Sunday, September 30, 2012

919. Climate Change Takes a Bite Out of Global Food Supply

A Pakistani fisherman talks with young boys. Rising ocean temperatures are pushing many fish away from the tropics towards the poles where waters are cooler. Credit: Akbar Baloch/IPS
A Pakistani fisherman talks with young boys. Rising ocean temperatures are pushing many fish away from the tropics towards the poles where waters are cooler. Credit: Akbar Baloch/IPS

By Stephen Leahy, IPS, September 29, 2012 
MONTEREY, California, Sep 29 2012 (IPS) - Humanity’s ability to feed itself is in serious doubt as climate change takes hold on land in the form of droughts and extreme weather, as well as on the world’s oceans.
Less well known to many is the fact that emissions from burning oil, coal and gas are both heating up the oceans and making them more acidic. That is combining to reduce the amount of seafood that can be caught, according to a new report released here.
Seafood is a primary source of protein for more than a billion of the poorest people in the world, said Matthew Huelsenbeck, report author and marine scientist at Oceana, an environmental NGO.
“For many island nations like the Maldives, seafood is the cheapest and most The Maldives, Togo and Comoros top the list of nations whose food security is threatened by climate change, according to the report, “Ocean-Based Food Security Threatened in a High CO2 World”, which ranks the vulnerabilities of nations. Surprisingly, Iran is fourth on that list. This is the first-ever look at how climate change may affect food security for countries that are dependent on fish and seafood.
The report was released this week at the Third International Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World: Ocean Acidification, where nearly 600 scientists from around the world presented their research.
Rising ocean temperatures are pushing many fish away from the tropics towards the poles where waters are cooler, researchers have documented. And in a well-understood process, human emissions of CO2 have increased the acidity of oceans by 30 percent, threatening fish habitats such as coral reefs and thinning the shells of shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels.
The report examined every country’s exposure to climate change and ocean acidification, its dependence on and consumption of fish and seafood, and its level of adaptive capacity based on several socioeconomic factors, said Huelsenbeck.
A number of countries in the Middle East like Iran, Kuwait and Libya make this list because of the high vulnerability of the Persian Gulf to climate change, with an expected 50-percent decline in fisheries. Ironically, those nations are major oil-producing countries.
Tropical countries that are dependent on coral reef fisheries are also amongst those whose food security is most threatened.
“Seafood is the only source of protein in large parts of the world. And for many local fishers, if they don’t catch fish, they go hungry,” Huelsenbeck said.
The report is an attempt to alert countries to the fact that ocean acidification and warmer oceans will affect their ability to feed their people in the future. “They need to know if they are at risk,” he said.
It is important for countries to know what the potential impacts of ocean acidification might be, said oceanographer Carol Turley from Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK.
“Science can also look at the potential to adapt and manage this risk through monitoring, looking at the potential of doing things like growing more sea grass to pull carbon out of seawater,” Turley told IPS.
Preserving natural systems like kelp forests, sea grass beds and mangroves will help slow the impacts of climate change, she said.
Huelsenbeck notes that his report is conservative and not the last word on what will happen to future fisheries. There isn’t a lot of data for some countries and other impacts of climate change such as sea level rise, reduced oxygen levels, changes in the nitrogen cycle are not included, he said.
“No one knows what the combined impact of all this is,” he added.
On land, the fingerprints of climate change are far clearer with worsening droughts, extreme weather and the record melt of Arctic sea ice. This year’s drought in the U.S. and extreme weather elsewhere has pushed food prices up, with corn rising to its highest price in history.
“The world price of food, which has already doubled over the last decade, is slated to climb higher, ushering in a new wave of food unrest,” said Lester Brown, author of the new book “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity”, in a press release.
“As food prices climb, the worldwide competition for control of land and water resources is intensifying,” said Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental NGO based in Washington, D.C.
Millions of households now routinely experience days when they will not eat each and every week. A recent survey by the NGO Save the Children shows that 24 percent of families in India now have foodless days. For Nigeria, the comparable figure is 27 percent. For Peru, it is 14 percent, Brown writes in his book.
The world’s poorest spend up to 75 percent of their income on food, said Oxfam’s Climate Change Policy Adviser Tim Gore. A new report by Oxfam called “Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices” found that extreme weather in less than 20 years could push up prices 120-140 percent above the average food price in 2030, that will already be double today’s prices.
If this happened today, a 25kg bag of corn meal – a staple which feeds poor families across Africa for about two weeks – would rocket from around 18 to 40 dollars, the report said.
“The huge potential impact of extreme weather events on future food prices is missing from today’s climate change debate. The world needs to wake up to the drastic consequences facing our food system of climate inaction,” Gore said in a statement.

