By Sharon Buccino
This week, Secretary Haaland chose a visit to Bears Ears National Monument as her first trip as Interior Secretary. She is spending three days in Bluff, Utah, a small town just outside the monument, listening to representatives of the five tribes who first proposed its designation to President Obama in 2015. This is the same town where former Secretary Sally Jewell spent several hours at a public hearing in July 2016 before recommending the monument's designation to President Obama.
For the first time, a Native American is in charge of shaping federal policy on public lands and waters. Secretary Haaland knows with every fiber of her body the value of the 1.35 million acres of lands originally designated as Bears Ears National Monument—not simply for their beauty and tranquility, but for their cultural significance and sacred power.
Haaland felt the pain of President Trump's destruction of the monument that Obama had created—the 85 percent loss of lands previously protected and the dismissal of the inter-tribal Bears Ears Commission created to help manage the monument. Alongside the Navajo Nation and other tribes, NRDC and other environmental groups challenged Trump's revocation in court. The cases are now on hold pending the Biden administration's action.
In Trump's repeated attacks on our monuments, he also illegally rolled back protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Marine Monument. The Antiquities Act has preserved some of America's greatest treasures. Pursuant to the Act's authority, President Biden should act now to deliver the protection the three monuments Trump acted to destroy both onshore and off.
Some Utah politicians are calling for Congressional action on Bears Ears. The problem is that they have been talking about this for years and have done nothing to protect these lands. President Obama only acted after Congress failed to. In the meantime, looters, mining companies and fossil fuel promoters are taking advantage of the land instead.
Every day, the land Trump carved out of Bears Ears National Monument is getting used. We need action now to restore what has been lost. Relying on the evidence the tribes presented to Obama, President Biden should issue a proclamation restoring Bears Ears to its former glory. In the meantime, Secretary Haaland should look to the five tribes—the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni, and the Ute Indian Tribe—who originally proposed designation of Bears Ears as a national monument to help manage these lands in a way that honors their sacred power, as well as their cultural and ecological significance.
Sharon Buccino's current work focuses on energy policy and government transparency. She actively litigates in federal court and advocates before federal agencies and Congress. She has worked to implement effective environmental review and public participation for proposed pipelines, as well as oil and gas drilling. She also led NRDC's successful litigation under the Freedom of Information Act to force disclosure of the Cheney Energy Task Force papers. Prior to joining NRDC, Buccino practiced environmental and administrative law with a private firm in Washington, D.C. and worked for the Alaska Supreme Court. She holds a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a JD from Stanford Law School. Originally from central Florida, Buccino has spent over 25 years in NRDC's Washington, D.C., office.
By Reynard Loki
The exact origin of the coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, which started the COVID-19 pandemic, is still unclear. Early reports suggested that the virus jumped from an animal to a human at Wuhan's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a "wet market" that sells live animals. On March 30, the international team of scientists assembled by the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report of their recent visit to Wuhan to investigate the source of the virus and confirmed the "zoonotic source of SARS-CoV-2."
"Evidence from surveys and targeted studies so far have shown that the coronaviruses most highly related to SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats and pangolins, suggesting that these mammals may be the reservoir of the virus that causes COVID-19," the WHO report states. "In addition to these findings, the high susceptibility of mink and cats to SARS-CoV- 2 suggests that additional species of animals may act as a potential reservoir. … Several samples from patients with exposure to the Huanan market had identical virus genomes, suggesting that they may have been part of a cluster."
Virologists believe that these sites, which bring together a variety of live animals into close contact with humans, are ideal places for this sort of interspecies viral transmission. In 2002, for example, scientists identified the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus in Himalayan palm civets, a small mammal, in wet markets in Shenzhen in southern China. SARS-CoV-2 is a strain of SARS.
"While there remains a need for more investigation, we are not surprised about the wildlife origin referenced in the report and we know enough to act now to reduce risks of future zoonotic pandemics," said Dr. Christian Walzer, chief global veterinarian of the Wildlife Conservation Society, in a press statement. "Some 60 percent of emerging infectious diseases reported globally are zoonoses, causing about 1 billion cases of human illness and millions of deaths every year. Of the more than 30 new human pathogens detected in the last three decades, 75 percent have originated in animals. Importantly, research has shown zoonotic-origin pathogens increase along the supply chain from source to market."
Wet markets are "unique epicenters for transmission of potential viral pathogens, [where] new genes may be acquired or existing genes modified through various mechanisms such as genetic reassortment, recombination and mutation," according to a paper written by a team of microbiologists from the University of Hong Kong and published in the journal Current Opinion in Infectious Diseases in 2006. They add that these markets, "at closer proximity to humans, with high viral burden or strains of higher transmission efficiency, facilitate transmission of the viruses to humans."
"Once you walk into one of these places, it's quite obvious why they're called wet markets," said Jason Beaubien, NPR's global health and development correspondent, on the radio station's "Morning Edition" show last year. "Live fish in open tubs are splashing water all over the place. The countertops of the stalls are red with blood as fish are gutted and filleted right in front of the customers' eyes. There are live turtles and crustaceans climbing over each other in boxes. Melting ice adds to the slush on the floor. So things are wet."
In January, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) and Fred Upton (R-MI) reintroduced bipartisan legislation to address the public health risks posed by wildlife markets, called the Preventing Future Pandemics Act (H.R. 151). The bill "prohibits importing, exporting, purchasing, or selling live wild animals in the United States for human consumption as food or medicine."
It also directs the Department of the Interior to "hire, train, and deploy at least 50 new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement attachés around the world." Additionally, the bill obliges the United States to work with other members of the United Nations toward instituting a global ban on commercial wildlife markets and enforcement of wildlife trafficking laws. A companion bill, S. 37, was introduced into the Senate by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and John Cornyn (R-TX).
"For the sake of our health, our economy, and our livelihoods, preventing the next pandemic before it starts is perhaps the most important thing we must do," said Rep. Quigley. "We were thrilled with the robust, bipartisan support the bill received last year and we're committed to building on that momentum to see this bill become law."
In addition to their threat to public health, wet markets are sites of extreme pain and suffering for so many animals. "Wild animals sold in commercial wildlife markets endure extreme stress and unsanitary conditions before being slaughtered," according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit based in Cotati, California, that works to pass state and federal legislation supporting animal rights. "As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, our continued exploitation of animals and our environment is fueling the next pandemic. Shutting down commercial wildlife markets—and the international wildlife trade—is critical both to reducing the risk of novel zoonotic disease and animal suffering."
"We must acknowledge the basic tenet that the more we destroy and intrude on nature, the more likely zoonotic spillovers will occur," said Dr. Walzer. "Zoonotic spillover events and subsequent outbreaks are inevitable, as the interfaces between wildlife and humans increase, primarily due to deforestation and agricultural expansion."
The cruelty to animals witnessed at wet markets points to a deeper, ethical concern about how we view and treat other species. In November 2020, during an interview with Euronews, Jane Goodall, the renowned British primatologist and ethologist, said that "we, in part, brought [COVID-19] on ourselves by our disrespect of nature and our disrespect of animals."
She added, "We push animals into closer contact with humans. We hunt them, eat them, traffic them, sell them as exotic pets around the world, we put them in factory farms in terrible close conditions and all these situations can lead to an environment where a pathogen, like a virus, can jump from an animal to a person, where it may cause a new disease like COVID-19."
Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Daniel Raichel
While many know Chicago as the "Second City," the old stomping grounds of Michael Jordan or Al Capone, or perhaps even still as "Hog Butcher to the World," I doubt many think of it as a home for endangered wildlife.
