Pandemic May Have Left Over 250 Million People With Acute Food Shortages in 2020
By Robin Scher
Beyond the questions surrounding the availability, effectiveness and safety of a vaccine, the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to question where our food is coming from and whether we will have enough.
According to a United Nations World Food Program (WFP) report, COVID-19 might have left up to 265 million people with acute food shortages in 2020. The combined effect of the pandemic as well as the emerging global recession "could, without large-scale coordinated action, disrupt the functioning of food systems," which would "result in consequences for health and nutrition of a severity and scale unseen for more than half a century," states another UN report.
In the United States, "food insecurity has doubled overall, and tripled among households with children" due to the pandemic, states a June 2020 report by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University, which relied on data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. In a recent interview with CBS News, IPR Director Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach warned that these statistics would likely "continue to hold," with the numbers indicating particularly dramatic rises in food insecurity among Black and Latinx families. Indeed, families of color are being disproportionately impacted. According to an analysis of new Census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 22 percent of Black and 21 percent of Latinx respondents reported not having enough to eat, compared to just 9 percent of white people.
Globally, the effects of COVID-19 on food security are equally, if not more, severe. According to a CBS News report, WFP Director David Beasley told the UN Security Council in April 2020 that the world is on "the brink of a hunger pandemic." He added, "In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation."
"The number of chronically hungry people increased by an estimated 130 million last year, to more than 800 million — about eight times the total number of COVID-19 cases to date," wrote Mark Lowcock, the under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and Axel van Trotsenburg, managing director of operations at the World Bank. "Countries affected by conflict and climate change are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Empty stomachs can stunt whole generations."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) warns that climate change "is likely to diminish continued progress on global food security through production disruptions that lead to local availability limitations and price increases, interrupted transport conduits, and diminished food safety." The same might be said about the pandemic, which has made it abundantly clear: climate resilience, food security and global health are closely intertwined.
In terms of food security, another major concern is the pandemic-related school closures that have occurred across the globe, with UNICEF reporting that more than 1.6 billion children and young people have been affected. Schools provide a food lifeline for children; for so many, that is where they get their only nutritious meal of the day. In January, the UNICEF Office of Research — Innocenti, and WFP released a new report that found that more than 39 billion in-school meals have been missed worldwide since the pandemic began, with 370 million children worldwide having missed 40 percent of in-school meals.
In early 2020, when COVID-19 was still a looming specter rather than the deadly virus we're more familiar with today, the threat of food insecurity was a practical problem. Scenes of shoppers descending on aisles to stock up on supplies were a common sight. As CNN reported in March 2020, supermarkets around the world rationed food and other products such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies, in an effort to curb stockpiling.
In Vermont, for instance, a steady increase in food insecurity since the start of the pandemic has correlated to employment levels, according to a survey conducted by the University of Vermont between March and April 2020. Approximately 45 percent of respondents "had lost their jobs, been furloughed or had their hours reduced during the pandemic," and a further two-thirds of survey participants who recorded scarcity of food in their households "had experienced job losses or work disruptions since the outbreak of the pandemic," according to the survey. Vermont is just one example; the impact has been felt across the U.S. During the week before Thanksgiving in 2020, the Guardian reported that 5.6 million U.S. households "struggled to put enough food on the table," while referring to the analysis of the Census data by CBPP.
As the pandemic continues to upend lives across the world, it has impacted the entire food supply chain. With factory and supermarket workers being highly susceptible to COVID-19, there's been a concomitant decline in food production and a rise in prices. As Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), reported, farmers in the U.S. were already facing labor shortages prior to the pandemic, and with tightened immigration as well as the heightened risk and poor compensation associated with these jobs, "food processors and farm labor contractors may struggle to find other workers willing to risk their lives to work in meat plants, packing sheds or produce fields."
The pandemic has exposed the weakness of the industrialized global food system, which depends on long, complex transportation chains and cross-border travel. "[T]he monstrous and unsustainable food industry known as Big Ag... relies on the horrendous treatment of laborers, a wasteful allocation of resources, worldwide environmental devastation — and in a pinch, can quickly devolve into near-collapse of the entire system, as evidenced by the delays, shortages and pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the deepening hunger crisis in America," April M. Short, a fellow at the Independent Media Institute, recently wrote in Salon. "Among the many necessary systemic changes 2020 has illuminated is the need to majorly restructure the way we cultivate and access food in our communities."
It didn't take the pandemic to reveal the inefficiency and injustice of our food system: Globally, a third of all food is wasted, while nearly 690 million people were undernourished in 2019 — almost 60 million more people than in 2014. But the pandemic has underscored the matter: According to OCHA, "the number of acutely food insecure people could increase to 270 million due to COVID-19, representing an 82 percent increase compared to the number of acutely food insecure people pre-COVID-19."
And the disruption of transportation has shown that the long distances it normally takes for food to get from one place to another can be a serious liability during a crisis. "[F]ood banks are under tremendous pressure to meet the skyrocketing demand," said a CNN article quoting from a letter Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, Feeding America CEO, and Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, wrote to then-Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in April 2020. "At the same time, however, we are seeing literally tons of agricultural goods being discarded because of the shutdown of so much of the economy."
