Degenerative Food & Farming System Poses Mortal Threat
By Ronnie Cummins
A new study calling for a "radical rethink" of the relationship between policymakers and corporations reinforces what Organic Consumers Association and other public interest groups have been saying for years: Our triple global health crises of deteriorating public health, world hunger and global warming share common root causes—and that the best way to address these crises is to address what they all have in common: an unhealthy, inequitable food system perpetuated by a political and economic system largely driven by corporate profit.
The study, the result of three years of work by 26 commissioners from several countries, was released this week by the Lancet Commission on Obesity. Boyd Swinburn, a University of Auckland professor and co-chair of the commission, as reported by Channel News Asia, said:
"Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories. In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy."
According to the report, nearly a billion people are hungry and another 2 billion are eating too much of the wrong foods, causing epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Boyd said that malnutrition in all its forms, including undernutrition and obesity, is by far the biggest cause of ill health and premature death globally, and that both are expected to be made "significantly worse" by climate change.
A Familiar, But Welcome Call for Reform
We have long called for the reform of our degenerative industrial agriculture system. We've drawn attention to the impact of industrial agriculture on global warming and deteriorating health. And we've highlighted the remarkable potential for organic regenerative agriculture to naturally draw down and sequester carbon, through nature's own photosynthesis.
We've also called on global policymakers to connect the dots between degenerative agriculture, poor health and climate change.
We've said all along that the influence of self-serving corporations over policy is largely to blame for U.S. and global policymakers' collective failure to address our degenerative food and farming system, and the devastation that system has wrought on human health and the environment.
This latest study comes at a time when climate scientists have sounded their most urgent and alarming warnings to date. It also comes at a time of keen interest in a Green New Deal, whose backers are calling for nothing less than radical solutions to the most pressing issues of our time.
Degeneration Nation: The Frightening Truth
Welcome to Degeneration Nation, where the frightening truth is this: Big Food companies, fast food chains, chemical and seed giants such as Bayer/Monsanto, and corporate agribusiness, aided and abetted by indentured politicians in both the Republican and Democratic parties, are slowly but surely poisoning us with unhealthy, nutrient-deficient, contaminated food.
The pesticides, GMOs, hormone disruptors and antibiotic residues in non-organic produce, grains and meat, coupled with the excessive sugar, salt and bad fats in the processed foods and beverages that make up the majority of the American diet, have supersized and degenerated the body politic. An epidemic of chronic diseases directly related to our toxic food and environment has spread across the U.S. and much of the world.
The overwhelming evidence is that human health is seriously deteriorating, and that the underlying causes of this health crisis are directly related not only to our highly toxic industrial practices, but also to our degenerate food, farming and land-management practices.
In the agricultural sector alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies more than 1,400 pesticides and 1,800 so-called "inerts" chemicals in use, in addition to a toxic stew of animal drugs, antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers and GMOs. Few of these have been properly tested, singly or in combination, for safety.
The public health and economic consequences of our degraded environment and food system are alarming. A recent Rand Corporation study found that 60 percent of Americans suffer from at least one chronic health condition, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and arthritis; 42 percent have two or more; and that these chronic diseases now account for more than 40 percent of the entire U.S. health care spending of $3.5 trillion.
One out of every two Americans will get cancer at least once in their lifetime. According to recent research, U.S. men born in 1960 have a lifetime cancer risk of 53.5 percent. For women, it's 47.5 percent.
Seventy percent of U.S. drinking water is contaminated with Monsanto's top-selling herbicide, Roundup, while 93 percent of consumers now have traces of this toxic poison (active ingredient glyphosate) in our urine.
The authors of "What's Making Our Children Sick?" report that one in 13 U.S. children have serious food allergies; 6 to 24 percent have serious intestinal problems; 20 percent are obese; 60 percent have chronic headaches; 20 percent suffer from mental disorders and depression. One in every 41 boys and one in every 68 girls are now diagnosed with autism.