However, as a recent Chicago Tribune article shows, that's exactly what it is for one of our very favorite endangered pollinators—the rusty patched bumble bee.
For the better part of a decade, NRDC has fought for the rusty patched bumble bee's survival, and we are now suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the fourth time—this time, to reverse a Trump-Era decision not to designate federally protected "critical habitat" for the bee.
That's why it was particularly sweet to learn that a couple of rusty patched bumble bees were spotted foraging near the Rogers Park Metra stop, not far from the Honeybear Cafe and some of my old foraging grounds growing up.
"Rogers Park Metra Community Garden" by LN is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Although the article provides a fun "work meets life" moment for me, it also underscores the importance of our lawsuit. As Abby Shafer of the Evanston Native Bee Initiative notes, one patch of native habitat can be meaningful, but what's most needed is a network of interconnected habitat so that the bee's populations can recover and once again thrive.
By refusing to designate "critical habitat" for the bee, the Fish and Wildlife Service effectively scuttled any plan for such a federally protected habitat network—breaking the law and putting this magnificent and vulnerable bee one step closer to extinction. That's why we'll keep fighting in court until we (yet again) secure the protections that the rusty patched bumble bee deserves.
Who knows, if we're successful, maybe you'll see the rusty patched bumble bee in your neighborhood too.
"The Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park" by UGArdener is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0
Reposted with permission from NRDC.
By Tara Lohan
Mined lands reclaimed for biking trails, office parks — even a winery. Efforts like these are already underway in Appalachia to reclaim the region's toxic history, restore blighted lands, and create economic opportunities in areas where decades-old mines haven't been properly cleaned up.
The projects are sorely needed. And so are many more. But the money to fund and enable them remains elusive.
Mining production is falling, which is good news for tackling climate change and air pollution, but Appalachia and other coal states are also feeling the economic pain that comes with it. And that loss is more acute on top of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and the mounting bills from the industry's environmental degradation.
Local leaders and organizations working in coal communities see a way to flip the script, though. The Revelator spoke with Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Kentucky, about efforts focusing on one particular area that's plagued coal communities for more than 50 years: cleaning up abandoned mine lands.
Shelton explains the history behind these lands, the big legislative opportunities developing in Washington, and what coal communities need to prepare for a low-carbon future.
What are abandoned mine lands?
Technically an abandoned mine land is land where no reclamation was done after mining. Prior to the passage of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977, coal-mining companies weren't required to reclaim — or clean up — the land they mined.
What SMCRA did, in addition to creating requirements for companies to do reclamation into the future, was create an abandoned mine land fund to distribute money to states and tribes with historic mining so that they could clean up those old sites. The revenue for that fund comes from a small tax on current coal production.
The program has accomplished a lot. It has closed 46,000 open mine portals, reclaimed more than 1,000 miles of high walls, stabilized slopes, and restored a lot of water supplies.
It's been a successful program, but the work is far from done. A conservative estimate is that there's still more than $11 billion needed to clean up existing identified liability across the U.S. [for sites mined before 1977].
What are the risks if we don't do this?
There are safety, health and environmental issues.
Just this spring we've already gotten calls from folks living adjacent to abandoned mine lands that are experiencing slides [from wet weather causing slopes destabilized by mining to give way]. People's homes can be completely destabilized, and if they don't get out in time, it can be really dangerous.
There's also a lot of existing acid mine drainage across coal-mining communities, which is water that's leaking iron oxides and other heavy metals from these abandoned mine lands. This is bad for the ecology of the streams, but heavy metals are also not safe for humans to be exposed to.
Acid mine drainage in a stream. Rachel Brennan / CC BY-NC 2.0
There's legislation in Congress now that could help deal with this issue. What are those bills?
One bill is the reauthorization of the abandoned mine land fund. That bill is absolutely critical because the fee on coal production, which is the only source of revenue for the fund, will expire at the end of September if Congress doesn't take action.
If Congress fails to extend that, we may not see any more funding for the $11 billion needed to clean up abandoned mine lands. If passed, the bill would reauthorize the fee at its current level for 15 more years.
The challenge is that even if the fee is reauthorized, it'll likely generate only around $1.6 billion — based on current coal-production projections — and that's vastly inadequate to cover all of the liabilities that exist.
Also, when the abandoned mine land fund was first started, there were some funds that were not redistributed to states and tribes and have just remained in the fund — [about] $2.5 billion that's not being dispersed on an annual basis.
So another bill, the RECLAIM Act, would authorize [an initial] $1 billion to be dispersed out of that fund that would go to approximately 20 states and tribes over the next five years. This money would be distributed differently than the regular funds in that any kind of project would have to have a plan in place for community and economic development.
So though the funds can only be used for reclamation, they need to be reclamation with a plan. There are so many high-priority and dangerous abandoned mine land sites that exist, and the RECLAIM Act funds would prioritize supporting community and economic development for communities adjacent to these lands.
How much support are you seeing for these bills?
We see momentum in this Congress, and there's a lot of conversation around investing in our nation's infrastructure. We see abandoned mine lands and their remediation as natural infrastructure that we need to invest in to keep our communities safe and prepare them for the future.
But we also see these bills as important pieces of an economic recovery package. COVID-19 has really exacerbated so many of the existing health and economic crises already in coal communities.
When we talk about economic stimulus and job creation, we also see reauthorizing the abandoned mine land fund as contributing to that because it takes a lot of work and creates a lot of jobs to do land reclamation.
Abandoned mines can pose serious health and safety hazards, such as landslides, erosion and surface instability. USGS
We've talked about the legacy issues from lands mined before 1977, but what concerns are there from current or recent mining? Is that reclamation being done adequately?
That's an area that also needs a closer look.
As the industry declines, we've seen coal companies file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy or reorganization. And when they do this, oftentimes they're granted permission to get rid of liabilities that would affect their solvency. Sometimes those liabilities are reclamation obligations, pension funds or black lung disability funds.
And then what you see is smaller companies taking on these permits that the reorganizing company no longer wants. But many are under-capitalized and they sometimes don't have the ability to even produce coal, or if they do they can't keep up with the reclamation. And it's dangerous for communities if there's environmental violations that aren't getting addressed.
I'll give you a recent example. Blackjewel [the sixth-largest U.S. coal producer] went bankrupt in the summer of 2019. Since then there's been very little done to address any kind of environmental violations existing on their permits.
Because of SMCRA, companies are required to have bonds in order to obtain their mining permits, but these bonds are not always adequate. The Kentucky Energy and Environment cabinet made a statement in the Blackjewel bankruptcy proceedings that it estimated that reclamation obligations on these permits were going to fall short $20 to $50 million.
What else is needed to help coal communities transition to a low-carbon economy?
That's a big question. We have to address these legacy issues in order to help transition these communities into the future. And we have to address the problems right now of folks who are losing their jobs and need to be supported through training programs or through education credits.
But we also need to be thinking about the future more broadly. What will be in place 20 years from now for the younger generation?
There's going to be a lot of gaps in local tax revenues because so much of the tax base has been reliant on the coal industry, which makes it really difficult for communities to continue to provide public services and keep up infrastructure as that industry declines. It's going to be critical to think about that and invest in that.
I think the best approach is to find solutions that work for [specific] places. And to do that we need to listen to community leaders and folks in these communities that have already been working to build something new for many years. There are solutions that I think can apply to all places, but there also needs to be a targeted intention to create opportunities where communities can develop their own paths forward.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Jonathan Levy
During a presidential election debate on Oct. 22, 2020, former President Donald Trump railed against Democratic proposals to retrofit homes. "They want to take buildings down because they want to make bigger windows into smaller windows," he said. "As far as they're concerned, if you had no window, it would be a lovely thing."
