Millions of Songbirds Do Not Need to Suffer Gruesome Deaths So the Olive Industry Can Save a Buck
By Jason Bittel
Imagine you're a redwing, a small, speckled bird in the thrush family. You weigh as little as two light bulbs, and yet each year you make a 2,300-mile journey from your summering grounds in Iceland to a winter refuge in Morocco. One night, you decide to stop off in an olive grove in Portugal to rest your weary wings.
Little do you know, night is when the machines come.
Mechanical harvesters taller than the trees themselves rumble through the olive groves, each equipped with floodlights and rows of vibrating teeth. Like a slow-moving beast, the harvesters straddle the trees and throttle them, shaking loose their olives and directing the fruits to powerful vacuums for collection.
Workers unload harvested olives from a truck on a farm in the Alentejo region of Portugal.
Francisco Seco / AP
It's an incredibly efficient way to harvest the olives destined for our cooking oil, martinis, and charcuterie platters. And according to the Olive Oil Times, night harvesting preserves the aromatic qualities of the crop.
But the benefits stop there. Birds like the redwing seem to be "dazzled by the strong lights of the machines," said Vanessa Mata, an ecologist at the Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources in Portugal. During the day, the birds would simply fly away. At night, they become disoriented and can wind up getting sucked into the harvesters, with fatal consequences.
In southern Spain, olive farmers sometimes sell the dead to local restaurants which offer them on menus as "fried birds" — an illegal practice that is "highly pursued by the Ministry of Health," according to a new report by the environmental council of the regional government of Andalusia, in Spain.
Songbirds caught in an olive harvester.
Junta de Andalucia
The problem is not just a local issue of some unfortunate and accidental songbird deaths. According to a letter that Mata recently published in the journal Nature, Portugal's night harvesting machines vacuum up some 96,000 birds each year. It's even worse in Andalusia, where as many as 2.6 million birds disappear annually during nocturnal harvesting. (France and Italy also harvest olives at night, but neither country keeps records of the practice's toll on wildlife.)
All told, we're talking about many millions of migratory birds slain each year by the international olive industry. This is obviously bad news for redwings, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies as near threatened, but plenty of other species are taking a hit too.
According to the Andalusian report, the suctioning kills garden warblers, mistle thrushes, willow warblers, common linnets and yellow wagtails — all species already considered by conservationists to be on the decline. (Eleven other bird species identified in the report have stable or increasing populations.)
Many of these birds are already the victims of illegal hunting. Trappers catch and sell them as food or pets, said Mata, which is a problem across the Mediterranean. BirdLife International reports that the populations of 57 of Europe's most common avian species have been on the decline over the past 30 years. Those birds that inhabit the continent's farmlands appear to have suffered the most severe losses.
But there is some hope. Mata said while the many threats birds face in this part of the world aren't going to disappear overnight, the issue with the olive groves really could. That's because this manner of harvesting olives became popular only over the past decade or so. "Day harvesting is the traditional method," she said. "Night harvesting with machines is a recent practice used in super-intensive olive farms."
A wall is spattered with residue from machines that process olives in the Andalusia region of Spain.
Cristina Quicler / AFP / Getty Images
Olive growers insist that night harvesting provides a better-quality product, but Mata suspects it just comes down to money. The harvest season falls between October and January, but weather and fruit ripeness determine when that season hits its peak. Once it's time, it's time.
Growers who rent expensive harvesting machinery, such as the behemoth seen in this drone footage (with birds in formation flying overhead), want to maximize returns while minimizing rental and operating costs. "By operating the machines day and night, you can harvest the same area using half the machines," said Mata.
Because night harvesting is relatively new, information is scarce about its impact on wildlife and the environment. That's what makes these new reports so eye-opening — they're the first to put numbers on paper. But we're going to need a lot more numbers to understand the true scope of the problem.
Even at the scale indicated by the recent reports, Mata said, the practice is a clear violation of the Birds Directive, the European Union's equivalent of the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Not only is it illegal to kill migratory birds in flight, but it's also against the law to disturb them while they're resting.
If nothing else, olive growers who harvest at night should have to monitor and report the number of birds killed in their machines as other industries do, said Mata.
"I think the important thing for now is for people to take action, press their food suppliers about the origin of their olives and oil, but also [press] their politicians so this practice becomes regulated," said Mata. Her colleague Elli Rivers even started a Change.org petition as one way to get involved.
For now, Mata said the best thing consumers can do for the birds is to raise awareness. Down the road, creating market incentives for daytime harvesting, such as a consumer label noting whether an olive brand is "bird safe" (in the same way that dolphin-safe tuna became an industry standard), could help stem this senseless slaughter.
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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By Harry Kretchmer
By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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