Beyond destroying our health, chemical and fossil fuel-intensive factory farms and GMO monocultures are polluting our water and air, degrading our soils, forests and wetlands, killing off biodiversity and heating up the planet.
The delicate rhythms of nature—the Earth's carbon cycle circulating between the atmosphere, oceans, soils and forests, the water or hydrological cycle and the climate—are unraveling.
Cook Organic, Not the Planet
The Lancet Obesity Commission study is clear: Climate change, obesity and poor nutrition can all be linked in some way to the mass production of processed, nutrient-poor food. This is an idea that doesn't get as much attention as it should.
When most people think about climate-destabilizing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the impact of fossil fuels—our non-renewable fossil fuel-based energy system for transportation and for utilities and manufacturing, including the construction and the heating and cooling of our homes, offices and buildings.
What few people understand is that a full 44 to 57 percent of all global GHG emissions are generated by chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive industrial farm production, food processing, packaging, refrigeration, transportation and destructive land-use practices, such as deforestation, heavy plowing, lack of cover crops and wetlands destruction.
Let's take a closer look at the 44 to 57 percent of human GHG emissions coming from our industrial, GMO, factory farm food system, and compare how transitioning to regenerative food, farming and land-management practices would not only drastically reduce these emissions, but actually draw down excess atmospheric carbon and sequester it in our soils, trees and wetlands—and in the process, produce more nutrient-dense, chemical-free food.
Direct Use of Oil and Gas in Farming: 11 to 15 Percent
Most climate analysts agree that fossil fuel use on farms and ranches, including chemical farm inputs (fertilizers and pesticides), is responsible for at least 11 to 15 percent of all global CO2, methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Most of these emissions come from the use of fossil fuel-powered farm and irrigation equipment and petroleum-derived chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
In addition, the excess manure generated by factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) as the industry calls them, releases significant quantities of methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and the oceans.
How can we reduce these on-farm emissions? By converting chemical- and energy-intensive farms to organic and regenerative crop production and planned rotational grazing and free range livestock production. This will require a combination of conscious consumers and farmers working together, on a local-to-global scale to reject factory farm, GMO, chemically tainted, highly processed food, and radical changes in public policy and investment practices.
Food- and Farming-Derived Deforestation: 15 to 18 Percent
Global "land use change" or deforestation is generally recognized as contributing to approximately 20 percent of all GHG emissions over the past 200 years.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says that expansion of agriculture, especially for export crops such as GMO soybeans (primarily for animal feed) in Latin America, or palm oil (for biofuels and processed food) in Asia, accounts for 70 to 90 percent of global deforestation.
Worldwide, industrial agriculture is pushing into grasslands, wetlands and forests, destroying what were previously carbon-sequestering forests and grasslands. Food and farming's contribution to deforestation thus accounts for 15 to 18 percent of global GHG emissions.
Over the next 50 years we need to preserve the forests we have left, and plant and nurture a trillion or more new trees. Since the areas of tropical forest deforestation are also the areas of greatest poverty and unemployment, reforestation and forest restoration can provide several hundred million jobs to those local residents and forest dwellers who need them most.
Food Transport / Food Miles: 5 to 6 Percent
Globally it is generally agreed that transportation accounts for 20 to 25 percent of all GHG emissions. According to the ETC group, "we can conservatively estimate that the transportation of food accounts for a quarter of global GHG emissions linked to transportation, or 5-6 percent of all global GHG emissions." In the U.S. it is commonly estimated that the average food item in your grocery store or restaurant has travelled 1,500 miles before it reaches its final destination. Multi-ingredient processed foods burn up even more food miles.
If we are to significantly reduce global emissions we will need to drastically reduce the food miles and carbon footprint of our food purchases and focus on fresh non-processed or minimally processed and packaged food produced locally and regionally, including food produced through urban agriculture. Before the second World War most food consumed in the U.S. and other industrialized nations came from a 100-mile radius of where people lived. During the Second World War, 40 to 50 percent of all food consumed by Americans came from urban "Victory Gardens," while 30 percent of all food in Great Britain similarly came from urban gardens.