What a difference five months makes. While replacing your big windows with small ones is not on the Biden-Harris administration's agenda, increasing home energy efficiency is. Addressing these and other housing issues is critical for three of the new administration's immediate priorities: ending the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing climate change and tackling racial and economic inequality.
As an environmental health researcher, I have studied ways in which inadequate housing influences health and disproportionately affects low-income families and communities of color. In my view, retrofitting low-income housing in particular is a high-leverage way to tackle some of our nation's most pressing health, social and environmental challenges.
Housing Shapes Everything
The pandemic has spotlighted how directly housing affects people's health. It's intuitively clear that physical distancing is hard if your family lives in a few rooms. And studies have shown that crowded indoor environments, including houses and apartments, are high-risk settings for contracting COVID-19.
Housing also is a substantial contributor to climate change. About 20% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from residential energy use. Large homes generally use more energy, but lower-income homes are often less energy-efficient, which makes them costly to heat and cool.
One recent survey found that between spring 2019 and spring 2020, 25% of low-income American households were unable to pay an energy bill. Families may be forced to cut necessities like food or medicine to pay energy bills, or endure unhealthy temperatures. As changing climate lengthens summer, and there are more scorching hot days, those who lack air conditioning or can't afford it are in danger.
Racial inequities in housing aren't random. For generations, discriminatory policies kept Black and other minority households from purchasing homes in many neighborhoods. There are large racial gaps in both homeownership rates and the availability of high-quality housing across the country.
Maintenance is key to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Healthy Home Principles. HUD
Potential Policy Solutions
Now, for all of these reasons, housing is in the political spotlight. The Biden-Harris presidential platform included home energy efficiency retrofits. The new American Rescue Plan Act, which President Biden signed into law on March 11, includes housing provisions meant to forestall an eviction crisis and to reduce energy insecurity. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge has pledged to prioritize fair housing.
These efforts are all related. Energy-efficiency investments in low-income housing have broad ripple effects, including financial relief for residents, lower carbon emissions and healthier indoor environments.
But there are key questions. Will agencies address these issues as siloed challenges or in an integrated way? And will federal leaders and members of Congress see strategic investments in housing as a strategy that offers broad societal benefits?
The State of Low-Income Housing
Data from the American Housing Survey demonstrates some of the challenges low-income households face. Many of the more than 30 million Americans who live below the poverty line crowd into smaller, older homes. Often these dwellings have structural deficiencies like pest infestation, mold, peeling paint and exposed wiring.
Living in these environments creates health risks from exposure to lead paint, allergens and indoor air pollution. The economic challenges of the pandemic, with people spending much more time at home, have heightened these risks.
Poor conditions also plague many chronically underfunded public housing developments. Given how vulnerable many public housing residents are, I see upgrading these buildings as critical.
The Benefits of Energy Efficiency
Well-designed energy-efficiency measures provide economic, health and climate benefits in single-family and multifamily homes, including in low-income housing. My research demonstrates both the promise and potential pitfalls of various measures.
For example, better insulation lowers electricity and fuel consumption. In turn, this saves money, improves outdoor air quality and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
However, upgrades can be done well or badly. We found that weatherization alone, without other improvements, may actually increase indoor air pollution in low income, multifamily housing, especially in homes where people smoke or cook frequently with gas stoves. That's because steps like adding insulation and sealing cracks trap indoor air pollutants inside. Coupling weatherization with steps such as adding kitchen exhaust fans and high-efficiency particle filters in heating and air conditioning systems produces healthier results.
Welcome @SecFudge! https://t.co/K4Ang2domg— HUDgov (@HUDgov)1615414820.0
Are There Win-Win-Win Scenarios?
If better housing saves money, makes residents healthier and more comfortable, improves air quality, decreases greenhouse gas emissions and reduces racial disparities, why don't we have more of it?
One reason is that those who pay for improvements – landlords or government agencies – often aren't the ones who directly benefit from living in a less drafty home with cleaner air. Likewise, it's rare for health care providers to consider housing upgrades as an approved clinical intervention.
But that could change. A recent study showed that providing stable, affordable housing improved physical and mental health for both children and adults. Green building strategies have been shown to improve health, lessen asthma symptoms and reduce health care costs. Healthier kids miss less school and earn better grades.
Strategic federal investments could ultimately save taxpayers money and improve health. A 2020 study showed that federal rental assistance – which helps families afford better housing – led to reduced emergency department visits for asthmatic children, saving money for the Medicaid system. Subsidized energy efficiency upgrades also increase property values, which helps address long-standing racial disparities in wealth.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development typically gets little notice from the public, especially amid a global pandemic when Americans are focused on vaccinations and the economy. But Secretary Fudge has an opportunity to spotlight housing as a lever for improving health, the environment and economic and racial equity. All without shrinking anyone's windows.
Jonathan Levy is a professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health, Boston University.
Disclosure statement: Jonathan Levy receives funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Barr Foundation, and Google.org.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Matthew Gavin Frank
In early 2021, De Beers — the world's biggest diamond company — achieved something of a public relations coup when it announced two new prestige jewelry lines intended to position the notoriously polluting corporation as environmentally friendly and responsible.
The first, the high-end "Reflections of Nature" jewelry line, supposedly celebrates the natural landscapes from which the corporation unearths its diamonds. It includes five unique sets and a total of 39 "exclusive" pieces that, according to De Beers, are meant to honor and "immortalize the glorious triumph… [and] raw beauty of nature untouched by man."
De Beers also announced its "ReSet Forever Love" collection, a collaboration with three young designers on pieces that "celebrate love and sustainability." According a recent article in Harper's Bazaar, De Beers stresses that the diamonds included in this collection's intricately shaped rings, necklaces and brooch were "sourced sustainably to ensure it has a lasting positive impact for people and the planet." By "it," one can assume the company means the jewelry itself, though this seems grandiose and makes no sense.
Harper's Bazaar isn't the only publication to fall under the spell of De Beers' spin doctors. The Robb Report was also quite taken with the "Reflections of Nature" line and De Beers' campaign to place "the source of its most magnificent gems front and center." The Report further amplified the claim made by De Beers Jewelers CEO Céline Assimon, who said, "With this collection, we wanted to take everyone on a journey and escape to these locations that reside in the countries close to De Beers' heart." British Vogue has been seduced onto the bandwagon as well, gushing, "No one shows off the variety and natural beauty of rough coloured diamonds quite like De Beers."
These pieces — rings and necklaces designed to reflect the dramatic hues and curves of the Namibian sand dunes, or diamonds cut to evoke a coral reef and its fish — range from $18,000 to $121,000 and are unlikely to save Earth, mitigate climate change or have much of a "lasting positive impact" on humanity.
But such greenwashing rhetoric, when mapped over and onto the actual environmental consequences of diamond mining, does indeed emphasize the impact and audacity of De Beers' PR machine.
Environmental Destruction Is Forever
This is just the latest example of claims laid out in what De Beers calls its "Building Forever" reports, wherein the conglomerate — in a forced nod to increasing public concern over sustainability and environmental ethics — purports to address the "environmental impact" of its diamond-mining business. According to Dr. Patti Wickens, De Beers' senior environmental manager, the reports are "driven by our commitment to have a net positive impact on biodiversity." But these reports are often scrutinized only by the company's own stakeholders, not outside authorities who can verify the information presented.