Consumer demand has shifted from eating out at restaurants and food services away from home, and food supply chain operations have had to be retooled. And that impact has been felt within the transportation sector. Forbes reported that Andrew Novakovic, an agricultural economist at Cornell University, "points to a number of weak spots in the food transportation system that could be aggravated by the increased demand for food." A shortage of truck drivers is one potential weak spot, says Novakovic. Although he concedes there is debate on this matter, Novakovic maintains that "[t]rucking companies are finding it much harder to recruit [those] long haul drivers." China, which was the first country to be hit by the virus, offers insight into the prolonged impact of the pandemic on transportation and food systems. The lockdown in the Hubei province of China, which is home to 66 million people, led to a shortage in delivery of animal feed as well as refrigerated containers full of imported vegetables, fruit and frozen meat in February 2020, according to an article in The Conversation.
In addition to shifting consumer demand, the pandemic has also made us take a closer look at where our food comes from and how it impacts not only the lives of food workers but also the lives of animals trapped in the food system. According to a new public opinion survey conducted by Lake Research Partners and commissioned by the animal rights group American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, "[t]he vast majority (89 percent) of Americans are concerned about industrial animal agriculture, citing animal welfare, worker safety or public health risks as a concern." The survey also found that "85 percent of farmers and their families support a complete ban on new industrial animal agriculture facilities — almost twice the level of support expressed by the general public." This finding shows key support for the Farm System Reform Act, legislation that was introduced in 2019 by Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey that, among other reforms, seeks to put a moratorium on new or expanding factory farms.
Food insecurity has long been a pressing issue, particularly for developing countries. However, as Mir Ashrafun Nahar, a research associate at the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling, explained in a Financial Express article, "the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more acute." In response, Nahar argues for a policy-based approach that includes "subsidy based transportation systems for agriculture" to support supply chains, as well as policies aimed at cutting down on agricultural production costs in order to help farmers recover from the effects of the pandemic.
With the pandemic still affecting food supply, though, there are a number of logical measures for reducing the impact of the virus and maximizing output. "First, OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] and the USDA must be directed to issue emergency standards that require employers to provide personal protective equipment, enough space to work without spreading the virus, and housing and transportation options that will reduce the spread of the virus," wrote Faber.
Proposed in April 2020, Faber's suggestions, unfortunately, remained unaddressed under the Trump administration. Faber's relief measures further include the expansion of USDA programs to purchase surplus commodities to offset supply chain disruption; redirecting food that might be destroyed toward food banks; and increasing the standard SNAP benefit (food stamps) by 15 percent. And, echoing Nahar, Faber also proposes adopting policies that will help to alleviate financial burdens faced by farmers and food suppliers, as well as offering subsidy support.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic group with 37 member countries, said that the pandemic "has laid bare pre-existing gaps in social protection systems" in a report published in June 2020. "While the impacts of COVID-19 are still unfolding, experience so far shows the importance of an open and predictable international trade environment to ensure food can move to where it is needed," the OECD report states. "The biggest risk for food security is not with food availability but with consumers' access to food: safety nets are essential to avoid an increase in hunger and food insecurity."
Another problem is the lack of media coverage about the food insecurity being witnessed around the world, particularly during the COVID-19 era. As the Economist recently pointed out, journalists in 2020 "wrote more than 50,000 articles about the canceled Eurovision song contest, but only around 2,000 about drought and hunger in Zambia."
Fortunately, beyond the failings of a state-led response to the pandemic, some positives have emerged at a community level. With restaurants and supermarkets becoming less viable options, there has been a growth in demand and supply of local food. According to HuffPost, farmers have seen "a massive rise in demand for local produce." The result of this trend is that consumers who are able to access local food are changing their behavior toward procurement and consumption of food permanently.
Things are changing on a federal level, too. In a recent article about how the U.S. food system could be transformed during the Biden administration, New York Times food correspondent Kim Severson noted that "[h]unger relief is a pressing issue" for Tom Vilsack, who has been confirmed by the Senate to become the agriculture secretary in Biden's Cabinet, a job the former Iowa governor also held under the Obama administration. However, while Severson notes that Vilsack has his critics, President Biden has already made changes at the top, signing an executive order meant to deliver relief to families and businesses amid the COVID-19 crisis, including "expanding and extending federal nutrition assistance programs" to "[a]ddress the growing hunger crisis facing 29 million Americans." His proposal to Congress includes a $3 billion package to "help women, infants and children get the food they need" and "access to nutritious food for millions of children missing meals due to school closures."
For meaningful reform to the food system to occur, change is going to have to happen at every level: from federal, state and local governments, to Big Ag, small farmers and everyday consumers. With the future looking ever more uncertain due to the climate crisis — one of President Biden's top priorities — adapting to new ways of producing and transporting food will be key to our survival.
Robin Scher is a writer based in South Africa. He is a graduate of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. Find him on Twitter @RobScherHimself.
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Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.