Hexbyte Glen Cove In the world capital of vanilla production, nearly three out of four farmers say they don't have enough to eat thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove In the world capital of vanilla production, nearly three out of four farmers say they don’t have enough to eat

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Vanilla beans. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Madagascar, famous for its lemurs, is home to almost 26 million people. Despite the cultural and natural riches, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Over 70% of Malagasy people are farmers, and food security is a constant challenge. Rice is the most important food crop, but lately an internationally-prized crop has taken center stage: vanilla. Most of the world’s best quality vanilla comes from Madagascar. While most Malagasy farmers live on less than $2 per day, selling vanilla can make some farmers rich beyond their dreams, though these profits come with a price, and a new study illustrates it is not enough to overcome food insecurity.

In a paper published June 25, 2021 in the journal Food Security, a team of scientists collaborating between Duke University and in Madagascar set out to investigate the links between natural resource use, farming practices, socioeconomics, and . Their recently published article in the journal Food Security details intricate interactions between household demographics, farming productivity, and the likelihood of experiencing food shortages.

The team interviewed almost 400 people in three remote rural villages in an area known as the SAVA region, an acronym for the four main towns in the region: Sambava, Andapa, Vohemar, and Antalaha. The Duke University Lemur Center has been operating conservation and research activities in the SAVA region for 10 years. By partnering with local scientists, the team was able to fine-tune the way they captured data on farming practices and food security. Both of the Malagasy partners are preparing graduate degrees and expanding their research to lead the next generation of local scientists.

The international research team found that a significant proportion of respondents (up to 76%) reported that they experienced times during which did not have adequate access to food during the previous three years. The most common cause that they reported was small land size; most respondents estimated they owned less than 4 hectares of land (

The vanilla market is subject to extreme volatility, with prices varying by an order of magnitude from year to year. Vanilla is also a labor- and time-intensive crop; it requires specific growing conditions of soil, humidity, and shade, it takes at least three years from planting to the first crop. Without the natural pollinators in its home range of Mexico, Malagasy vanilla requires hand pollination by the farmers, and whole crops can be devastated by natural disasters like disease outbreaks and cyclones. Further, the high price of vanilla brings with it ‘hot spending,” resulting in cycles of boom and bust for impoverished farmers. Because of the high price, vanilla is often stolen, which leads farmers to spend weeks in their fields guarding the vanilla from thieves before harvesting. It also leads to early harvests, before the vanilla beans have completely ripened, which degrades the quality of the final products and can exacerbate price volatility.

In addition to the effects of farming productivity on the probability of food insecurity, the research revealed that household demographics, specifically the number of people living in the household, had an interactive effect with land size. Those farmers that had larger household sizes (up to 10 in this sample) had a higher probability of experiencing food insecurity than smaller households, but only if they had small landholdings. Those larger families that had larger landholdings had the lowest food insecurity. These trends have been documented in many similar settings, in which larger landholdings require more labor, and family labor is crucial to achieving food sovereignty.

The results have important implications for sustainable development in this system. The team found that greater rice and vanilla productivity can significantly reduce food insecurity. Therefore, a greater emphasis on training in sustainable, and regenerative, practices is necessary. There is momentum in this direction, with new national-level initiatives to improve rice production and increase farmers’ resilience to climate change. Further, many international aid organizations and NGOs operating in Madagascar are already training farmers in new, regenerative agriculture techniques. The Duke Lemur Center is partnering with the local university in the SAVA region to develop extension services in regenerative agriculture techniques that can increase food production while also preserving and even increasing biodiversity. With a grant from the General Mills, the Duke Lemur Center is developing training modules and conducting workshops with over 200 farmers to increase the adoption of regenerative agriculture techniques.

Further, at government levels, improved land tenure and infrastructure for securing land rights is needed because farmers perceive that the greatest cause of food insecurity is their small landholdings. Due to the current land tenure infrastructure, securing deeds and titles to land is largely inaccessible to rural farmers. This can lead to conflicts over land rights, feelings of insecurity, and little motivation to invest in more long-term sustainable farming strategies (e.g., agroforestry). By improving the ability of farmers to secure titles to their land, as well as access agricultural extension services, farmers may be able to increase and productivity, as well as increased legal recognition and protection.

To move forward as a global society, we must seek to achieve the United Nation (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of the SDGs is Goal #2, Zero Hunger. There are almost 1 billion people in the world who do not have adequate access to enough safe and nutritious food. This must change if we expect to develop sustainably in the future. Focusing on some of the hardest cases, Madagascar stands out as a country with high rates of childhood malnutrition, prevalence of anemia, and poverty. This year, more than one million people are negatively impacted by a three-year drought that has resulted in mass famine and a serious need for external aid. Sadly, these tragedies occur in one of the most biodiverse places on earth, where 80-90% of the species are found no where else on earth. This paradox results in a clash between natural resource conservation and human wellbeing.

Achieving the UN’s SDGs will not be easy; in fact, we are falling far short of our targets after the first decade. The next ten years will determine if we meet these goals or not, and our collective actions as a global society will dictate whether we transform our society for a sustainable future or continue with the self-destructive path we have been following. Further research and interventions are still needed to conserve biodiversity and improve human livelihoods.