Food Processing / Packaging: 8 to 10 Percent
Food processing has become a major part of the industrial food chain. In the U.S., the overwhelming majority of food purchased in grocery stores or restaurants (70 percent) is processed food.
ETC group states that the " ... transformation of foods into ready-made meals, snacks and beverages requires an enormous amount of energy, mostly in the form of carbon. So does the packaging and canning of these foods. Processing and packaging enables the food industry to stack the shelves of supermarkets and convenience stores with hundreds of different formats and brands, but it also generates a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions—some 8 to 10 percent of the global total."
More and more consumers are recognizing that highly processed food, whether served at home or in fast food restaurants is bad for our health, and that wasteful packaging, misleading advertising and plastic bags and packages are harmful both to our health (especially children's health) and to our environment, including the oceans.
This awareness has caused a boom in sales of fresh organic produce and animal products in natural and organic food stores and farmer's markets. Many cities and even entire nations are now moving toward banning plastic bags. Unfortunately, U.S. consumers still spend almost half of their food dollars eating in restaurants and fast food outlets where highly processed, packaged foods dominate the menu. Similarly, in schools and cafeterias pre-cooked processed foods delivered by food service conglomerates have displayed hand-cooked meals prepared from fresh ingredients.
If we are to reduce the 8 to 10 percent of global fossil fuel emissions coming from food processing and packaging we will need to get back to healthy, organic, regionally produced foods, cooked from scratch with natural ingredients. This will not only benefit our health but will also be better for the health of the climate and the environment.
Food Refrigeration & Retail: 2 to 4 Percent
Approximately 15 percent of all global electricity consumption is for cooling and refrigeration. Of course global food sourcing depends upon keeping fresh produce and animal products cold.
As ETC group says: "Considering that cooling is responsible for 15 percent of all electricity consumption worldwide, and that leaks of chemical refrigerants are a major source of GHGs, we can safely say that the refrigeration of foods accounts for some 1-2 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. The retailing of foods accounts for another 1-2 percent."
Again, reducing our food miles, buying locally and regionally—this is not only good for the planet, but good for our health and the economic well-being of our local farmers and ranchers as well. Until the electricity grid is converted over to renewable energy, food refrigeration, and refrigeration in general (especially air conditioning), will continue to belch out an unsustainable amount of greenhouse gases.
In the meantime we can all do our part, not only by turning down our thermostats, but by buying fresh foods produced locally and regionally, pressuring politicians to require local purchasing for schools and institutions, or better yet, by growing some of our own.
Throwing Food Into Landfills Instead of Composting: 3 to 4 Percent
Our industrial food and farming system currently discards 30 to 50 percent of all the crops and the food that is produced. Not only is this a prodigious waste of the fossil fuel energy and labor involved in producing this food, but the food waste itself generally ends up in garbage dumps and landfills, (rather than being converted into compost) releasing substantial amounts of methane and other GHGs.
Quoting again from ETC Group: "Between 3.5-4.5 percent of global GHG emissions come from waste, and over 90 percent of these are produced by materials originating within the food system."
Our planet has five pools or repositories where greenhouse gases are absorbed and stored: the oceans, the atmosphere, the soils, vegetation (plants, especially perennial plants, grasses, and forests) and hydrocarbon deposits.
Our global challenge over the next 25 years is to stop putting more carbon into the atmosphere and the oceans, leave the remaining fossil fuels (oil, coal, uranium and natural gas) in the ground, and move a critical mass of excess atmospheric carbon (250 billion tons of carbon) back into the soil, by transitioning to regenerative food, farming and land-use practices. By doing this we will not only be able to reverse global warming—we'll also produce healthier food and healthier people.