918. Scientists Capture Clues to Sustainability of Fish Populations

Black surfperch (Embiotoca jacksoni).
Credit: Credit: Clint Nelson

By ScienceDaily, September 27, 2012 

Thanks to studies of a fish that gives birth to live young and is not fished commercially, scientists at UC Santa Barbara have discovered that food availability is a critical limiting factor in the health of fish populations.

The scientists were able to attach numbers to this idea, based on 16 years of data. They discovered that the availability of enough food can drive up to a 10-fold increase in the per capita birthrate of fish. And, with adequate food, the young are up to 10 times more likely to survive than those without it.

This research, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is expected to be useful for managers involved in maintaining sustainable fisheries.
The scientists used a remarkable set of black surfperch population data -- collected from 1993 to 2008 -- to develop these statistics. Divers collected the data by monitoring a fish population off Santa Cruz Island, near Santa Barbara. Russell J. Schmitt and Sally J. Holbrook, both professors in UCSB's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology and UCSB's Marine Science Institute, head the team of scientists.

First author Daniel K. Okamoto, a Ph.D. student in UCSB's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, explained that there has been a lack of information about how survival and birthrates are influenced by food availability, which is known to fluctuate through time. Black surfperch, found off the Pacific Coast from central Baja California northward to Fort Bragg, feed on small crustaceans and worms.

"If a management procedure has called for a certain harvest rate that is constant through time, that would be like saying we should harvest the same amount of corn through time, even though we know that corn can be influenced by things like drought," said Okamoto.

The scientists consider the black surfperch (Embiotoca jacksoni) to be a model species because it is not fished commercially, making it easier to assess the effects of food availability on fish mortality and reproduction.

A key feature of the black surfperch is the fact that this fish gives birth to live young that remain on the reef, allowing for its population to be counted accurately from year to year.

"The individual fish stay on their natal reef; they have low emigration- immigration rates, so we can actually track cohorts through time," said Okamoto. "An adult gives birth to live, capable young, instead of laying eggs. Those young stay on the reef where the adults were, which is a really nice property. We can go to a reef in a given year, survey it for adults, then go to that reef again the next year and see the young that are there and know, for the most part, that those young came from the adults that were there the year before." By contrast, most fish are dispersed into open water when they are in the larval stage.

Okamoto said that not including food availability in calculating benchmarks for species conservation may leave out a critical element in fisheries management.
Daniel Reed, a research biologist with UCSB's Marine Science Institute and the principal investigator for the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research Program, is also a co-author of the study. The National Science Foundation provided funding for the research.

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of California - Santa Barbara.
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:
  1. D. K. Okamoto, R. J. Schmitt, S. J. Holbrook, D. C. Reed.Fluctuations in food supply drive recruitment variation in a marine fishProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2012; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2012.1862

917. Fall Calls Bats to Hibernate, Scientists to Study Them

Researcher holds little brown bats.
Credit: Michigan Technological University
By ScienceDaily, September 28, 2012

Despite the vampire stories you may have read, bats are our friends. The little winged mammals eat more than their body weight in insects every night, making them extremely valuable to farmers, forest managers and anyone who doesn't like bugs. In fact, the dollar value of bats in pest control has been estimated at $508 million a year.