The reality is that the landscapes De Beers claims it wants to "immortalize" via the "Reflections" line and "sustain" via the "Forever Love" line have been so thoroughly ravaged they've resisted nearly all efforts at rehabilitation.
I spent the better part of 2016 on South Africa's Diamond Coast — one of the landscapes the corporation wishes to "honor" with its new collection — conducting research for my book, Flight of the Diamond Smugglers. There I interviewed Johann MacDonald, manager of the De Beers Namaqualand Diamond Mine, who had a slightly more nuanced view of the company's environmental concerns.
"It's a bit of a challenge to wring life out of this at this point," he told me, gesturing to the mine property, a landscape so arid and fallow it appeared more Martian than earthly.
The soil of South Africa's Diamond Coast has suffered since De Beers took it over in 1925, and the Namaqualand mine is no exception. De Beers had recently deemed this 79,000-acre expanse of land to be "over-mined," and MacDonald was responsible for slowly laying off the workforce and shutting down the mine (and, to some degree by extension, the entire town it once supported), and attempting to rehabilitate the desert soil after the decades of corporate pillaging.
Claims Fall Flat
The De Beers Family of Companies guidelines long stipulated, "We use lower hazard alternatives to high-risk hazardous substances when possible; We manage effluents, wastes, emissions and hazardous substances to prevent pollution wherever possible; We aspire to normal levels of discharges to sea, including sewage."
Despite these claims, the soils around the mines have suffered for the better part of a century.
In Namaqualand the corporation's Environmental Division has attempted to restore portions of the land via an agenda of phytoremediation.
Phytoremediation is the process by which a variety of plants are carefully sewn into a ravaged and contaminated soil in the hopes of eradicating said contaminants and restoring the soil to a "pure" and healthy state, capable of once again supporting the growth and subsequent thriving of endemic flora and fauna. If this rhizosphere biodegradation proves successful, then the plants will release nutrients into the soil via their root systems, essentially "defibrillating" the naturally occurring microorganisms therein and compelling the contaminants to degrade. In the successful application of phyto-stabilization, on the other hand, the plants yield specific chemical compounds that — rather than destroy the contaminants in the soil — entrap and paralyze them. In this way the toxins are still present in the soil but are — so to speak — cryogenically frozen within it.
Various other sub-processes of phytoremediation are employed if these two methods fail to clean the soil — from phyto-accumulation (wherein the plants actually absorb, sponge-like, the soil's impurities), to phyto-volatilization (where the plants suck up contaminated groundwater, "clean" that water, and then discharge the contaminants into the air through their leaves), to phyto-degradation (where the plants take in the soil's toxins and metabolize them within their tissues, therefore destroying them).
De Beers brags about its efforts, but none of these processes have restored the land.
A Bleak Landscape, a Bleaker Community
The De Beers Namaqualand mine, in fact, is the antithesis of a "pure" landscape. A description of the place demands prefixes — other, extra, pre and post: otherworldly, extraplanetary, prehistoric, post-apocalyptic. It is nothing more than beige barrenness, littered with holes, chemicals, explosives and decomposing machine parts.
Photo: Matthew Gavin Frank
The people who live in this region have also suffered. Beginning slowly in 2007, and accelerating in 2009, De Beers downscaled its interests along the Diamond Coast, compelling an already-exploited labor force into an exodus to other parts of South Africa, onto the couches of distant family members and friends, and into other possible occupations. The company did nothing to help these people find future housing or alternative work. Many once-thriving municipalities became ghost towns.
For those who remain, survivalist proposals hang over the towns. One suggests turning the pit mines into hazardous-waste dumps; another calls for converting the migrant worker dorm into a prison.
Terms like love and forever and sustainability, especially when applied to luxury jewelry lines, ring hollow to those whose land this once was, later indentured to the machine of corporate colonialism. It's like an oil company claiming innocence of the environmental consequences of drilling into the seafloor by building a gas tank in the shape of a coral bed.
On the Diamond Coast, the Indigenous Khoisan populations told me they wish to try to once again farm using traditional methods. They're busy fighting — likely in vain — De Beers' efforts.
De Beers perpetuates the propaganda that the desert here has ultimately suffered not from mining, but from the grazing of the Indigenous population's farm animals.
The corporation maintains ownership of the mineral rights here, and as such, controls the land and how it's used. It has, in fact, gone so far as to compel local lawmakers to issue a ban on farming in the area. It doesn't want anyone else making money off this land while it's busy making claims about "restoration" and patting itself on the back.
Having successfully blocked Indigenous people from farming here, the corporation, after extracting its diamonds, appears to want to use the land as a private garden — a little spot to play in with their bulldozers, compost cocktails, cardboard "grow" circles, shovels and pails.
The Restoration Fallacy
Restoration and conservation seem to be fallacies here, mirages of corporate disinformation. To what level does De Beers want to restore this land, and why, after all these decades of plunder, should it be the company's to manage in any case? Even if the stab at rehabilitation did work, and even if the company's Environmental Division could make something verdant out of this havoc, wouldn't that also be insufficient? Wouldn't it be a case of environmental restoration as concealment of decades of gleeful corporate atrocity?
Even Namaqualand mine manger Johann MacDonald got frustrated beholding a plot of barren soil. He scooped up a fistful of sand and tossed it into the wind.
"This attempt to replant is a complete failure!" he told me. "The big challenge is to get things to grow. Some of these dumps have been reshaped and replanted for ten years, twenty years, and still nothing grows."
Photo: Matthew Gavin Frank
Still, the PR machine chugs on, and this year gullible publications lauded the company for its supposed environmentally minded efforts, willingness to work with up-and-coming designers, and "fancy shapes and fancy colors."
But in 2021, if you want to behold the once "lush" landscapes of the diamond-bearing lands that De Beers claims to honor and sustain via its two new collections, the closest you'll be able to come is an image of a $100,000 brooch.
Which is all that's left. No sunny rhetoric can change that.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Sarah Reinhardt
When it comes to healthy eating, there's a lot we already know.
Just take a look at the scientific report issued by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the group of scientific experts behind the newly released 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. At 835 pages, the report spans a rigorous review of current research on dozens of topics, from whether eating peanuts early in life reduces the likelihood of peanut allergies (it probably does), to how much added sugar we can eat and still maintain a healthy diet (way less than what we're eating now). It also outlines the broad contours of a healthy diet, which has changed little from past editions of the Dietary Guidelines: it's typically higher in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, lean meat and poultry, seafood, nuts, and unsalted vegetable oils, and lower in red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and drinks, and refined grains.
But food is more than just nutrition. We also know that food can affect the health of many people before it even reaches our plates. For example, pollution caused by fertilizer runoff from farms have left communities without access to safe drinking water, while many of the people who produce our food don't earn enough to afford healthy diets themselves. So, is it possible to eat in ways that promote health and produce better outcomes for our collective wellbeing, livelihoods, and natural resources? And what would it take to get us there?
These are complex questions, but critical ones—and if the federal government made it a national priority to answer them, we might have a chance at avoiding otherwise devastating consequences.
That's why leading experts and scientific bodies, including the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, are increasingly calling attention to the importance of research on sustainable diets. Though there is no official record of how much federal funding is currently supporting this field, funding for nutrition research across the board has remained stagnant for decades. Research funding at the intersection of food and agriculture issues, in particular, is decidedly inadequate to address the magnitude of the public health challenges before us, including climate change, threats to food security, and persistent poverty and health disparities.
Many, including UCS, are working to change that by advocating for greater government investment in sustainable diets research. Here are three of the most pressing questions that research can answer to enable more sustainable eating for all.