A Call for the Food Movement to Rally Behind the Green New Deal https://t.co/RrxyYDJUmH— Non-GMO Project (@Non-GMO Project)1547770800.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
Google's New Timelapse Shows 37 Years of Climate Change Anywhere on Earth, Including Your Neighborhood
Google Earth's latest feature allows you to watch the climate change in four dimensions.
The new feature, called Timelapse, is the biggest update to Google Earth since 2017. It is also, as far as its developers know, the largest video taken of Earth on Earth. The feature compiles 24 million satellite photos taken between 1984 and 2020 to show how human activity has transformed the planet over the past 37 years.
"Visual evidence can cut to the core of the debate in a way that words cannot and communicate complex issues to everyone," Google Earth Director Rebecca Moore wrote in a blog post Thursday.
Moore herself has been directly impacted by the climate crisis. She was one of many Californians evacuated because of wildfires last year. However, the new feature allows people to witness more remote changes, such as the melting of ice caps.
"With Timelapse in Google Earth, we have a clearer picture of our changing planet right at our fingertips — one that shows not just problems but also solutions, as well as mesmerizingly beautiful natural phenomena that unfold over decades," she wrote.
Some climate impacts that viewers can witness include the melting of 12 miles of Alaska's Columbia Glacier between 1984 and 2020, Fortune reported. They can also watch the disintegration of the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica. The changes are not limited to the impacts of global warming, however.
Moore said the developers had identified five themes, and Google Earth offers a guided tour for each of them. They are:
- Forest change, such as deforestation in Bolivia for soybean farming
- Urban growth, such as the quintupling of Las Vegas sprawl
- Warming temperatures, such as melting glaciers and ice sheets
- Sources of energy, such as the impacts of coal mining on Wyoming's landscape
- Fragile beauty, such as the flow of Bolivia's Mamoré River
However, the feature also allows you to see smaller-scale change. You can enter any location into the search bar, including your local neighborhood, CNN explained. The feature does not offer the detail of Street View, Gizmodo noted. It is intended to show large changes over time, rather than smaller details like the construction of a road or home.
The images for Timelapse were made possible through collaboration with NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey's Landsat satellites and the European Union's Copernicus program and Sentinel satellites. Carnegie Mellon University's CREATE Lab helped develop the technology.
To use Timelapse, you can either visit g.co/Timelapse directly or click on the Ship's Wheel icon in Google Earth, then select Timelapse. Moore said the feature would be updated annually with new images of Earth's alterations.
"We hope that this perspective of the planet will ground debates, encourage discovery and shift perspectives about some of our most pressing global issues," she wrote.
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By Asher Rosinger
Imagine seeing a news report about lead contamination in drinking water in a community that looks like yours. It might make you think twice about whether to drink your tap water or serve it to your kids – especially if you also have experienced tap water problems in the past.
In a new study, my colleagues Anisha Patel, Francesca Weaks and I estimate that approximately 61.4 million people in the U.S. did not drink their tap water as of 2017-2018. Our research, which was released in preprint format on April 8, 2021, and has not yet been peer reviewed, found that this number has grown sharply in the past several years.
Other research has shown that about 2 million Americans don't have access to clean water. Taking that into account, our findings suggest that about 59 million people have tap water access from either their municipality or private wells or cisterns, but don't drink it. While some may have contaminated water, others may be avoiding water that's actually safe.
Water insecurity is an underrecognized but growing problem in the U.S. Tap water distrust is part of the problem. And it's critical to understand what drives it, because people who don't trust their tap water shift to more expensive and often less healthy options, like bottled water or sugary drinks.
I'm a human biologist and have studied water and health for the past decade in places as diverse as Lowland Bolivia and northern Kenya. Now I run the Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. To understand water issues, I talk to people and use large datasets to see whether a problem is unique or widespread, and stable or growing.