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Hexbyte Glen Cove From stardust to pale blue dot: Carbon's interstellar journey to Earth thumbnail

Hexbyte Glen Cove From stardust to pale blue dot: Carbon’s interstellar journey to Earth

Hexbyte Glen Cove

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

We are made of stardust, the saying goes, and a pair of studies including University of Michigan research finds that may be more true than we previously thought.

The first study, led by U-M researcher Jie (Jackie) Li and published in Science Advances, finds that most of the on Earth was likely delivered from the interstellar medium, the material that exists in space between stars in a galaxy. This likely happened well after the , the cloud of dust and gas that circled our young sun and contained the building blocks of the planets, formed and warmed up.

Carbon was also likely sequestered into solids within one million years of the sun’s birth—which means that carbon, the backbone of life on , survived an interstellar journey to our planet.

Previously, researchers thought carbon in the Earth came from molecules that were initially present in nebular gas, which then accreted into a when the gases were cool enough for the molecules to precipitate. Li and her team, which includes U-M astronomer Edwin Bergin, Geoffrey Blake of the California Institute of Technology, Fred Ciesla of the University of Chicago and Marc Hirschmann of the University of Minnesota, point out in this study that the gas molecules that carry carbon wouldn’t be available to build the Earth because once carbon vaporizes, it does not condense back into a solid.

“The condensation model has been widely used for decades. It assumes that during the formation of the sun, all of the planet’s elements got vaporized, and as the disk cooled, some of these gases condensed and supplied chemical ingredients to solid bodies. But that doesn’t work for carbon,” said Li, a professor in the U-M Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Much of carbon was delivered to the disk in the form of organic molecules. However, when carbon is vaporized, it produces much more volatile species that require very low temperatures to form solids. More importantly, carbon does not condense back again into an organic form. Because of this, Li and her team inferred most of Earth’s carbon was likely inherited directly from the , avoiding vaporization entirely.

To better understand how Earth acquired its carbon, Li estimated the maximum amount of carbon Earth could contain. To do this, she compared how quickly a seismic wave travels through the core to the known sound velocities of the core. This told the researchers that carbon likely makes up less than half a percent of Earth’s mass. Understanding the upper bounds of how much carbon the Earth might contain tells the researchers information about when the carbon might have been delivered here.

“We asked a different question: We asked how much carbon could you stuff in the Earth’s core and still be consistent with all the constraints,” Bergin said, professor and chair of the U-M Department of Astronomy. “There’s uncertainty here. Let’s embrace the uncertainty to ask what are the true upper bounds for how much carbon is very deep in the Earth, and that will tell us the true landscape we’re within.”

A planet’s carbon must exist in the right proportion to support life as we know it. Too much carbon, and the Earth’s atmosphere would be like Venus, trapping heat from the sun and maintaining a temperature of about 880 degrees Fahrenheit. Too little carbon, and Earth would resemble Mars: an inhospitable place unable to support water-based life, with temperatures around minus 60.

In a second study by the same group of authors, but led by Hirschmann of the University of Minnesota, the researchers looked at how carbon is processed when the small precursors of planets, known as planetesimals, retain carbon during their early formation. By examining the metallic cores of these bodies, now preserved as iron meteorites, they found that during this key step of planetary origin, much of the carbon must be lost as the planetesimals melt, form cores and lose gas. This upends previous thinking, Hirschmann says.

“Most models have the carbon and other life-essential materials such as water and nitrogen going from the nebula into primitive rocky bodies, and these are then delivered to growing planets such as Earth or Mars,” said Hirschmann, professor of earth and environmental sciences. “But this skips a key step, in which the planetesimals lose much of their carbon before they accrete to the planets.”

Hirschmann’s study was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The planet needs carbon to regulate its climate and allow life to exist, but it’s a very delicate thing,” Bergin said. “You don’t want to have too little, but you don’t want to have too much.”

Bergin says the two studies both describe two different aspects of carbon loss—and suggest that carbon loss appears to be a central aspect in constructing the Earth as a habitable planet.

“Answering whether or not Earth-like planets exist elsewhere can only be achieved by working at the intersection of disciplines like astronomy and geochemistry,” said Ciesla, a U. of C. professor of geophysical sciences. “While approaches and the specific questions that researchers work to answer differ across the fields, building a coherent story requires identifying topics of mutual interest and finding ways to bridge the intellectual gaps between them. Doing so is challenging, but the effort is both stimulating and rewarding.”

Blake, a co-author on both studies and a Caltech professor of cosmochemistry and planetary science, and of chemistry, says this kind of interdisciplinary work is critical.

“Over the history of our galaxy alone, rocky like the Earth or a bit larger have been assembled hundreds of millions of times around stars like the Sun,” he said. “Can we extend this work to examine carbon loss in planetary systems more broadly? Such research will take a diverse community of scholars.”



More information:
“Earth’s carbon deficit caused by early loss through irreversible sublimation” Science Advances (2021). advances.sciencemag.org/lookup … .1126/sciadv.abd3632

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