1. When it comes to healthy and environmentally sustainable diets, what exactly is on the menu?
Research on healthy and environmentally sustainable diets has seen extraordinary growth in recent years. According to UCS research, nearly 100 new scholarly articles were published on this topic between 2015 and 2019, including 22 articles focused specifically on US diets. For reference, that's more than four times the number of articles published on the same topic between 2000 and 2015—in about a quarter of the time.
Much of this research agrees that, in general, healthy diets that are higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are more environmentally sustainable—meaning they are often associated with reduced energy and land use, as well as less air and water pollution.
This is an important finding that enables us to take the first steps toward more sustainable diets—and each step is critical, given the urgency and magnitude of dual public health and climate crises. Indeed, a number of other countries already have acted on existing knowledge to incorporate sustainability into national dietary guidance.
But the more we know, the faster (and further) we can move forward.
For example, we need to better understand the impacts of all different kinds of dietary shifts that could improve health and sustainability, and the most effective ways to encourage such shifts at the individual, institutional, and societal levels. We also need to better understand how a wide variety of sustainable diets align with diverse cultures and culinary traditions. Both of these areas of research will be crucial to informing practical public health interventions and policy recommendations that can help all people make meaningful changes.
There are also challenges with available data and models. Many studies on sustainable diets rely on models called Life Cycle Assessments, which help estimate the cumulative environmental impacts of the foods we eat. For example, how much energy is required to process, package, and transport a pound of beef from the farm to the grocery store? How much land, water, and energy was required to raise the cattle? While a Life Cycle Assessment is useful in providing general estimates, it's often based on averages that don't account for key differences in production methods, for example, or regions. More data—and more diverse data sources—could make this an even more powerful and practical tool.
These and other outstanding research gaps prompted the Interagency Committee on Human Nutrition Research (ICHNR), an interdisciplinary group of leaders across key federal agencies, to identify sustainable diets as a research priority in the creation of its 2016-2021 National Nutrition Research Roadmap. And though interest in this topic continues to grow, there is evidence that federal funding remains woefully inadequate to support independent research on sustainable diets and food systems.
2. How could more socially and economically sustainable food systems support healthy eating?
While environmental sustainability receives a lot of attention, a truly sustainable diet also takes into account the social and economic conditions that can threaten our health, wellbeing, and the future of our food supply.
Among these considerations are the persistent health and economic disparities embedded in the current US food system, which disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and other resilient communities of color who have faced decades of racist and discriminatory practices and policies. Even before the pandemic, the people working throughout the US food system—nearly 40 percent of whom are people of color—experienced greater poverty, poorer healthcare access, and higher occupational health hazards relative to the general population. Many of these same populations are also most vulnerable to the environmental consequences of unsustainable food systems, such as climate change, water pollution, and other environmental impacts. The irony should not be lost on anyone that many Indigenous populations have for generations produced food in harmony with ecological systems—a way of living that, in the US and elsewhere, was deeply and violently disrupted by colonization and genocide.
Pervasive exploitation in the food chain can function to make certain foods cheap, while also preventing workers from being able to afford healthy diets themselves. And unfortunately, this isn't a challenge unique to workers in the food chain. Many US households are already struggling to afford a healthy—let alone sustainable—diet.
So how can research help?
For one, there are an increasing number of studies that are putting dollar signs on healthier and more sustainable diets. Understanding what these diets might cost consumers, and what segments of the population might be unable to afford them, is an important first step in creating policy and programs that can bring healthier and more sustainable eating into reach for more people. Existing research on programs and initiatives such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP), cash assistance programs, or minimum wage increases will also be useful in identifying the best ways to increase consumer purchasing power, particularly among low-income households. Perhaps most importantly, effective community-based participatory research can support community efforts to resist and address the root causes of social and economic disparities, including racism and exploitative economic systems. Organizations like the HEAL Food Alliance, a multi-racial coalition building a national movement to transform food and farming systems, should be looked to as experts and leaders in shaping the goals and objectives of research that will impact the communities they represent.
3. What are the synergies and tradeoffs when you value both public health and sustainability?
Not every food choice that supports health will support sustainability, and vice versa. In fact, as our research shows, if the US population shifted from our current diet to a healthier diet, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and water use could actually increase. This is due in part to the fact that many fruits and vegetables—which most of us don't eat nearly enough of—are produced in ways that require a lot of water and energy.
Another commonly cited example is the conflict between US dietary recommendations for fish and shellfish and the ability of fisheries to meet this demand in a sustainable way—an issue highlighted by experts in a National Academies of Science workshop and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
None of this is to say that we should abandon our efforts to eat healthfully. Rather, it's to say that we need to do some problem-solving if we want to eat in ways that are healthy and sustainable for people and the planet, and research can play a key role in helping us get there.
Solving the sustainable food Rubik's cube
It was more than thirty years ago that federal policy established the first specific directives for prioritizing nutrition research, yet its funding has remained stagnant for decades and coordination across federal agencies remains inconsistent. Meanwhile, many complex factors are fueling the public health challenges embedded in the US food system: rates of diet-related disease and health disparities continue to climb, the degradation of soil and other natural resources has grown more dire, many workers are still underpaid and unsafe, and climate change is now a reality that looms large in our daily lives.
It's time for the next generation of nutrition research. To fill these gaps in research and provide information we need to make the best possible policy decisions, we must invest in research that is systems-oriented and can help identify healthy diets that deliver the best possible social, economic, and environmental benefits for all populations. Such research must span disciplines, take leadership from communities most affected by health disparities and environmental injustices, and at its core focus on tackling root causes of the greatest threats facing the food system, including the systemic exploitation of people and finite resources.
President Biden's administration has no shortage of opportunities to prioritize this area of research, which sits at the nexus of some of its foremost policy priorities. US Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack is well positioned to play a powerful role in lifting up and improving coordination of nutrition research needs, particularly as he works to rebuild capacity in the department's research arms. And Congress, for its part, can leverage legislative opportunities such as appropriations and the potential reauthorization of child nutrition programs to ensure that funding is finally available to answer these and other critical nutrition research questions.
Reposted with permission from Union of Concerned Scientists.
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By Tara Lohan
One of President Joe Biden's first acts in office put an end to a decade-long fight over the Keystone XL — a pipeline that would have carried climate-polluting tar sands from Alberta, Canada into the United States.
Biden's Executive Order said the Keystone XL's approval "would undermine U.S. climate leadership" and that instead he would instead "prioritize the development of a clean energy economy."
Tara Houska of Couchiching First Nation hopes the Biden administration makes good on that promise — and its implications beyond Keystone.
Houska, an attorney and Indigenous rights advocate, is the founder of the Giniw Collective, an Indigenous-led resistance against another cross-border tar-sands pipeline — Line 3. Construction has already begun on this 340-mile-long Enbridge pipeline, which would carry nearly a million gallons a day of tar-sands crude across northern Minnesota — crossing 200 water bodies — en route from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin.
Environmental organizations have joined Native groups, including the nonprofit Honor the Earth, as well as the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and White Earth Band of Ojibwe in raising legal challenges and joining on-the-ground resistance efforts.
The Revelator spoke with Houska about what's at stake with Line 3, how Standing Rock helped grow a movement, and why we should rethink what direct action means.
How did you get involved in being a water protector?
When I was in law school, I started doing tribal law work and ended up in Washington, D.C. representing tribes all over the country. At the same time there were serious environmental issues coming through D.C. My first internship was at the White House when Obama was reviewing Keystone XL and I saw a lot of breakdowns in the efficacy of the federal system and a lack of movement.