An Epidemic of Distrust
According to our research, there's a growing epidemic of tap water distrust and disuse in the U.S. In a 2020 study, anthropologist Sera Young and I found that tap water avoidance was declining before the Flint water crisis that began in 2014. In 2015-2016, however, it started to increase again for children.
Our new study found that in 2017-2018, the number of Americans who didn't drink tap water increased at an alarmingly high rate, particularly for Black and Hispanic adults and children. Since 2013-2014 – just before the Flint water crisis began – the prevalence of adults who do not drink their tap water has increased by 40%. Among children, not consuming tap has risen by 63%.
To calculate this change, we used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a nationally representative survey that releases data in two-year cycles. Sampling weights that use demographic characteristics ensure that the people being sampled are representative of the broader U.S. population.
Racial Disparities in Tap Water Consumption
Communities of color have long experienced environmental injustice across the U.S. Black, Hispanic and Native American residents are more likely to live in environmentally disadvantaged neighborhoods, with exposure to water that violates quality standards.
Our findings reflect these experiences. We calculated that Black and Hispanic children and adults are two to three times more likely to report not drinking their tap water than members of white households. In 2017-2018, roughly 3 out of 10 Black adults and children and nearly 4 of 10 Hispanic adults and children didn't drink their tap water. Approximately 2 of 10 Asian Americans didn't drink from their tap, while only 1 of 10 white Americans didn't drink their tap water.
When children don't drink any water on a given day, research shows that they consume twice as many calories from sugary drinks as children who drink water. Higher sugary drink consumption increases risk of cavities, obesity and cardiometabolic diseases. Drinking tap water provides fluoride, which lowers the risk of cavities. Relying on water alternatives is also much more expensive than drinking tap water.
A4: Choosing to drink fluoridated tap water over sugar-sweetened beverages to quench thirst is vital to protecting… https://t.co/3tm8wuWjeZ— Oral Health Watch (@Oral Health Watch)1600795750.0
What Erodes Trust
News reports – particularly high-visibility events like advisories to boil water – lead people to distrust their tap water even after the problem is fixed. For example, a 2019 study showed that water quality violations across the U.S. between 2006 and 2015 led to increases in bottled water purchases in affected counties as a way to avoid tap water, and purchase rates remained elevated after the violation.
The Flint water crisis drew national attention to water insecurity, even though state and federal regulators were slow to respond to residents' complaints there. Soon afterward, lead contamination was found in the water supply of Newark, New Jersey; the city is currently replacing all lead service lines under a legal settlement. Elsewhere, media outlets and advocacy groups have reported finding tap water samples contaminated with industrial chemicals, lead, arsenic and other contaminants.
Many other factors can cause people to distrust their water supply, including smell, taste and appearance, as well as lower income levels. Location is also an issue: Older U.S. cities with aging infrastructure are more prone to water shutoffs and water quality problems.
It's important not to blame people for distrusting what comes out of their tap, because those fears are rooted in history. In my view, addressing water insecurity requires a two-part strategy: ensuring that everyone has access to clean water, and increasing trust so people who have safe water will use it.
As part of his proposed infrastructure plan, President Joe Biden is asking Congress for $111 billion to improve water delivery systems, replace lead pipelines and tackle other contaminants. The plan also proposes improvements for small water systems and underserved communities.
These are critical steps to rebuild trust. Yet, in my view, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should also provide better public education about water quality testing and targeted interventions for vulnerable populations, such as children and underserved communities. Initiatives to simplify and improve water quality reports can help people understand what's in their water and what they can do if they think something is wrong with it.
Who delivers those messages is important. In areas like Flint, where former government officials have been indicted on charges including negligence and perjury in connection with the water crisis, the government's word alone won't rebuild trust. Instead, community members can fill this critical role.
Another priority is the 13%-15% of Americans who rely on private well water, which is not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. These households are responsible for their own water quality testing. Public funding would help them test it regularly and address any problems.