Bats are the only mammals that can fly. There are more than 1,000 species. In fact, 1 in 5 mammals is a bat.

And in the fall, bats often migrate hundreds of miles to abandoned mines and caves where they hibernate through the winter months. Deep in the caverns, they cuddle up in tight, furry clusters, while scientists study them, trying to figure out the hows and whys of a bat plague called White Nose Syndrome and what, if anything, can be done to prevent or stop it.

White Nose Syndrome has killed nearly 7 million bats since it first appeared in the US in New York State. The deadly fungal disease has spread to 19 states as far west as Missouri, as far south as Alabama and north into Canada.

Although White Nose Syndrome has not yet been seen in Michigan, where nine species of bats are heading for their winter homes -- mostly in 75 or 80 abandoned mines in the western Upper Peninsula. And there, a team of researchers led by Joseph Bump of Michigan Technological University and Alexis Sullivan, one of his graduate students, is using a novel chemical "fingerprinting" technique called stable hydrogen isotopes to determine where the hibernating bats originated.

Sullivan and Bump reported in the July 2012 issue of the journal Ecological Applications on their use of stable hydrogen isotopes to track the travels of the little brown bats that hibernate in three mines in the western UP.

Sullivan, who is first author on the paper, is now working on dual Master of Science degrees in Forest Molecular Genetics and Biotechnology at Michigan Tech and the Swedish University of Agricultural Science. She will receive degrees from both universities as part of the ATLANTIS Program, a transatlantic educational project jointly funded by the US Department of Education and the European Union.

Sullivan, Bump and colleagues Rolf Peterson and Laura Kruger studied the little brown bats that winter in the Quincy Mine in Hancock, Mich., the Caledonia Mine near Ontonagon, Mich., and the Norway Mine in Norway, Mich. They collected bat hair and tested it to identify the hydrogen fingerprint of the water where the bat grew the hair. Ecologists have developed maps of the distinctive hydrogen fingerprints of water from different locations, so the chemical fingerprints from the bat hair can be matched to the flying mammals' probable origins.

Up to now, stable hydrogen isotopes have been used mostly to track migratory birds. "Relatively little is known about bat-to-bat interactions or how far bats travel between seasonal habitats," Sullivan explains. Earlier attempts to use hydrogen isotopes with bats stalled because most hibernating bats don't make dramatic seasonal migrations, and they have unclear molt patterns, making it difficult to connect their hair to a given habitat, she adds.

In their latest study, Sullivan, Bump and colleagues were able to estimate with 95 percent certainty the summer origins of the tens of thousands of bats that hibernate in the Quincy Mine, the 23,000 bats in the Norway Mine and the estimated quarter of a million bats that call the Caledonia Mine their winter home. Using the hydrogen "fingerprints" from hair samples, they located the geographic areas from which the bats migrate -- some as far as 565 kilometers (351 miles) from their hibernation mine.

"This novel application of stable hydrogen isotopes can help predict which hibernation sites are likely to exchange bats," says Bump. Bat-to-bat contact is believed to be the way white-nose syndrome is spread, so understanding the bats' movements can help us know which hibernation sites are connected and how disease could potentially be transmitted among locations."

And why should anyone care what happens to these reclusive winged creatures that weigh less than half an ounce and average 3.4 inches long?

"First, they are amazing mammals. Second, we should care about little brown bats because they eat millions of things for which we care much less, like mosquitoes," says Bump.
Michigan Tech's bat research was funded by the National Park Service Great Lakes Network, the Ecosystems Science Center and the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Tech.

