There are lots of ecological reasons to buy local food, from reducing the carbon footprint of the meals you eat to preventing agribusiness' destruction of unique ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest.
But research published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday uncovered another surprising benefit to local agriculture: it is also better for the environment of countries that currently import lots of food.
This is because, when local crops are displaced by cheaper imports, farmland is then drafted into service growing less sustainable crops, with environmental consequences for the importing country.
The study pointed out that its findings go against conventional wisdom, which held that importing countries benefited from global food trade at the ecological expense of exporting countries.
"What is obvious is not always the whole truth," study author and Michigan State University (MSU) Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability Director Jianguo "Jack" Liu said in an MSU press release. "Unless a world is examined in a systemic, holistic way, environmental costs will be overlooked," she said.
To undertake that systemic examination, the study's authors looked at the international soybean trade.
As the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies explained, Brazil is the world's second-largest producer of soybeans, and its efforts to clear land for that production is a "major driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin."
But the study found that the trade also hurt countries like China, which is the world's largest soybean importer.
As China imported more and more soybeans, local farmers could no longer compete and converted their fields to crops like corn and rice, which require more nutrients to grow and therefore result in an increase in Nitrogen pollution.
The study looked specifically at the highest-producing agricultural land in China, in the country's northeast, and found that the greatest increases in Nitrogen pollution there came from fields that had flipped from soy to rice, followed by fields that had flipped from soy to corn.
Researchers further examined 160 cases on six continents and found Nitrogen levels went up when fields in importing countries switched from soy to other, more demanding crops like wheat, vegetables, corn or rice.
The study's abstract concluded with a call for more research into the environmental consequences of international trade agreements for importing countries,
According to the MSU press release, another potential area of study would be fields in Mexico and South America that have switched from corn to more nutrient-demanding vegetables due to an influx in cheap corn from the U.S. The release noted that changes in crops can also put increased pressure on local water supplies.
"This study underscores the need to pay attention to both sides of international trade not rely on conventional wisdom," Liu said in the MSU press release.
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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