Public distrust of tap water in the U.S. reflects decades of policies that have reduced access to reliable, safe drinking water in communities of color. Fixing water lines is important, but so is giving people confidence to turn on the tap.
Asher Rosinger is an assistant professor of biobehavioral health, anthropology, and demography and director of the Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory at Penn State University.
Disclosure statement: Asher Rosinger receives funding from the National Science Foundation on an unrelated project. This work was supported by the Ann Atherton Hertzler Early Career Professorship funds, and the Penn State Population Research Institute (NICHD P2CHD041025). The funders had no role in the research or interpretation of results.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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A new report promoting urgent climate action in Australia has stirred debate for claiming that global temperatures will rise past 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next decade.
Australia's Climate Council released the report on Thursday. The council is an independent organization of climate scientists and experts on health, renewable energy and policy who work to inform the Australian public on the climate crisis. But their latest claim is causing controversy.
"Multiple lines of evidence show that limiting global warming to 1.5°C above the preindustrial level, without significant overshoot and subsequent drawdown, is now out of reach due to past inaction," Dr. Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Prof. Christopher Field of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment wrote in the foreword. "The science is telling us that global average temperature rise will likely exceed 1.5°C during the 2030s, and that long-term stabilization at warming at or below 1.5°C will be extremely challenging."
The report is titled "Aim high, go fast: Why emissions need to plummet this decade," and as the name suggests, it is ultimately concerned with urging more robust climate action on the part of the Australian government. The report calls for the country to reduce emissions by 75 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035 in order to achieve the long-term goals of the Paris agreement, which means limiting warming to well below two degrees Celsius.
"The world achieving net zero by 2050 is at least a decade too late and carries a strong risk of irreversible global climate disruption at levels inconsistent with maintaining well-functioning human societies," the authors wrote.
The report further argues that global temperatures are likely to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the 2030s based on existing temperature increases; locked-in warming from emissions that have already occurred; evidence from past climate changes and the percentage of the carbon budget that has already been used.
The report isn't a call to give up on the Paris agreement. It is possible that global temperatures could swell past 1.5 degrees Celsius but still be reduced by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even if temperatures do exceed 1.5 degrees, every degree of warming that can be prevented makes a difference.
"Basically we can still hold temperature rise to well below 2C and do that without overshoot and drawdown," Will Steffen, lead report author from the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, told Australia's ABC News. "Every tenth of a degree actually does matter — 1.8C is better than 1.9C, and is much better than 2C."
However, some outside scientists question both the accuracy and effectiveness of the report's claim. Both Adjunct Professor Bill Hare from Murdoch University and Dr. Carl-Freidrich Schleussner from Humboldt University told ABC News they have been trying to contact the Climate Council about its 1.5 overshoot claim for months. They said that it went against other major reports, including the UN Environment Program Gap Report and the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on 1.5˚C.
"The big challenge their report reinforces is the need for urgent action to get on that 1.5C pathway, [so] it's very paradoxical to me that they've chosen to attack that target," Dr. Hare told ABC News.
However, Scientist Andy Pitman from the Center of Excellence for Climate Extremes at the University of New South Wales told The Guardian that the report's assessment was correct.
"It's simply not possible to limit warming to 1.5C now," he said. "There's too much inertia in the system and even if you stopped greenhouse gas emissions today, you would still reach 1.5C [of heating]."
However, one aspect everyone agreed on involved the importance of lowering emissions as soon as possible.
"[There is] absolute fundamental agreement on the task at hand, which is to get emissions to plummet," Simon Bradshaw, report author and Climate Council head of research, told The Guardian.
French winemakers are facing devastating grape loss from the worst frost in decades, preceded by unusually warm temperatures, highlighting the dangers to the sector posed by climate change.
"An important share of the harvest has been lost. It's too early to give a percentage estimate, but in any case it's a tragedy for the winegrowers who have been hit," said Christophe Chateau, director of communications at the Bordeaux Wine Council, told CNN.