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted from materials provided byMichigan Technological University, via Newswise.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

916. Why the Beaver Should Thank the Wolf

By Mary Ellen Hannibal, The New York Times, September 28, 2012
THIS month, a group of environmental nonprofits said they would challenge the federal government’s removal of Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Wyoming. Since there are only about 328 wolves in a state with a historic blood thirst for the hides of these top predators, the nonprofits are probably right that lacking protection, Wyoming wolves are toast.
Many Americans, even as they view the extermination of a species as morally anathema, struggle to grasp the tangible effects of the loss of wolves. It turns out that, far from being freeloaders on the top of the food chain, wolves have a powerful effect on the well-being of the ecosystems around them — from the survival of trees and riverbank vegetation to, perhaps surprisingly, the health of the populations of their prey.
An example of this can be found in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were virtually wiped out in the 1920s and reintroduced in the ’90s. Since the wolves have come back, scientists have noted an unexpected improvement in many of the park’s degraded stream areas.
Stands of aspen and other native vegetation, once decimated by overgrazing, are now growing up along the banks. This may have something to do with changing fire patterns, but it is also probably because elk and other browsing animals behave differently when wolves are around. Instead of eating greenery down to the soil, they take a bite or two, look up to check for threats, and keep moving. The greenery can grow tall enough to reproduce.
Beavers, despite being on the wolf’s menu, also benefit when their predators are around. The healthy vegetation encouraged by the presence of wolves provides food and shelter to beavers. Beavers in turn go on to create dams that help keep rivers clean and lessen the effects of drought. Beaver activity also spreads a welcome mat for thronging biodiversity. Bugs, amphibians, fish, birds and small mammals find the water around dams to be an ideal habitat.
So the beavers keep the rivers from drying up while, at the same time, healthy vegetation keeps the rivers from flooding, and all this biological interaction helps maintain rich soil that better sequesters carbon — that stuff we want to get out of the atmosphere and back into the ground. In other words, by helping to maintain a healthy ecosystem, wolves are connected to climate change: without them, these landscapes would be more vulnerable to the effects of those big weather events we will increasingly experience as the planet warms.
Scientists call this sequence of impacts down the food chain a “trophic cascade.” The wolf is connected to the elk is connected to the aspen is connected to the beaver. Keeping these connections going ensures healthy, functioning ecosystems, which in turn support human life.
Another example is the effect of sea otters on kelp, which provides food and shelter for a host of species. Like the aspen for the elk, kelp is a favorite food of sea urchins. By hunting sea urchins, otters protect the vitality of the kelp and actually boost overall biodiversity. Without them, the ecosystem tends to collapse; the coastal reefs become barren, and soon not much lives there.
Unfortunately, sea otters are in the cross hairs of a conflict equivalent to the “wolf wars.” Some communities in southeast Alaska want to allow the hunting of sea otters in order to decrease their numbers and protect fisheries. But the rationale that eliminating the predator increases the prey is shortsighted and ignores larger food-web dynamics. A degraded ecosystem will be far less productive over all.
Having fewer fish wouldn’t just hurt fishermen: it would also endanger the other end of the trophic scale — the phytoplankton that turn sunshine into plant material, and as every student of photosynthesis knows, create oxygen and sequester carbon. In lakes, predator fish keep the smaller fish from eating all the phytoplankton, thus sustaining the lake’s rate of carbon uptake.
Around the planet, large predators are becoming extinct at faster rates than other species. And losing top predators has an outsize effect on the rate of loss of many other species below them on the food chain as well as on the plant life that is so important to the balance of our ecosystems.
So what can be done? For one thing, we have begun to realize that parks like Yellowstone are not the most effective means of conservation. Putting a boundary around an expanse of wilderness is an intuitive idea not borne out by the science. Many top predators must travel enormous distances to find mates and keep populations from becoming inbred. No national park is big enough for wolves, for example. Instead, conservation must be done on a continental scale. We can still erect our human boundaries — around cities and towns, mines and oil fields — but in order to sustain a healthy ecosystem, we need to build in connections so that top predators can move from one wild place to another.
Many biologists have warned that we are approaching another mass extinction. The wolf is still endangered and should be protected in its own right. But we should also recognize that bringing all the planet’s threatened and endangered species back to healthy numbers — as well as mitigating the effects of climate change — means keeping top predators around.
Mary Ellen Hannibal is the author of “The Spine of the Continent.”

