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Advert for GM corn variety in Brazil (Susana Carro-Ripalda).

As concerns about global food security are on the rise, there are many questions as to how the world will face growing demands for a sustainable food supply. While poverty and food distribution seem to underlie many of the challenges regarding food security, biotechnology in the form of genetically modified seeds could continue to play an increasing role in how food is grown and traded in both developed and less developed countries.

Does patenting seeds create new risks to food security or provide a way of securing the world food supply through centralisation? Are we simply looking at a new way of meeting the demands placed upon agriculture or a new way for chemical corporations such as Monsanto, Dupont, Dow Chemical and others to place new demands on society? Most importantly, where does this leave farmers and the communities they support?

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Dr Giulio Selvaggi is former Director of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV). He gave the first IHRR seminar of the term on the L’Aquila earthquake and its aftermath. He is one of six scientists in Italy found guilty of manslaughter for downplaying the risk of earthquakes in the region. They are appealing the verdict. The aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake is possibly one of the most politicised and publicised affairs of recent times involving scientists.

The L’Aquila earthquake led to the deaths of 309 people. The 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila not only revealed the unpreparedness of the city in dealing with the 6.3 magnitude earthquake, but the vulnerability of the buildings that collapsed. The fact that the earthquake took place is nothing unusual. It’s well known that L’Aquila is in a region of Italy with high risk of earthquakes. Unfortunately, the message conveyed to the general public of L’Aquila by government misinformed them about the actual risk of an earthquake occurring.

Selvaggi explained how one week prior to the earthquake he attended a meeting between The High Risk Commission (HRC) and National Service of Civil Protection (NCP) of Italy. The High Risk Commission is assigned with forecasting and mitigating large-scale risks, which includes serving as an interface between the scientific community and government. The NCP are responsible for taking action to protect the public from potential risks. The advice, however, given by scientists to the High Risk Commission, does not seem to match the message the NCP disseminated to the public. Read the rest of this entry »

Over the past summer regions of China have also experienced intense heat waves with eastern China setting a record of 40.8 C (105.4 F).  Russia (Northern Siberia) has also had harsh rises in temperature over the summer.  In China, cities such as Shanghai were particularly vulnerable.  These images taken from the NASA Earth Observatory show the concentrations of the heat wave in different parts of China.

china heat wave

temp bar

NASA Earth Observatory

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Photographer James Balog shoots in Ilulissat Bay, Greenland, March 2008.

Photographer James Balog shoots in Ilulissat Bay, Greenland, March 2008. From the film Chasing Ice.

The ground breaking film Chasing Ice is now widely available online, on DVD, in cinemas and on TV.  In fact, quite a few screenings are scheduled in the UK this autumn. It is also possible for education institutions to host a screening of this amazing film.  It is really a film that should be seen on the big screen, but at the same time those who see it should think carefully about what it portrays so elegantly. The disappearance of the Earth’s glaciers in the Arctic has large implications for how it will affect the future of human societies, not to mention the ecosystems we depend on for survival. Read the rest of this entry »

Global distribution of malaria. (CDC)

Global distribution of malaria. (CDC)

Trials of the first vaccine to show evidence of full protection against the deadly disease Malaria will take place at the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, who are working with the developer of the new vaccine, the private company Sanaria.  Some postgraduate researchers with IHRR who have also worked at Ifakara have concentrated on preventing the spread of malaria, (such as providing bed nets) including Christina Makungu, a Moyes Postgraduate Fellow who completed her dissertation on the health of young people in self-care in Tanzania.  Prevention is still likely the best way in combating the spread of the deadly disease that has plagued less developed countries.  A vaccine would be most welcome.

While researchers have expressed ‘cautious optimism’ about the results, this scientific advance is clearly great news. The new vaccine (PfSPZ) ‘uses a weakened form of the whole parasite to invoke an immune response’, something that was previously thought too difficult to achieve.  It was produced from 850 mosquitoes that were dissected in about one hour by six researchers. Six subjects given five doses of the vaccine were completely protected against malaria, compared to three of nine who were given four doses. The vaccine must be given intravenously, which is not as efficient as injection or oral administration, but the dosage is small (.5 ml) and researchers are working on improving the delivery of the vaccine. Read the rest of this entry »

FAO HUNGER MAP prevalence of undernourishment in developing countries

legend hunger map

Hunger is widespread, especially in developing countries. Food crises often occur in the poorest countries and even communities in the most developed parts of the world deal with health problems related to lack of food, like malnutrition in children. But the world’s food supply is not at the root of the problem rather it is what is done with it. In fact, food production in terms of cereals is at far greater productive capacity than it’s ever been in the past (see also FAO Cereal Supply and Demand Brief); there is more than enough food to go around, even as the global population gets bigger and more people demand a varied diet as many people living in more developed countries do. The old philosophical argument originating from Robert Malthus in the 18th century that population growth will lead to global food shortage is overstated and incorrect at present. Malthus wrote:

‘The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race’. Thomas Malthus, 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population

Because of the technological means in place for planting and harvesting food there are often surpluses, especially in richer countries, but food is often wasted. Instead of becoming more conservative and conscious of the food resources available, many nations have become overly consumerist and wasteful. 1.2-2 billion tonnes of all food produced ends up as waste, which is 30%-50% of total food production in the world, and it is not only a waste of food but a waste of energy, water and other resources that go into producing it. Read the rest of this entry »

surface temp

Global temperature rising. World Meteorological Organization

From 2001-10 there have been unprecedented extremes in global climate with more national temperature records broken than in any previous decade, according to a recent report from the World Meteorological Organization. For many this may not seem like news, it has been known for some time that the planet’s climate(s) has been changing radically for some years. Even people in their everyday lives are able to perceive with some accuracy changes in climate. What the report highlights is that these extremes have worsened in recent years, especially in regards to their impacts on human life and economy.  During 2001-10 more than 370,000 people died as a result of extreme weather and climate conditions. This includes heat waves, floods, cold snaps, drought and storms.

Is every extreme weather event due to a changing climate? This is something that requires further research because of the complexities involved. What researchers can say is that it’s more likely for extreme weather events such as heat waves to occur more frequently because of climate change, and with increased intensity. This makes planning challenging, nevertheless it needs to happen. People can learn from extreme weather events that have taken place around the world in order to plan for the present and future. Climate adaptation, while less attractive in some cases to mitigation and more recently geoengineering techniques, has a major role to play in mitigating the impacts of extreme weather events. Read the rest of this entry »

earth

The prospect of governing geoengineering is perplexing for a variety of reasons, many of which deal with the nature of the technologies involved and the scale at which they are intended to be deployed. While in some ways similar in scope to other technological innovations such as nanotechnology or synthetic biology, the methods used for SRM are not novel; nevertheless the end result may be the making of entirely new climate(s). One approach that has potential for mitigating the effects of climate change is Solar Radiation Management (SRM) – spraying large quantities of reflective particles into the Earth’s stratosphere to reflect solar radiation back out to space.

SRM has entered into mainstream science-policy debates only very recently, primarily due to the political expedience of climate change as a global environmental problem that threatens the existence of the human species itself, not to mention eliminating biodiversity on a scale never experienced before. The UK has a research project on SRM known as SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering), which had its own problems including the question of patenting the technology that came to light as a result of its stage gate evaluation process. There are some examples of developing policy for geoengineering such as the Solar Radiation Management Governance Initiative (SRMGI) and the Oxford Principles, ethical guiding principles for governing geoengineering. Read the rest of this entry »

The satellite image above is of the supercell storm in Oklahoma that caused over 20 deaths, hundreds of injuries and immense damage to residences and public buildings.

This time-lapse video shows how the storm evolved over time:

While this part of the US is not unfamiliar with deadly tornadoes (see this map of killer tornados), further preparations could be made to help prevent loss of life and injuries. If extreme weather events continue to happen more frequently then ways to manage and strengthen infrastructure is essential. Read the rest of this entry »

SPICE_SRM_overview

Illustration of solar radiation management technique from the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project.

When it comes to controversial scientific research many scientists can be dismissive or evasive when it comes to dealing with the public. But when it comes to looking at the bigger picture of how the research could interface with policy and in turn governance, it is actually non-scientists that may hold some of the answers, and not necessarily those in high positions of political or financial power either. Public dialogues about geoengineering seem like a model example of this, showing that engaging with non-scientists can lead to productive assessments of the actual risks involved and judging whether or not the science or technology is even appropriate at all. Now this may seem problematic to some, but it could actually bring science, technology and democracy a little closer together.

The problem of granting patents for geoengineering technology was what prevented the project SPICE from continuing research beyond computer modelling, ending an experimental trial that could have one day led to engineering the Earth’s climate at a scale never before seen. Prof Phil Macnaghten at Durham University, who was an advisor on the SPICE project, oversaw the stage gate process for the project, which was in place to ensure that it met the criteria for engaging with public values. Some puzzling questions arose during the stage gate panel. If geoengineering did become mainstream and worked who would own it?  Would it stay in the public domain or fall under intellectual property laws and therefore be subject to commercial interests? Read the rest of this entry »

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