Climate change, caused by the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels, has pushed winegrowing seasons earlier, putting crops at higher risk of cold — and wildfires supercharged by climate change also threaten American vignerons and farmworkers as well.
"I think it's good for people to understand that this is nature, climate change is real, and to be conscious of the effort that goes into making wine and the heartbreak that is the loss of a crop," Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits told Wine Enthusiast.
As reported by Wine Enthusiast:
Last week, images of candlelit French vineyards flooded social media. Across the country, winemakers installed bougies, or large wax-filled metal pots, among the vines to prevent cold air from settling in during an especially late frost.
With temperatures in early April as low as 22°F, and following an unseasonably warm March, this year's frost damage may be the worst in history for French winegrowers. Every corner of France reports considerable losses, from Champagne to Provence, and Côtes de Gascogne to Alsace. As a result, there will likely be very little French wine from the 2021 vintage reaching U.S. shores.
For a deeper dive:
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Climate change could make it harder to find a good cup of coffee, new research finds. A changing climate might shrink suitable areas for specialty coffee production without adaptation, making coffee taste blander and impacting the livelihoods of small farms in the Global South.
Published in Scientific Reports on Wednesday, the study focused on regions in Ethiopia, Africa's largest coffee-producing nation. Although studies have previously documented the impact of climate change on coffee production, what's less understood is how varying climates could change the flavors of specialty coffee, the researchers wrote.
The team aimed to fill this gap. Their results provide a glimpse into how future climate change could impact local regions and economies that rely on coffee cultivation, underscoring the value of local adaptation measures.
Researchers analyzed how 19 different climate factors, such as mean temperatures and rainfall levels, would affect the cultivation of five distinct specialty coffee types in the future, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) reported. Although researchers found that areas suitable for growing "average quality coffee" may actually increase over time with climate change, regions where specialty coffee is grown will shrink — a pending problem in light of the global demand for high-quality coffee.
"This is an issue not just for coffee lovers, but for local agricultural value creation," Abel Chemura, the study's lead author, told the PIK.
Coffee profiles rely on specific climate patterns for their unique flavors, levels of acidity and fragrances. But in a warmer climate, the coffee cherry — the fruit picked from a coffee plant — matures faster than the bean inside, making for a lower quality cup of coffee, the PIK reported.
For example, the sought-after Yirgacheffe variety of coffee, which is cultivated in southwestern Ethiopia, could lose more than 40 percent of its suitable growth area by the end of the century, PIK reported. This could impact small farms and threaten Ethiopia's economy, the researchers noted.
"If one or more coffee regions lose their specialty status due to climate change this has potentially grave ramifications for the smallholder farmers in the region," Christoph Gornott, co-author of the study, told the PIK. "If they were forced to switch to growing conventional, less palatable and bitter coffee types, they would all of the sudden compete with industrial production systems elsewhere that are more efficient." In a country where coffee exports account for nearly a third of all agricultural exports, "this could prove fatal," Gornott added.
Climate change impacts on coffee production are not unique to Ethiopia. In Columbia's mountainous coffee-growing regions, temperatures are warming by 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit every decade, according to Yale Environment 360. Extreme levels of precipitation, which are becoming more common, also impact production, as they spread insect and fungal diseases.
"In earlier times, the climate was perfect for coffee," one small farmer in Columbia told Yale Environment 360. "In the period of flowering, there was summer. During harvest, there was winter. But from 2008 onward, this changed and we now don't know when it will be summer, when the coffee will blossom."
But researchers say there are glimmers of hope, emphasizing the importance of local adaptation measures that are designed for particular climates and communities. For example, in regions where temperature is an important factor for specialty coffee cultivation, the researchers suggest improved agroforestry systems that could maintain canopy temperatures, a promising step toward sustaining the "availability and taste of one of the world's most beloved beverages and, more importantly, on economic opportunities in local communities of the Global South," Gornott concluded.