The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—the world's largest trade association for food, beverages and consumer products—has issued a road map to its member companies on how to comply with Vermont's precedent-setting law that requires the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), even though the powerful organization has heavily lobbied and spent eye-popping sums to fight state-by-state labeling mandates.
Photo credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com
Is Big Food Throwing in the Towel on GMO Labeling?
The GMA, which represents more than 300 food and beverage titans such as ConAgra, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kellogg and Hershey, has posted on its website a six page, 29-point FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions] document in order "to respond to questions that companies have about compliance with the Vermont law," Roger Lowe, the executive vice president of GMA's Strategic Communications, told EcoWatch in an email.
EcoWatch was made aware of this FAQ after a tipster sent us a copy of an earlier version of the document that was last updated on Aug. 3, 2015.
In the document, the GMA offers a bevy of guidelines for its companies on how to comply with Vermont's label law set to take effect July 1, 2016, even though the GMA has slapped lawsuits on the state to block the labeling law, and has spent millions in lobbying against mandatory labels at the state and federal level.
Their FAQ brings up points such as the specific language that can be used on a label, what the label should look like, where it should be placed, financial penalties for noncompliance, whether or not the word "natural" can be used for GMO-foods (prohibited by Vermont), and even whether or not GMO-food sold from restaurants or vending machines would require labeling (they don't).
Although the GMA expresses outright that this document is "NOT legal advice" and "it is up to each company to unilaterally decide its own course of action," just the existence of this FAQ suggests that Big Food companies are preparing a transition to labeling their GMO products, or at least in Vermont.
But there's a larger picture: If (or when) Vermont's mandate kicks in next year, it could have far-reaching implications for the labeling of GMO food products in the U.S.
Vermont Wins the Right to Know
The case for labeling GMO food has been boiling over in recent years, and in May 2014, Vermont became the first state in the U.S. to do just that. Unsurprisingly, the law was immediately shunned by the GMA and the organization sued the state, claiming GMOs are "safe and have important benefits for people and our planet." It would be too burdensome and costly for national food and beverage manufacturers to make a special GMO label for Vermont but not for the other 49 states, is how the argument against labels basically goes.
In June 2014, the GMA, as well as the Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association and National Association of Manufacturers, asked for a preliminary injunction against implementation of the Vermont labeling law at the state's District Court. District Judge Christina Reiss denied the request, so the groups promptly filed a joint appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City. Opening arguments for Grocery Manufacturers Association, et al. v. Sorrell, Case No. 15-1504, were heard earlier this month.
Unless the Second Circuit panel rules in favor with the food groups, or a federal law supersedes Vermont (more on that later), Vermont's labeling law could open the door for at least 30 other states considering GMO label laws, such as Connecticut and Maine that are waiting on neighboring states to pass similar legislation before triggering their own GMO labeling laws.
Public Opinion on GMOs
So why did the GMA bother to float around a FAQ document guiding its members on how to accommodate Vermont's new GMO labeling mandate—something they've been fighting tooth and nail?
The document suggests that the food industry is responding to U.S. consumer wariness over GMOs, according to Scott Faber, the vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, who has seen a copy of the document.
An oft-cited statistic is that 93 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling of GMOs, and that at least 64 countries have either banned GMOs or require labels. The sentiment is compounded with the World Health Organization's infamous classification of glyphosate—the main ingredient in biotech giant Monsanto's popular weedkiller Roundup—as a possible carcinogen.
"It's evidence that the industry is recognizing that they face a steep climb, and the time has come to prepare for labeling," said Faber, who is also the executive director of the Just Label It campaign that advocates for mandatory labeling of GMO foods.
The Elephant in the Room
Now, the federal bill. Vermont's labeling law could be completely undermined with the passage of a national standard for labeling GMO food and beverages. And that might actually happen.
This past July, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of H.R. 1599. The bill bans states from requiring GMO labels on food, blocks the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from ever implementing mandatory GMO food labeling and allows food companies to continue to make "natural" claims for foods containing GMO ingredients. The bill has been dubbed the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" Act or DARK Act by opponents.
Lowe told EcoWatch that the GMA "supports a uniform national standard for GMO labeling so that consumers have the same labeling rules and regulations regardless of where they live or shop, not a patchwork of different state labeling mandates that are confusing and costly to consumers."
However, as POLITCO said in a report, the GMA is "advocating for an industry-friendly law with a voluntary federal standard—a move that food activists see as a power grab by an industry that has tried to kill GMO labeling initiatives every step of the way."
