5 Links Between the Food on Your Plate and Climate Change
By Brian Barth
"Certified organic" does not necessarily equate to "climate friendly." While there is some evidence that organic techniques produce as much as 40 percent fewer GHGs on average than conventional productions systems, other studies have found more or less a wash between the two. While scientists continue to debate the matter, it's important to realize that the organic standards were never intended to minimize GHGs—they're focused almost exclusively on eliminating synthetic chemicals from the food supply.
There are many other factors that determine the carbon footprint of a meal, which have nothing to do with whether it was produced on an organic farm. For example, veggie burgers, whether organic or not, produce much fewer GHGs than bacon cheeseburgers. Biscuits made from wheat produced on a "no-till" grain farm are likely to have a lower carbon footprint than those from tilled wheat, even if the former is conventional and the latter is organic. And certainly, organic mangos from Brazil are much less climate friendly than apples from your neighbor's backyard, simply by virtue of eliminating transportation emissions.
The climate implications of food are complex, poorly understood, not well quantified and not reflected in any of the popular eco-certifications out there. That's surprising given that the food system, by some estimates, is responsible for up to 29 percent of GHG emissions globally (more than transportation, energy production, or any other human endeavor).
Below are some of the connections between food choices, production methods and climate change that, arguably, deserve much more attention.
1. Starting Light: Smoothie Time
Health nuts love their fruit smoothies in the summertime. Assessing the carbon footprint of strawberry-banana-almond versus blueberry-orange-yogurt is tricky, but here's a few thoughts to chew (or slurp) on:
Overall, fruits rank in the middle of the various food groups in terms of greenhouse gas emissions—they're roughly the same as vegetables, much less than meat, and far above grains.
If you want to add milk for a richer smoothie, consider seed and nut milks, which produce a fraction of the GHGs compared to dairy.
Tree fruits (mangoes, apples, peaches, oranges) generally have lower emissions than those that grow from shrubby or herbaceous plants (bananas, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries).
Tree fruits have great potential for multi-layered agroforestry systems, which can sequester nearly as much carbon as natural forests—unfortunately, such systems are bests suited to tropical agriculture, which, for those of us in North America, means all those food miles probably cancel out the GHG savings.
Foodies snap up those plastic clamshells of organic microgreens like they're going out of style. Turns out other vegetables may be a better choice for a carbon-conscious diet:
Lettuce is actually three times more carbon-intensive than bacon, according to one study, though that's only when considered on a per calorie basis (of course we eat lettuce for nutrients, not calories).
Part of the problem with lettuce and microgreens is they require huge amounts of freshwater to produce, which incurs a hefty carbon footprint from the energy required to pump it out of the ground. Thus, drought tolerant vegetables—such as dry-farmed tomatoes—are a safer salad ingredient.
Root crops (radishes and beets) tend to be low in carbon emissions, while on the flip side, a handful of other vegetables are notably high, including bell peppers, avocado and asparagus. For the kimchi lovers out there, rest assured that cabbage is one of the least carbon-intensive crops.
Wheat may be out of style among health-conscious folks these days, but feel free to reach for bread—grains, as a group, have very low carbon footprints:
Most grains have three traits that help keep their emissions down: they are well-suited to no-till agriculture; they require relatively little irrigation; they grow so abundantly in North America that there is little reason to import them from afar.
According to the Food Carbon Emissions Calculator, corn is one exception to this rule—cornbread has about twice the emissions as bread made from most other grains.
Virtually every analysis agrees that plant-based diets have far fewer emissions than meat-heavy ones, on a roughly two-to-one basis. But not all meats, or vegetarian staple foods, are equal:
Lamb is generally considered the most carbon-intensive meat, followed by beef, pork, turkey and chicken.
Seafood fares a bit better than land animals on the whole, though salmon is higher in emissions than some livestock.
Butter and cheese, according to at least one study, has a very large carbon footprint (on par with most meats), while milk is much lower.
Tofu, legumes and most other vegetarian staples are very climate-friendly.
Eatlowcarbon.org rates nearly 100 meals according to their GHG emissions—three bean soup, number one on the list, has 50 times fewer emissions than a hamburger, one of the most carbon-intensive meals.
However, rice—one of the most widely consumed vegetarian staples in the world—has an outsize carbon footprint compared to most grains and legumes. By some estimates, rice cultivation produces 10 percent of all agricultural emissions worldwide. Fortunately, new rice cultivation techniques have emerged that are cutting into that total.
Likewise, different grazing schemes have vastly different emissions outcomes, some of which actually sequester carbon if managed carefully. Livestock may be integrated into agroforestry plantings (an approach known as silvopasture), a highly efficient style of farming that produces multiple crops in an integrated system, while sequestering carbon. Collectively, the various approaches for modifying conventional farming practices to sequester, rather than emit GHGs, are known as carbon farming.
Desserts tend to include a combination of food groups—centered on fruit, nuts, grains and tropical specialties like chocolate, cinnamon and vanilla—so it's fairly easy to extrapolate their GHG impacts from the information above.
Domestically produced nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds) are a better choice than tropical ones (cashews, macadamias); same goes for fruit.
When it comes to chocolate and tropical spices, there is no such thing as local, though most of these grow on trees and are sometimes produced in carbon-sequestering agroforestry plantations—any product labeled "shade-grown" would fall into this category.
Plantations of sugarcane, a large tropical grass, have a very low carbon footprint (like grains, which are also grasses), though this is offset if the sugar is imported (most is, though a bit is grown in the southern U.S.); thus local honey, especially if the nectar source comes from native forests (like tupelo honey), is a better choice.
Of the six desserts analyzed by eatlowcarbon.org, tropical fruit has the worst score, while seasonal domestic fruit has the best score, followed by chocolate chip cookies.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Modern Farmer.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Coronavirus Shines Light on Zoos as Danger Zones for Deadly Disease Transmission Between Humans and Animals
By Marilyn Kroplick
The term "zoonotic disease" wasn't a hot topic of conversation before the novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe and upending lives. Now, people are discovering how devastating viruses that transfer from animals to humans can be. But the threat can go both ways — animals can also get sick from humans. There is no better time to reconsider the repercussions of keeping animals captive at zoos, for the sake of everyone's health.
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By Kate Whiting
Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a335b5dffdd806bd6bb4debea90c2045"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dxsb9c4HMn0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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Deforestation coupled with the rampant destruction of natural resources will soon have devastating effects on the future of society as we know it, according to two theoretical physicists who study complex systems and have concluded that greed has put us on a path to irreversible collapse within the next two to four decades, as VICE reported.
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By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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