When the Cowboy Indian Alliance staged a protest in 2014 against the Keystone XL pipeline, I went. It was my first protest. After that I kept working on environmental justice issues for tribal nations, and then two years later a group of runners from Standing Rock came out to D.C. [to raise awareness about the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry Bakken crude across the Plains].
I listened to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard [from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe] on Facebook Live ask for help. I could tell she meant everything she said, so I just packed up my stuff, rented a car and drove out to North Dakota.
I planned on being out there [at the Standing Rock protest camp] for a weekend. I ended up staying six months.
Something was different about this Native tribe saying no. There've been lots of tribes that have said no for hundreds of years, but these guys weren't just saying it, they were putting their bodies in front of the machines and refusing to move. The groundswell of youth, the encampment, the legal fight against the federal government — it all came together in this moment.
I think for a lot of tribal people it felt different. We were very united in the struggle.
It was also eye-opening for a lot of other people around the world. Mostly because I don't think a lot of people are even aware that Native people still exist. And that we're still very much engaged in an ongoing struggle for our land and water against either the United States or these foreign interests.
And now you’re engaged in a similar struggle against another Canadian energy company — Enbridge. What’s at stake with Line 3?
After the ground fight at Dakota Access ended and they bulldozed our camp, I went back to D.C., but I had a hard time coming back to the world as I understood it, because it'd been changed.
So in 2018 I founded the Giniw Collective. It was in response to the Minnesota Public Utility Commission unanimously approving Line 3 after years of work and tens of thousands of comments and engagement against the project by Minnesotans.
I started building and finding others to build with, to create a strong resistance community that was also engaging in traditional foods and establishing foundational relationships with the land.
-30 today on the #StopLine3 frontlines here in Anishinaabe territory...stay warm, stay strong ✊🏽❤️ https://t.co/OgZebBpnMF— tara houska ᔖᐳᐌᑴ (@tara houska ᔖᐳᐌᑴ)1613014157.0
Line 3 is much more personal because it goes through my own people's territory. To me, the critical piece of this is not just the drinking water and the emissions and all those irrevocable harms of expanding the fossil fuel industry — particularly the tar-sands industry — but it's also specifically about the threats to wild rice.
[Northern] wild rice is at the center of our people's culture and connection to the world. This is the only place in the world that it grows. This is where the creator told us to come — to where the food grows on water. And to me, Line 3 is an extension of cultural genocide to put something like that at risk.
Construction has already begun. Where do things stand legally with efforts to stop it?
There's a set of legal opinions due March 23 that are very critical in terms of the feds hearing what we are bringing forward, particularly from the tribal nations that have signed onto these lawsuits and are impacted directly by Line 3.
Then there's also an ongoing lawsuit by the Minnesota Department of Commerce against the Minnesota Public Utility Commission. The state is actually suing itself for not being able to demonstrate that there's a need for this project. The tar sands and oil products that will go through the pipeline are for foreign markets. They're not for Minnesota or the United States.
What about at the federal level?
There's also this huge push on [President Joe] Biden, who canceled Keystone XL on day one and has centered himself as the climate president. We're looking to the administration to intervene on something that's an obvious climate disaster.
How can we say we'll cancel one pipeline but build another? It's the same types of violations and the same types of climate impacts coming out of the Alberta tar sands.
Building Line 3 will have the equivalent emissions of building 50 new coal power plants. That's insane.
We are seeing progress, though. We just secured another meeting with the Council on Environmental Quality. I had a number of meetings with members of the Biden transition team and different agencies. I know [National Climate Advisor] Gina McCarthy was just questioned a couple of weeks ago by Showtime about Dakota Access and Line 3. So the message is getting into their ears. It's just that we need to hear some response.
Where are you finding inspiration now?
The pieces that inspire me the most and give me the most hope are seeing people engaged in resistance during a pandemic to defend the planet and defend life for someone who's not even born yet. That's incredibly powerful to be part of and to see that happen in real time.
To watch someone harvest wild rice for the first time, to watch someone stop destruction of a place in real time for a day — that's really powerful. To see young people finding their voices and using their bodies to try to protect what's supposed to be their world. They are literally fighting for life and their right to a future. That's a really beautiful thing to see, and it's really inspiring and hopeful.
We've trained hundreds of people over the last two and a half years in direct action. I try to push folks to think about direct action not just as being about getting arrested or something like that. To me, it's about standing with the Earth in a real way, putting something at risk and being uncomfortable. I don't think that we're going to solve the climate crisis comfortably. I don't think we're going to solar panel or policy-make our way out of this massive existential threat we're facing.
To take action is to do something in community with the Earth. To think about our own connection to her in everything that we do. I like to remind people that Native people are 5% of the world's population and we're holding 80% of the world's [forest] biodiversity.
That isn't by accident or happenstance. That is because we have a deep connection to the Earth and an understanding that the Earth is a living being, just like we are.
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Thomas Hertel
Growing food in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way – while also producing enough of it – is among the most important challenges facing the U.S. and the world today.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that food security can't be taken for granted. Putting affordable food on the table requires both innovative producers and well-functioning markets and global supply chains. With disruptions to the system, prices rise, food is scarce – and people go hungry.
But feeding the world's 7.8 billion people sustainably – including 332 million Americans – presents significant environmental challenges. Farming uses 70% of the world's fresh water. Fertilizers pollute water with nitrates and phosphates, sparking algal blooms and creating dead zones like the one that forms every summer in the Gulf of Mexico.
Clear-cutting land for farms and ranches is the main driver of deforestation. Overall, the planet loses about 48,000 square miles (125,000 square kilometers) of forest each year. Without habitat, wildlife disappears. Farming also produces roughly one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
All of these challenges make balancing food production with environmental security a crucial issue for the Biden administration, which is working to address both a hunger crisis and an environmental crisis in the U.S.
Two Different Pathways
As an economist studying food systems, I'm keenly aware that trying to provide affordable food and a thriving agricultural sector while also preserving the environment can result in many trade-offs. Consider the different strategies that the U.S. and Northern Europe have pursued: The U.S. prioritizes increased agricultural output, while the EU emphasizes environmental services from farming.
Over the past 70 years, the U.S. has increased crop production with ever more sophisticated seed technologies and highly mechanized farming methods that employ far fewer workers. These new technologies have contributed to farm productivity growth which has, in turn, allowed U.S. farm output to rise without significant growth in the aggregate economic index of agricultural input use.
This approach contrasts sharply with Northern Europe's strategy, which emphasizes using less land and other inputs in order to protect the environment. Nonetheless, by achieving a comparable rate of agricultural productivity growth (output growth minus the growth rate inputs), Northern Europe has been able to maintain its level of total farm output over the past three decades.
Boosting Prices Versus Benefiting Nature
The U.S. also has a long history of setting aside agricultural land that dates back nearly a century. In response to low prices in the 1920s, farmers had flooded the market with grain, pork and other products, desperately seeking to boost revenues but only pushing prices down further.
Under the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the U.S. government paid farmers to reduce their output and limited the supply of land under cultivation to boost farm prices. This strategy is still in use today.
In 1985 the U.S. launched a new program that created real incentives to protect environmentally sensitive land. Farmers who enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program "rent" environmentally valuable tracts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 10-15 years. Withdrawing these acres from production provides food and shelter for pollinators and wildlife, reduces erosion and improves water quality.