915. Cuba to Increase Bio-fertilizer Production

Use of bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides has been on the rise in Cuba

By IANS,, September 29, 2012
Havana: Cuba has approved an investment programme to build several plants to produce biofertilizers and biopesticides, as part of its efforts to revitalize the depressed agricultural sector, a senior official said.
Attending an international forum "Labiofam 2012" which closed here Friday, Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez said they would establish the new plants in a three-year period, reported Xinhua.
Labiofam is Cuba's most important group devoted to the production of biotechnological products for agriculture and medicine.
Besides providing farmers with biofertilizers and biopesticides, the project aims to maintain yields, import substitutes and protect the environment.
Rodriguez said scientists were seeking nutritional alternatives for the soil to reduce the use of high doses of mineral fertilizers.
Cuba has some 350,000 farmers engaged in food production for a population of 11.2 million.
Cuba imports each year 80 percent of its food, with a bill fluctuating between $1.5 billion and $2 billion.
The revival of agriculture to increase food production on the island is considered an "urgent challenge" and a matter of "national security", Rodriguez said.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

914. Namibia and Cuba Negotiate Higher Pay for Cuban Medical Personnel

Cuban doctor in Namibia
By Denver Kisting, AllAfrica, September 27, 2012

NAMIBIA and Cuba are negotiating a deal for medical personnel that, if it goes through, will cost the Namibian government N$1,3 million per person for a two-year period - close to 50% more than the current agreement. Currently, the fee is N$647 621 per person. There are 52 Cuban medical personnel in the country as part of the current agreement.
The fees Cuba wants to charge Namibia for medical personnel from that country "have no relation whatsoever with the prevailing market rates applicable in the public service within southern Africa as a whole", a document seen by The Namibian states.
Because of this, there is a fear that the local market will be destabilised, the document warns.
Destabilising the market would push up the cost of medical care, which is already high, it warns.
Moreover, there are concerns that the new agreement will add fuel to the fire in the public servants' wage talks.
"Since last year, there has been labour instability within the health sector and already, government is negotiating for wages for public servants. This new agreement may have bearing on the wage negotiations especially for public servants."
Currently, the Namibian government pays N$23 000 on average per Cuban medical staff member per month. Of that amount, the Cuban medical personnel get a monthly allowance of N$3 200 for food and pocket money.
In terms of a new draft agreement, the cost will be N$51 800 per employee per month.
Also, the Cuban medical staff are provided with fully furnished housing, receive N$83 000 for international travel and N$12 621 for excess baggage and cargo when travelling back home on holiday.
Of the N$23 000 per month, N$3 200 is paid over to the Cuban embassy and is ultimately supposed to reach Havana.
The current agreement comes to an end next April.
It has come to light that the Ministry of Health and Social Services did not budget for the new costs once the current agreement comes to an end. It is understood that the ministry was caught off guard when it was presented with the new cost structure last month.
Should the government give the new deal the green light, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) ceiling of the ministry would need to be increased.
"There is a serious financial implication - not only on the budget of the ministry, which will be forced to forgo certain services to accommodate the provision of the agreement, including that the ministry's MTEF ceiling shall have to be adjusted to accommodate this cost."
Another spin-off of accepting the agreement would mean that health care could be compromised.
Government would need to "reduce the number of required doctors to fit within available resources which may reduce the
ability of Government to provide adequate medical care and specialised services all over the country".
Until now, the agreement was entered into by the two countries' government. In terms of the new agreement, the Cuban government is represented by a private company from that country called Comercializadora de Servicios Medicos Cubanos, SA.
Andrew Ndishishi, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health, yesterday said he and Minister Richard Kamwi are travelling to Cuba possibly as early as next week for the negotiations. "We are just starting. The minister is supposed to lead a delegation to Cuba next week."
According to Ndishishi, the Cubans have the right to propose the cost but the minister will still negotiate on behalf of Government.
He said he was not aware of how much money the new deal would cost.
Kamwi told The Namibian that he would not enter into an agreement which the Namibian government couldn't afford but he did not want to comment on costs.
The country still has a shortage of doctors, he said. Also, the current Cuban doctors only received a living allowance and not a salary.
Between 2009 and now Namibia has received 410 Cuban medical health personnel including doctors, nurses, technicians and technologists and Namibia has paid only their living allowances, which amounted to N$14,4 million.
Of the above, 52 are doctors but Namibia wants 68 more Cuban doctors by April next year to bring the total to 120. That will be at an additional cost of N$31,2 million.
Under the new agreement Namibia will spend N$31 800 per month on a specialist, N$25 440 on a medical engineer at degree level, N$23 320 on specialised nurses and N$21 200 on health personnel and technicians at diploma level.
It is believed that Namibia is negotiating for a grace period for the current 52 Cuban doctors to continue receiving what they earn now until April next year when the ministry will have to find an additional N$30,3 million to fund the increases.
Note: A Namibian dollar is about U.S. $0.12