The fate of GMO labeling is now in the hands of the Senate. On Wednesday, the Senate's Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry held its fourth hearing on the topic of GMO food.
During the hearing, the consensus from nearly all of the Senate Agriculture committee and the panel members providing testimony was that GMOs are safe and that mandatory labeling for foods that contain GMOs would be too burdensome for food companies and manufacturers.
This tweet from Wednesday, indicates that the GMA seemed pleased by what was said in the hearing:
Senate Agriculture Hearing Highlights Safety of GMOs and Urgent Need for Passage of National Labeling Standard https://t.co/8XVC0BrTO8— GroceryManufacturers (@GroceryManufacturers)1445451444.0
“While we continue our efforts in federal court to challenge Vermont's state labeling law, the court process could take years until full resolution, and will certainly not be concluded prior to the implementation of the Vermont law in just over eight months. That leaves only Congress with the authority to prevent this law and others like it from enactment," said Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in a statement after the hearing.
“It is critically important that Congress act this year to prevent a costly and confusing patchwork of state labeling laws from taking effect next year and spreading across the country," she concluded.
Time will tell if the mostly Republican-backed bill will reach the Senate floor, but currently no Democrat Senator has agreed step up to bat for it.
"The truth of the matter is that Congress is unlikely to come to the industry's rescue," EWG's Faber explained to EcoWatch about the likelihood of a Senate-backed bill. "Nothing changes the fact that passing legislation to deny the right of Americans to know what is in their food is an uphill climb."
The Organic Food Movement
The debate over the human safety and environmental impacts of GMOs is, in a word, polarizing. While many consumers, scientific minds and agricultural industries deem these products safe and aid global food insecurity, there are just as many individuals in these same camps who think the exact opposite.
Amid the controversy of labeling GMOs, more and more U.S. consumers are buying organic food and products. According to the latest Organic Survey from the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, sales from organic farms across the country boomed last year, with consumer spending up 72 percent since 2008.
Many major restaurants and food brands have also transitioned away from GMOs on their own. In April, Chipotle removed genetically modified ingredients from its menu, making it the first major restaurant chain to take this step. Vermont's own Ben & Jerry's has been GMO-free since 2013.
In recent news, Wendy's, McDonald's and Gerber have decided to not sell or use the Arctic apple, the first genetically engineered apple approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The "Natural" Label Fight
Another interesting question raised by the GMA in their FAQ addresses use of the word "natural" for food products containing GMOs, a designation that the GMA has been actively seeking from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since Dec. 2013.
"Natural" or "all natural" is a famously dubious food description that the FDA has not defined. As such, labeling GMO products as "natural" was made illegal by Vermont's GMO labeling law. However, as the GMA notes in its document, this specific condition could change after the Second Circuit case or if the topic enters into higher courts.
How should companies address “natural" claims on labels given the Vermont trial court's favorable response on this issue?
The Vermont law bans the use of the specific terms “natural," “naturally," and “nature" on labels of food containing GE ingredients. The state has clarified in its Annotated Rule that this also includes any advertising at the physical retail premises and includes in-store advertisements. This is regardless of the type of media (printed circulars, window signs, billboards, television commercials, or other digital displays).
This suggests that the next big food labeling brouhaha could center on the definition of the word "natural," so it looks like this GMO food fight is only heating up.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
- Japan's New Environmental Minister Calls for Closing Down All ... ›
- Radiation Along Fukushima Rivers Up to 200 Times Higher Than ... ›
Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
- Scientists Identify Tipping Points for Antarctica Glacier - EcoWatch ›
- Record Warm Water Measured Beneath Antarctica's 'Doomsday ... ›
- Antarctica's 'Doomsday Glacier' Is Starting to Crack - EcoWatch ›
By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
- The Media's Climate Coverage Is Improving, but Time Is Very Short ›
- UN Releases Scientific Blueprint to Address Climate Emergencies ... ›
- 'Climate Emergency' Named Oxford Word of the Year - EcoWatch ›
- New Zealand Declares Climate Emergency - EcoWatch ›
- New Bill Says Biden Must Declare a National Climate Emergency ... ›
Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
- Microplastics Are Increasing in Our Lives, New Research Finds ... ›
- Microplastics Found in Human Organs for First Time - EcoWatch ›
- New Study: 15.5 Million Tons of Microplastics Litter Ocean Floor ... ›
By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.