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The staggering scale of France's battle against terror, by the numbers

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: a look at the size of France's terror problem; proponents of an alternative way of growing rice say it boosts yield and has less impact on the environment, but not everyone is buying in.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Soldiers in France's anti-terror 'Vigipirate' plan, dubbed 'Operation Sentinelle,' patrols next to Notre-Dame cathedral in Strasbourg following Tuesday night's shooting near the city's famous Christmas market. (Jean Francois Badias/Associated Press)

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TODAY:

  • France's battle against terror attacks, by the numbers.
  • Proponents of an alternative method of growing rice say it boosts yields dramatically and reduces the impact on the environment, but not everyone is buying in.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.


France's terror problem

Last night's attack on a busy Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg killed two people and wounded 12 others, including one victim who doctors say is clinically brain dead.

Although the suspect is still at large, French prosecutors have characterized the shooting and stabbing spree, which lasted for minutes on end, as an act of terrorism, citing witnesses who heard the man shout "Allahu Akbar."

The alleged attacker, identified by authorities as 29-year-old Chèrif Chekatt, was born and raised in Strasbourg, and has been on police radar since the age of 10.

Christophe Castane, France's interior minister, told a news conference today that Chekatt's first criminal conviction came when he was 13. At least 26 more, mostly for robbery and assault, have since followed in France, Germany and Switzerland.

Authorities work at a makeshift emergency services base after Tuesday night's deadly shooting in Strasbourg, France. The gunman is still at large and the motive for the attack is still unclear. (Patrick Seeger/EPA-EFE)

Chekatt has been on France's security watch list, known as Fiche-S, since 2015.

He shares that distinction with at least 20,500 other citizens and residents, and despite devoting $30 billion to security and a further $64 billion to defence in its 2018 budget, the country doesn't have the resources to watch them all.

Police say it takes 20 officers a day to keep just one terror suspect under constant, 24-hour surveillance, suggesting they would need more than 400,000 dedicated cops to fully blunt the threat.

Here are some other figures that illustrate the scale of France's terror problem:

22 — the number of terror incidents on French soil since the beginning of 2015.

249 — the number of dead in those attacks.

928 — the number of wounded.

To date, the weapons used have included guns, bombs, hammers, trucks, cars and knives.

7,000 the number of troops that have been guarding French tourist sites and patrolling city streets since 2015 under the anti-terror Opération Sentinelle, in addition to 2,000 specialized Vigipirate anti-terror police. Another 3,000 soldiers are held on standby for emergencies.

350 — how many police, soldiers and helicopter pilots are currently involved in the manhunt for Chekatt.

16 — the number of categorization levels under the Fiche-S system, counting up to one for the most severe threats.

2,050 — the estimated number of Strasbourg residents on the S-List, meaning that a city with 2 per cent of the country's population accounts for 10 per cent of its terror suspects.

17the number of Strasbourg residents who have been arrested or killed in prior terror incidents or plots, including a failed attempt to attack the Christmas market on New Year's Eve in 2000.

2.5 million — the estimated annual attendance at the festive market, Europe's largest.

A placard near the scene of the Strasbourg shooting reads, 'Tribute to the victims. I am Strasbourg.' (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

While France faces a considerable and constant threat, its terror challenges pale in comparison to the world's real hot spots.

To put it all in context, the Global Terrorism Index, an annual report prepared by the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace, ranks France 30th in the world for severity.

The U.K., at No. 28, and the United States at No. 20, are both judged to have bigger issues, although nothing on the scale of Afghanistan where there were 4,653 terror fatalities in 2017, or Iraq where 4,271 people died that same year. (Canada now ranks 57th on the list, up nine places from the year before.)

In fact, the 20 deadliest terrorist attacks in 2017 all occurred in Africa, the Middle East or South Asia, killing a total of 2,926 people.

All of Western Europe, in comparison, saw 81 terror deaths in 2017.

And in the first 10 months of 2018, the report tallies 10 such killings in Europe.

Worldwide, there were 18,814 terror fatalities in 2017, down 44 per cent from their 2014 peak.


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The controversy around rice

Proponents of an alternative method of growing rice say it boosts yields dramatically and reduces the impact on the environment, but not everyone is buying in, writes producer Anand Ram.

While agricultural improvement strategies aren't exactly a conversation-starter for many people, there's one crop the world might want to start talking about.

Rice.

It is a staple for billions, culturally and calorically — making up as much as two-thirds of the calories in Asian diets.

But it's a thirsty, gassy plant.

One cup of rice takes about 500 litres of water to grow and is responsible for as much as 20 per cent of human-caused methane emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Surprising, then, that for nearly four decades there has existed a method that supporters say checks all the right boxes for a better way to grow rice.

A rice paddy in Mali planted with the technique referred to as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). (Erika Stryger)

It's called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), and by flipping the traditional idea of jam-packed flooded rice paddies on its head, it claims to get more out of less.