But this is a voluntary program, so enrollment ebbs and flows in tandem with crop prices. For example, when corn, soy and wheat prices fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s, enrollment grew. Then with the commodity price boom of 2007, farmers could make more money from cultivating the land. Protected acreage dropped more than 40% through 2019, erasing many of the environmental benefits that had been achieved.
Enrollment in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program dropped by almost 13 million acres from 2007 to 2016. U.S. Department of Agriculture
Rental rates for agricultural land in the U.S. vary widely, with the most productive lands bringing the highest rent. Current rental rates under the Conservation Reserve Program 2021 range from $243 per acre in Cuming, Nebraska to just $6 in Sutton, Texas.
The EU also began setting aside farmland to curb overproduction in 1988. Now, however, their program focuses heavily on environmental quality. Policy reforms in 2013 required farmers to allocate 5% of their land to protected ecological focus areas. The goal is to generate long-term environmental benefits by prioritizing nature.
This program supports both production and conservation. Within this mix of natural and cultivated lands, wild pollinators benefit both native plants and crops. Birds, insects and small predators offer natural bio-control of pests. In this way, "rewilded" tracts foster biodiversity while also improving crop yields.
Who Will Feed the World?
What would happen if the U.S., a major exporter of agricultural products, followed the EU model and permanently withdrew land from production to improve environmental quality? Would such action make food unaffordable for the world's poorest consumers?
In a study that I conducted in 2020 with colleagues at Purdue and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we set up a computer model to find out. We wanted to chart what might happen to food prices across the globe through 2050 if the U.S. and other rich economies followed Northern European conservation strategies. Our analysis focused on the world's most food-insecure region, sub-Saharan Africa.
We discovered that altering food production in this way would raise food prices in that region by about 6%. However, this upward price trend could be reversed by investing in local agriculture and new technologies to increase productivity in Africa. In short, our research suggested that conserving the environment in the U.S. doesn't have to cause food insecurity in other countries.
Implications for U.S. Farm Policy
Many experts on hunger and agriculture agree that to feed a growing global population, world food output must increase substantially in the next several decades. At the same time, it's clear that agriculture's environmental impacts need to shrink in order to protect the natural environment.
In my view, meeting these twin goals will require renewed government investments in research and dissemination of new technologies. Reversing a two-decade decline in science funding will be key. Agriculture is now a knowledge-driven industry, fueled by new technologies and improved management practices. Publicly funded research laid the foundations for these advances.
To reap environmental gains, I believe the U.S. Department of Agriculture will need to revamp and stabilize the Conservation Reserve Program, so that it is economically viable and enrollment does not fluctuate with market conditions. The Trump administration reduced incentives and rental payment rates, which drove down enrollments. The Biden administration has already taken a modest step forward by extending the yearly sign-up for the program indefinitely.
As I see it, following Northern Europe's model by permanently protecting ecologically rich areas, while simultaneously investing in knowledge-driven agricultural productivity, will enable the U.S. to better preserve wildlife and its natural environment for future generations, while maintaining an affordable food supply.
Thomas Hertel is a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.
Disclosure statement: Thomas Hertel receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Kendra Klein
Biden's election has boosted hopes that scientific integrity will be restored in the federal government. To make good on that promise, the administration will need to take action to safeguard against the risks of an entirely new type of pesticide, one developed by genetic engineers rather than chemists.
These pesticides will broadcast "gene silencing" agents across our farm fields — resulting in an open-air genetic engineering experiment. Among the concerns that scientists have raised are threats to bees and other beneficial insects essential to food production. Others have called out potential impacts on human health, including for some of our most essential frontline workers — farmworkers — and rural communities.
Farmers across the U.S. could soon fill their pesticide spray tanks with a substance known as interfering RNA (RNAi). (RNA is a molecule similar to DNA.) Insects that are exposed to it — either by eating crops sprayed with the substance or by landing on a crop and absorbing it through their bodies — would be genetically modified right there in the field. The pesticide would trigger a process inside the insects' cells to switch off or "silence" genes that are essential for survival — like those needed to make new, healthy cells — thus killing them.
At least one product has already been submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval. But unless Biden's administration takes action, companies will be able to commercialize these new RNAi pesticides without submitting meaningful health or environmental risk assessments.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide rules were written fifty years ago, long before regulators could imagine a class of pesticides that could genetically modify living organisms. Perhaps most concerning is that once gene-silencing agents are released into the environment, there's no clean-up process when things go awry. Evidence shows that RNAi-related genetic modifications could be passed on for up to 80 generations in some cases.
What could go wrong? Quite a bit, according to scientific research summarized in a report from Friends of the Earth.
RNAi and the "Insect Apocalypse"
There is little reason to believe that this novel technology would be able to target only the "bad" insects and not the plethora of insects that are vital to farming, like pollinators. Bayer and other companies developing RNAi pesticides assert that they can target specific insects. But the genetic story of an ecosystem is one of interconnection — independent researchers warn that thousands of insect species have genetic sequences that are matching or similar enough that they could be unintentionally modified in a way that results in their death.
A 2017 study indicating that honeybees could be harmed by RNAi pesticides raises a red flag since we rely on pollinators for one in three bites of food we eat. Insects form the basis of the food webs that sustain all life on the planet. We are already in the midst of what scientists call an "insect apocalypse" — forty percent of insect species face extinction in coming decades. This is a loss so severe that it could cause a "catastrophic collapse of nature's ecosystems" according to leading researchers.
It's not just insects that may be harmed. While there are gaping holes in the research about potential human health impacts, what we do know raises concerns. Research indicates that naturally occurring RNAi that we consume in our food could regulate genes in our bodies. This suggests that synthetic RNAi could affect our gene expression, causing unforeseen problems. And medical research investigating therapeutic uses of RNAi has been hampered because some participants in clinical trials have experienced adverse immune reactions in their bodies.
Entrenching a Failed Paradigm
The pesticide industry is pitching RNAi pesticides as a solution to a problem the industry itself created: weed and pest resistance. As Rachel Carson warned in Silent Spring, her groundbreaking book about pesticides in the 1960s, our "relentless war" on insect life will inevitably fail because nature "fights back." Indeed, over 540 species of insects and over 360 types of weeds have evolved to resist the deadly effects of commonly used pesticides. Despite drastic and costly increases in pesticide use, some analyses show that farmers are losing more of their crops to pests today than they did in the 1940s.
It is foolish to continue down this same path and expect a different outcome. Research already shows the potential for pests to develop resistance to RNAi pesticides.
But pesticide giants like Bayer and Syngenta need new products to sell. A significant portion of their income is tied to pesticides that pose serious hazards to health and the environment. And as the scientific evidence mounts, the industry is facing increasing regulatory, legal, and market pressures.
Not only could RNAi pesticides provide a lucrative new suite of products, companies appear to be using them to extend their ownership over nature in an unprecedented way. Manufacturers are filing patents that claim property rights to the organisms exposed to RNAi pesticides as well as to their progeny.
Farming With Nature — a True Solution
The science shows clearly that pesticide-intensive agriculture is a disastrous dead end. Decades of data point to the same conclusion: we must rapidly shift to ecological farming methods in order to continue to produce food for generations to come.
Ecological farming offers a true solution to pest management with additional benefits. Practices like cover cropping, composting, and rotating crops build healthy soils that strengthen plants' defenses against pests and fungi while disrupting pest cycles and fostering biodiversity. These same methods, which underpin the success of organic farming, are also the lynchpins of regenerative agriculture, the idea that farmland can serve as a carbon sink.
