Agriculture at a Crossroads: How Food Systems Affect Biodiversity
But, the whole planet is a small island in the vast sea of space, capable of producing food for all as a consequence of rich biodiversity. That diversity is under threat; our actions can strengthen it or weaken it. Our agriculture systems can help mitigate climate change and feed us, or they can accelerate the change and contribute to hunger.
The food system we choose has a direct impact on which type of world we will have. It's the difference between a field that hums and is robust with life, or one which is dusty, dry and dead. It's the difference between a place where ecological farming has been used or where a cocktail of industrial chemicals has soaked into the soil where the same crop is grown, decade after decade.
Our current food and farming system is creating more and more of these dry, dead ends. It is agriculture characterised by three things: the industrial-sized growing of a single plant, or "monoculture," genetically engineered (GE) crops, and repeated toxic chemical infusions of pesticides and the application of synthetic fertilisers. All of these harm people and the farming ecosystems they depend on.
Just one example of the consequences of the current flawed agricultural system is the current catastrophic bee decline. Bees are being decimated in Europe and North America by the intensive use of chemical pesticides. In recent winters bee mortality in Europe has averaged at about 20 percent. A third of the food that we eat every day depends on bees and other insect pollinators.
This dead-end road sees large multinational corporations persuading farmers to buy GE seeds based on the premise that they will increase yields, despite studies suggesting otherwise. Instead, they only increase farmers' indebtedness by failing to deliver the promised return on investment–turning them into slaves to a pesticide treadmill as superweeds develop. This is the ugly story behind the majority of the food we consume.
This cycle increases our dependency on fossil fuels and contributes to climate change, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study recently reported. In fact, climate change affects this broken food system. Among other impacts, climate shocks cause food prices to rise, with deadly consequences in developing countries.
Climate change is estimated to have increased the amount spent on food worldwide by $50bn a year. Climate change is also making food less nutritious according to a study published in Nature, with important staple crops such as wheat and maize containing fewer essential nutrients like zinc and iron. Projections show that up to 21 percent more children globally will be at risk of hunger by 2050.
Industrial agriculture does not rely on diversification but on the standardisation and homogenisation of biological processes, technologies and products. It promotes off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solutions to food and farming around the world and in so doing undermines local and natural diversity, which are essential for resilience to climate change.
Ecological farming increases resilience to climate shocks. It is based on the diversity of nature to produce healthy food for all: diversity of seeds and plants; diversity of many different crops grown in the same field; diversity of insects that pollinate (like bees) or eliminate pests; and diversity of farming systems that mix crops with livestock.
Scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, for example, recently found that certain beans greatly improve poor soils, increase productivity of maize when grown together and respond well to drought. They can be used for food, animal feed, and soil fertility. Researchers found that growing maize and beans at the same time increased farmers' income by 67 percent without the use of any chemical fertilisers.
Ecological farming also relies on the innovations of farmers that enable adaptation to local conditions. It's the redeployment of traditional knowledge to counteract the impacts of climate change. In northeast Thailand, jasmine rice farmers have been adapting to increased drought by finding creative ways to use water resources—stock ponds for storage and simple wind-powered pumps made with locally available materials—which have been shown to increase yields and provide a safety net when drought strikes.
Ecological farming effectively contributes to climate change mitigation. Industrial farming is a massive greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. Agriculture, in fact, accounts for between 17 percent and 32 percent of all the emissions caused by humans, according to research for Greenpeace. Stopping chemical nitrogen fertiliser overuse and shifting to organic fertilisers (to increase soil fertility), improving water management in paddy rice production and increasing agro-biodiversity through agroforestry are just a few examples of how ecological farming practices and diversity could directly contribute to GHG reduction and help agriculture reduce the effects of climate change.
Agriculture is now at a crossroads: we can pursue the dystopian dead-end road of industrial chemical-intensive farming or choose diverse and resilient ecological farming.
Governments, donors, philanthropists and the private sector must start shifting funds towards research to generate new knowledge on biodiversity-rich ecological farming and services to disseminate diversified practices that are locally relevant. We must reject the dead-end trap of industrial agriculture and choose instead a food system that celebrates biodiversity and is healthy for people and the planet.
Article originally published in the Guardian.
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By Alexandra Rowles
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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