The broad strokes of SRI involve planting seedlings early, spacing them farther apart and, counter-intuitively, letting them go through dry periods.

"You use less seeds, less water, less chemicals, and you can increase yields," says Erika Styger of Cornell University, one of the world's leading SRI researchers.

Erika Styger of Cornell University is one of the world's leading researchers on the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). She calls SRI 'a no-brainer' for farmers in terms of its benefits over more common rice-growing approaches. (Erika Styger)

By the numbers, research done by Styger and her colleagues in West Africa indicates that:

  • Yields can go up by 50 per cent or more.
  • Farmers use 90 per cent fewer seeds.
  • Plants require 30 to 50 per cent less water.

The method also drastically cuts methane emissions and creates hardier roots that can withstand extreme weather.

"It's a no-brainer for farmers and it's beneficial to the environment," Styger says.

Her work in Africa, supported by groups such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the World Bank, has helped expand SRI's adoption by farmers in more than 55 countries.

Despite Styger's findings, SRI is not even close to a global standard for growing rice. Styger says it's responsible for between just 2 and 5 per cent of the world's rice production.

One reason, she says, is that because SRI uses fewer seeds and/or chemicals than the more popular growing methods, it doesn't fit the agri-giant business model that's based on selling those inputs to farmers.

"That's the common belief, that this [agri-business model] is how we improve agriculture," Styger says. "But SRI is basically the opposite. Farmers don't need to buy anything. They can produce with their own resources. They can improve their yields with their own knowledge."

Harouna Touré told The National from Mali that he worked in rice farming for a decade before switching to SRI. He said after using SRI himself and seeing it practiced in West Africa, he's convinced that it's the way people should grow rice everywhere.

Harouna Touré stands in a wet rice paddy in Mali, where farmers are learning SRI planting techniques. (Harouna Touré)

There's skepticism, however, from some members of the scientific community.

Critics maintain that SRI has higher initial labour costs, and some researchers say they've found SRI's promised yields difficult to reproduce.

Others struggle with the definition of what precisely SRI is, partly because methods can differ from country to country due to factors such as the local soil, climate and even insects.

"The original hardcore definition [of SRI] in agronomy terms got adapted and changed," says Bas Bouman, a top scientist at the International Rice Research Institute.

"And if I can't say exactly 'this is SRI' … I can't go into country 'X' and say this is the set of practices that defines SRI that you should adopt."

Bouman calls SRI a "social movement" which sees itself as stoking a grassroots, of-the-people narrative that the greater scientific community is trying to keep down. He adds that SRI critics are often shouted down as not being farmer-friendly.

Erika Styger surveys a rice field in Timbuktu, Mali. (Erika Stryger)

However, Styger says that way of looking at SRI takes away from the real science being done around it.

"Unfortunately, the international research community experiences [SRI] as a threat. They didn't develop it. And also they may not then get more funding to breed new varieties."

Arguments of legitimacy go back and forth, but climate change may soon render such minutiae and politics moot. Droughts, floods and other extreme weather events are on the rise and threaten food security – and farmers' livelihoods.

And as a couple of SRI champions in Mali told The National, once farmers see with their own eyes how SRI crops are better at withstanding droughts, it's the method they will want to use in the future.

- Anand Ram


A few words on ... 

An act of solidarity and defiance in Strasbourg, France.


Quote of the moment

"A leadership election would not change the fundamentals of the negotiation or the Parliamentary arithmetic. Weeks spent tearing ourselves apart will only create more division just as we should be standing together to serve our country. None of that would be in the national interest."

- British Prime Minister Theresa May makes her case against a no-confidence vote, scheduled for this evening, and triggered by her own disgruntled pro-Brexit MPs.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, London, on Wednesday. (Reuters)

What The National is reading

  • Yemen's warring parties agree to reopen airport, still in talks on port (Reuters)
  • Former Just For Laughs head charged with rape, indecent assault (Montreal Gazette)
  • Argentina court sends ex-Ford execs to jail for kidnapping, torture (Deutsche Welle)
  • Dozens of child sex dolls seized by Canadian border agents (CBC)
  • Sri Lanka's crisis clouds fate of 20,000 missing people (Asia Times)
  • As space companies launch more rockets, airlines fear gridlock in the skies (Washington Post)
  • 'High-tech robot' at Russian forum turns out to be man in a suit (Guardian)
  • Factory leak sees German street paved with chocolate (Irish Times)

Today in history

Dec. 12, 1986: Misleading toy commercials

As it turns out, Cricket the doll doesn't skip and sing through a cartoon fantasyland when you get her home, she just sits immobile, repeating the same phrases over and over again. And Teddy Ruxpin won't suddenly make your kid the most popular student at his school. Thankfully, there are at least two different watchdog organizations looking out for literal-minded Canadian children.

As presents are opened, parents are met with cries of "but it doesn't look the way it did in the commercial!" Cricket talking doll ad: Playmates Toys. Teddy Ruxpin talking bear ad: Worlds of Wonder. 2:51

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.