Follow the Science
Biden has already signaled that he is likely to shy away from making the bold changes we need by appointing Tom Vilsack as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
But as he rebuilds the scientific backbone of the federal government, advocates hope that he will take steps to update our decades-old pesticide regulations, such as those outlined in this recently introduced bill. In addition, specific criteria need to be added to ensure a science-based approach to regulating RNAi pesticides. Risk assessments of this novel technology should include genome analyses of beneficial organisms in the regions where they will be sprayed to see if bees and other critical species could be harmed, assessments of the hereditary impacts across generations of organisms, evaluations of how long the pesticides will remain active in ecosystems, and rigorous toxicity analysis to understand potential impacts on human health.
If Biden's EPA does not take these measures, we will soon embark on an open-air genetic experiment, the consequences of which may be felt for generations to come.
Reposted with permission from Food Tank.
Tearing through the crowded streets of Philadelphia, an electric car and a gas-powered car sought to win a heated race. One that mimicked how cars are actually used. The cars had to stop at stoplights, wait for pedestrians to cross the street, and swerve in and out of the hundreds of horse-drawn buggies. That's right, horse-drawn buggies. Because this race took place in 1908. It wanted to settle once and for all which car was the superior urban vehicle. Although the gas-powered car was more powerful, the electric car was more versatile. As the cars passed over the finish line, the defeat was stunning. The 1908 Studebaker electric car won by 10 minutes. If in 1908, the electric car was clearly the better form of transportation, why don't we drive them now? Today, I'm going to answer that question by diving into the history of electric cars and what I discovered may surprise you.
In 1881, at a blistering pace of 9 mph, inventor Gustave Trouvé introduced the streets of Paris, and ultimately, the world to the quiet hum of the electric carriage. For the wealthy socialites of Paris, and their counterparts in New York, the horseless carriage was a must have, and electric motors were the superior choice. "By 1900, there were 4,192 vehicles on the streets in the U.S. Steam cars accounted for 1,681 of these; 1,575 were electric, and 936 had internal-combustion engines."* If you just wanted to get around town, the electric carriage was a better option — that is, if you were rich enough to afford one. Unlike internal combustion engines, electric vehicles were easy to turn on, accelerate, brake, there was no exhaust, and didn't have something exploding under your seat. Oh, and you also didn't have to crank the engine every time you stopped, which is part of the reason why that electric Studebaker won the Philadelphia race so handily. As a result of this ease of use, electric cars were looking like big business in the early 1900s, especially for the industry giant Electric Vehicle Company. At the time, the Electric Vehicle Company was the biggest car manufacturer in the country, and they used a model that seems revolutionary now, but makes sense back then. Instead of selling their cars, they rented them to people for the day or for multiple days. Each night the renter could return the car to a central garage and the Electric Vehicle Company would charge and service the vehicle, a model very similar to how stables worked at the time. But despite the electric car's success, its golden age was about to end.
To find out what happened, watch the video above!
Our Changing Climate is an environmental YouTube channel that explores the intersections of social, political, climatic, and food-based issues. The channel dives into topics like zero waste and nuclear energy in order to understand how to effectively tackle climate change and environmental destruction.
To receive all the latest videos produced by Charlie subscribe to his YouTube channel here.
*Rudi Volti Cars and Culture: The Life Story of a Technology (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006
By Matt Casale
There were many lessons to be learned from Texas' prolonged periods of lost power during its cold snap, which saw temperatures drop into the single digits. But one many people may not recognize is that electric vehicles, or EVs, can be part of a smart resiliency plan — not only in the case of outages triggered by the cold but in other scenarios caused by extreme weather events, from fire-related blackouts in California to hurricane-hit power losses in Puerto Rico.
A car driving in the snow in Dallas, Feb. 2021. Matthew Rader / CC BY-SA 4.0
Experts recognize that electric vehicles are a central climate solution for their role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But EVs are also essentially batteries on wheels. You can store energy in those batteries, and if EVs are equipped with something called vehicle-to-grid or vehicle-to-building technology, they can also be used to keep the lights on in emergencies. The technology allows the energy being stored in an EV battery to be pushed back into the grid or into buildings to provide power.
There are hurdles: The technology is still developing, the vast majority of EVs currently on the road do not have this capability, and utilities would need regulatory approval before bringing it to scale. But done right it could be a great opportunity.
Electric car batteries can hold approximately 60 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy, enough to provide back-up power to an average U.S. household for two days. Larger electric vehicles like buses and trucks have even bigger batteries and can provide more power. The American company Proterra produces electric buses that can store up to 660 kWh of energy. Electric garbage trucks and even big-rigs, with bigger batteries, are becoming a reality too.
MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann / CC BY 2.0
If equipped with vehicle-to-grid or vehicle-to-building technology, those cars, buses and trucks could prove invaluable during future blackouts. People could rely on their cars to power their houses. Municipalities, transit agencies and school districts could send out their fleets to the areas most in need. We could power homes, shelters and emergency response centers — and could keep people warm, healthy and comfortable until power could be restored.
But to add this great resiliency tool to our arsenal in times of extreme weather, we must significantly increase the number of EVs on the road. In 2019 electric cars accounted for only about 2% of all light-duty vehicle sales in the country. Electric buses and trucks are becoming more common in the United States, but still only represent a tiny fraction of the fleet. As it stands now, the EVs currently on the road, even if equipped with vehicle-to-grid technology, would do little to help a broad swath of the population in need of power.
A line of electric cars at charging stations. Andrew Bone / CC BY 2.0
There are some signs that this is changing. California and Massachusetts have both announced intentions to explore a policy that would require all new cars after 2035 be electric. General Motors is the latest major automaker to announce an intention to move toward producing only electric cars. Several major transit agencies, including in Texas, are starting to switch to all-electric buses.
But we must move faster. If we electrified the nation's transit and school bus fleets by 2030, for example, we could have more than 500,000 large mobile batteries available across the country.
To support widespread adoption of electric vehicles, we need to invest in the charging infrastructure necessary to accommodate explosive growth. We also need to make sure that as EV adoption increases, the vehicles and infrastructure are set up to use the power-transfer technology. Nissan already does this with its Leaf-to-home system. Proterra offers transit buses equipped with the technology. Dominion Energy in Virginia is working with school bus manufacturers to develop and operationalize a large-scale school bus vehicle-to-grid program.
To standardize the technology and make it accessible to everyone, utilities should seek regulatory approval to implement programs and invest in vehicle-to-grid capable infrastructure, and automakers should make it easy for consumers to install chargers that can send power both ways.
As that happens, governments at all levels should work to incorporate electric vehicles into their emergency response plans. Shelters, hospitals, emergency response centers and other buildings critical to crisis management should be equipped with the infrastructure necessary to pull power from EVs. Heavy-duty fleets like buses and trucks present particularly promising opportunities to provide power to people in need, but all the electric buses in the world won't do any good if we're not prepared to have them charged and ready to deploy to the areas that need them the most.
A few Tesla owners in Texas were able to draw power from their cars to stay warm and keep the lights on this month, which is great. But this valuable resource shouldn't be limited to a few select people on a one-off basis. With more EVs on the road and careful planning and preparation, we could have millions of mobile batteries available to help keep the power on for everyone in emergencies.
Matt Casale is the transportation campaign director for U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the public interest and speaks out for a healthier, safer world in which we're freer to pursue our own individual well-being and the common good. Matt works on the local, state and federal levels to bring about policy changes that will reduce the need to drive, electrify buses and electrify cars — so the easiest, cheapest and most pleasant ways to travel are also the cleanest and healthiest. Matt lives in Boston with his wife and two daughters.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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