On Climate and Food, What’s the Lesson We Insist on Missing?
Food will be scarce, expensive and less nutritious," CNN warns us in its coverage of the UN's new "Climate Change and Land" report. The New York Times announces that "Climate Change Threatens the World's Food Supply."
Reading these headlines, I'm tossed back to the late '60s when our culture was gripped by what I came to call the "scarcity scare," as Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb exploded into public consciousness spewing images of mounting hunger.
Really? Are our unstoppable numbers dooming us? I had to know.
Burrowing into the stacks of University of California Berkeley's agriculture library, it hit me: In fact, the scarcity scare was a distraction, and a dangerous one — diverting us from a most obvious fact: Food was then, and is now, abundant. We humans actively create the experience of scarcity no matter how much food we grow.
Obsessed with a desire to share this discovery, in 1971 I wrote Diet for a Small Planet to expose and help transform our scarcity-creating food system.
Yet today, we seem not to have learned.
The world now produces more than enough food for each of us — 2,900 calories a day, roughly a third more than in 1961. And that's just with the "leftovers" — with what remains after a third of the world's cropland goes into feeding livestock, a practice that shrinks the calories available to us.
This summer, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization revamped its hunger counts. To its "severe" food insecurity estimate of 821 million, it added a category "moderate food insecurity," and it reported that 2 billion of us — one-quarter of humanity — are food insecure. We're either lacking calories we need or we're unsure about our continued access to enough; or we're forced to reduce the quality and/or quantity we eat just to "get by."
Intensifying the crisis is a related global trend: Calories and nutrition are parting ways as corporate, processed food floods the planet. Even two decades ago in rural India, I saw along the roadway whole groves of Eucalyptus trees whose trunks were painted with huge Pepsi ads.
One result of this disconnect between eating enough calories and getting the nutrients we need is that more than a fifth of young children worldwide experience stunted growth, a condition bringing life-long harms; and a third of us suffer from anemia, doubling the risk of maternal death and, in infants, associated with ongoing mental and psychomotor impairment.
That's where a narrow focus on increasing food production, reinforced by the "scarcity scare," has helped take us.
Now, nearly half a century since my own life-altering aha moment, the UN's new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, "Climate Change and Land," has triggered another frenzy of worry about our food supply.
Running over 1,500 pages, the report itself offers vital understanding of how the climate crisis threatens our food supply and quality; and, at the same time, how farming, eating and food waste contribute between 25 percent and 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. (Livestock alone, I learned elsewhere, contribute 14.5 percent of such emissions globally.) The report also helpfully identifies ways that reworking our food system can become part of the solution to climate change.
You'd think I'd be thrilled that a key takeaway in this new report is that cutting back on grain-fed meat would trim greenhouse gas emissions as well as lessen pressure on our food supply. After all, wasn't the latter the whole point of my book, Diet for a Small Planet?
Well, no … and yes.
First, the "no."
In my first book I sought to awaken readers to the destructive and inefficient channeling of so much land and water into livestock.
Inefficient? Yes, very. As Americans, we imagine our farming as the best — the most modern and efficient. Yet, in large measure because of our meat-centered diets, as well as so much corn going to agrofuel, it feeds fewer people per acre than does Indian or Chinese agriculture.
Most important, I wanted my readers to see how the rules of our political and economic system were twisted to serve a minority, undermining food security.
So, for me, choosing a plant-and-planet-centered diet became an act of rebel reason. I'd reframed the hunger crisis: Its root is not scarcity of food but scarcity of democracy. And I wanted my daily choices to reject the illogic of our anti-democracy system.
On many levels, we still do not see this core truth.
The IPCC report, for example, lays out five scenarios, two of which could eliminate malnutrition by 2050. Among the necessary ingredients to get us there it mentions "high income and reduced inequalities, effective land-use regulation, less resource intensive consumption [i.e. less grain-fed animal food], including food produced in low-GHG emission systems and lower food waste."
Together, taking such steps constitute an about-face on multiple fronts — one that's conceivable only in a democracy where public policies serve what our constitution's preamble calls the "general welfare." By democracy I mean both the small "d" variety that includes community and worker empowerment; and I mean the formal, capital "D" variety, i.e., government accountable to citizens.
First, consider the "small d" variety and climate solutions. Perhaps the most dramatic success story for me — and missing in the IPCC report — is the work of poor but empowered farmers cooperating to transform their lives and confront climate change in Niger, the world's poorest country, which is mostly desert.
In just a few decades, Niger's farmers have rehabilitated 12.5 million acres by managing the natural regeneration of 200 million trees that sequester carbon, improve soil fertility, often double crop yields, as well as provide livestock fodder and firewood — all ensuring food security for 2.5 million people.
Niger's progress — led by small farmers together making and enforcing rules — has been celebrated as perhaps the largest regreening transformation in all of Africa. Now, many other nations are interested in adapting the approach; and related farming breakthroughs are arising in India and elsewhere.
And, now to capital "D" democracy essential for governments to face the climate emergency and end needless hunger.
Democratic government is under attack in much of the world, and here in the U.S. to a degree unprecedented in my lifetime. But something else feels new: a growing citizens' Democracy Movement focusing on remaking the anti-democratic rules and norms that brought our nation to climate-denier status and even wider dysfunction.
In Daring Democracy, Adam Eichen and I share stories of this movement that has changed our lives and is achieving vital breakthroughs, sadly missing from the headlines. In the 2018 midterm elections alone, many who'd never been politically engaged helped pass key democracy reforms in nine states, eight cities and one county — ranging from those addressing gerrymandering to protecting voting rights. For me, the future of our precious Earth depends on more and more of us jumping in to achieve such system-correctives to what can accurately be called "privately held government."
But, now to my "yes" — to why I'm psyched that the IPCC report emphasizes choosing plant-and-planet-centered diets and how my democracy obsession relates to what I put into my mouth.
Consciously eating what is good for my body, for others, and for our planet is a choice that changes me — daily. It keeps me in a relational world, reminding me that the only choice I don't have is whether to change the world. I know that every act and inaction send out ripples. Someone is always watching.
I often think of it this way: Making positive daily choices based in consciousness of connection doesn't "change the world," but the process changes me. I become more convincing to myself, so maybe I become more convincing to others: a stronger agent in the collective struggle to change the world. Just this morning, a stranger approached me to tell me that my first book had started her on a "new path." Who knows, but I can hope her experience has been similar to mine.
I want a world where we all can experience such power. And in working for a fairer, inclusive democracy, we are enabling more and more of us to have this satisfaction: that of making choices that are both good for us and the planet.
So, yes, I'm psyched that the IPCC report includes plant-and-planet-centered diets as part of the solution, and we need not let fear trap us into another regressive scarcity scare that obscures the roots of the crisis in anti-democratic economic and political rules.
Instead, we can work to ensure that personal choices we can make to align with nature fortify our determination to dig still deeper, aware that fighting for real democracy is fighting for tackling climate change and the end of hunger.
This story originally appeared in Truthout. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
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<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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