Sunday, September 23, 2012

913. Study Shows Ancient Relations Between Language Families

By ScienceDaily, September 20, 2012

How do language families evolve over many thousands of years? How stable over time are structural features of languages?Researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen introduced a new method using Bayesian phylogenetic approaches to analyse the evolution of structural features in more than 50 language families.

Their paper 'Abstract profiles of structural stability point to universal tendencies, family-specific factors, and ancient connections between languages' will be published online on Sept. 20 in PLoS ONE.

Language is one of the best examples of a cultural evolutionary system. How vocabularies evolve has been extensively studied, but researchers know relatively little about the stability of structural properties of language -- pholonoly, morphology and syntax. In their PLoS ONE paper, Dan Dediu (MPI's Language and Genetics Department) and Stephen Levinson (director of MPI's Language and Cognition Department) asked how stable over time the structural features of languages are -- aspects like word order, the inventory of sounds, or plural marking of nouns.

"If at least some of them are relatively stable over long time periods, they promise a way to get at ancient language relationships," the researchers state in their paper. "But opinion has been divided, some researchers holding that universally there is a hierarchy of stability for such features, others claiming that individual language families show their own idiosyncrasies in what features are stable and which not."

Ancient relations between language families
Using a large database and many alternative methods Dediu and Levinson show that both positions are right: there are universal tendencies for some features to be more stable than others, but individual language families have their own distinctive profile. These distinctive profiles can then be used to probe ancient relations between what are today independent language families.

"Using this technique we find for instance probable connections between the languages of the Americas and those of NE Eurasia, presumably dating back to the peopling of the Americas 12,000 years or more ago," Levinson explains. "We also find likely connections between most of the Eurasian language families, presumably pre-dating the split off of Indo-European around 9000 years ago."

Universal tendencies and distinctive profiles
This work thus has implications for our understanding of differential rates of language change, and by identifying distinctive patterns of change it provides a new window into very old historical processes that have shaped the linguistic map of the world. It shows that there is no conflict between the existence of universal tendencies and factors specific to a language family or geographic area. It also makes the strong point that information about deep relationships between languages is contained in abstract, higher-level properties derived from large sets of structural features as opposed to just a few highly stable aspects of language. In addition, this work introduces innovative quantitative techniques for finding and testing the statistical reliability of both universal tendencies and distinctive language-family profiles.

"Our findings strongly support the existence of a universal tendency across language families for some specific structural features to be intrinsically stable across language families and geographic regions," Dediu concludes.

Story Source:
The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft.
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:
  1. Dan Dediu, Stephen C. Levinson. Abstract Profiles of Structural Stability Point to Universal Tendencies, Family-Specific Factors, and Ancient Connections between LanguagesPLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (9): e45198 DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0045198