among others, for textiles, geotextiles, car body reinforcement, crafts, building and construction materials, etc. One sisal plant produces about 200-250 leaves and one leaf contains 1000-1200 fiber bundles(Basuki, 2017).

Abaka Fiber

Is a fiber derived from the leaves of the abaca plant (Musa Textilis) including the family of Musaceae or types of bananas. Abaca fiber has the characteristics of being strong, waterproof, flexible and has good buoyancy. Because of these advantages, this fiber is widely used for the production of ropes and nets, which can also be used for making clothes. As well as raw materials for making filter paper, stencil paper to paper that requires high durability and storage power such as banknotes, securities, document paper, map paper, and other commercial products. Abaca fiber is used as a material for making currency because it has the advantages of fiber, including having the strength not brittle and not easy to break, having a very good texture, shiny like reflecting light, durable, flexible, and resistant to salinity (Balittas R & D agriculture, nd).

Each natural fiber has its own advantages and uniqueness. It is estimated that in the future the use of natural fibers will continue to increase considering the various human needs that are increasing from year to year and increasingly sophisticated technology does not rule out the possibility that in the future the use of natural fibers can be more optimal than now. However, to achieve this, we need to protect and preserve nature and protect the earth so that natural fibers can still grow and not experience extinction or scarcity.

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