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We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.
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The first cargo ship carrying Ukrainian grain set sail from Odesa this month, following a historic and closely-watched UN-backed deal. Commodity prices have dropped, but food prices will remain high, experts say.
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The Irish government set legally binding sectoral emissions targets, with an overall goal of a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030 from 2018 levels. The targets include a 25% reduction of agricultural emissions.
Despite marginal declines, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon remains high. A new investigation found that illegal mining is encroaching on Indigenous territories, while new bills and permits are threatening both the rainforest and the nearby Pantanal wetland.
Grain ship sails, pricier food stays
CROP SHIP SAILS: Around 9 am on 1 August, the first ship to carry Ukrainian grain since the war began left the Black Sea port of Odesa, Al Jazeera reported, after loading was supervised by Ukrainian, Turkish and UN authorities. The Sierra Leone-flagged ship Razoni, carrying 26,000 tonnes of corn destined for north Lebanon, was “proceeding very slowly”, as it was “escorted through sea mines safeguarding the port and Russian warships farther at sea”, the New York Times reported. The grain deal struck last month allows the export of around 5m tonnes of grain a month, while also “whittling away at a backlog of about 20m tonnes in silos, freeing storage for this year’s harvest.” However, Bloomberg reported on Monday that Razoni is now floating in the Mediterranean Sea, “searching for a new destination” after its final buyer rejected the cargo “due to a five-month delay in delivery”. It comes as Carbon Brief publishes an in-depth interactive explainer on wheat, in which Ukrainian farmers and other experts spoke about the need to “export and do everything possible to keep the ports open”.
PRICEY FOOD TO STAY: Wheat prices may have “tumbled from [their] peak” since Russia’s war on Ukraine began, partly thanks to the deal “which may not hold amid the fighting, but even if it does, won’t be enough to address other issues hanging over the global wheat market”, the New York Times reported. According to experts quoted, prices are likely to rise again, with high energy and fertiliser prices and climate change playing a bigger role in the price of a bread loaf, even in countries that do not buy from Russia or Ukraine. In Bulgaria, for instance, bread cost “almost 50% more in June than it did a year earlier”, the Financial Times reported, with analysts warning that “consumers may need to get used to permanently higher food prices” and that “the true impact of this combination of factors will only become apparent next year”.
DEBT AND TAXES: Lebanon – Razoni’s intended destination – has seen its food price inflation rise by 332% in the year to June, while the rate has risen by 255% in Zimbabwe, 155% in Venezuela and 94% Turkey, according to the World Bank, the Guardian reported. The World Bank predicts that food inflation would hit many countries with an “increase in food bills worth more than 1% of their annual national income (GDP), while others would fail to contain the impact and be plunged into a full-blown debt crisis”. Developing countries such as Sri Lanka, for instance, have already asked the World Bank for a bailout “after running out of cash to buy vital imports”, while Pakistan saw a $6bn IMF loan revived, according to the Guardian. Neighbouring India – the world’s second-largest wheat producer – could scrap a 40% import duty on wheat “to dampen record high domestic prices”, government and trade officials told Reuters. According to the Washington Post, India “dramatically increased” its imports of Russian fertiliser in recent months, “demonstrating the difficulties” of isolating Moscow “at a time of high global prices”.
Ireland sets sectoral ceilings
GAS CAPS: The Irish coalition government announced a legally binding agreement on “sectoral emissions ceilings” – caps on greenhouse gas emissions for each sector of the economy through the end of the decade. The caps have been set on five key sectors: electricity, transport, buildings, industry and agriculture, and will set the country “on a pathway to turn the tide on climate change”, governmental news service Merrion Street wrote. Together, the cuts are meant to achieve a 51% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 as compared to 2018 levels, with different sectors contributing at varying levels – electricity emissions are to be reduced by 75%, while the agriculture sector is expected to reduce its emissions by 25%.
MEAT-ING IN THE MIDDLE: The Financial Times called the deal “hard-fought”, noting that the target for the agriculture sector is “significantly higher” than the 22% reduction that farmers groups had been pushing for, but below the government’s initial proposals of 30%. Yale Environment 360 wrote that Ireland “has historically lagged behind other European nations” in its climate ambitions, with its climate change performance index ranking 22nd among 27 countries last year. It added that the country’s Climate Action Plan “calls for using grants, incentives, and taxes to mobilise €125bn of public and private investment” for adding renewable capacity and electric cars, and upgrading homes with heat pumps and improved insulation.
FARMERS FRET: The Financial Times noted that “dairy cattle numbers have increased for 11 consecutive years” in Ireland, ever since milk quotas in the EU ended in 2015. Measures aimed at reducing agricultural emissions will include “renewable energy initiatives and the development of biomethane”, the FT wrote. The outlet added that “farmers complained they were being offered no funding to make the technological and other changes needed to reduce emissions”. The Farming Independent, an agriculture-focused supplement of the Irish Independent, reported that farmers groups are warning of massive losses to local economies. It added that farmers are facing a “dual threat” from both the required emissions reductions and “onerous new nitrates regulations”.
CLIMATE CRITICS: However, climate groups have criticised the targets for not being ambitious enough, Reuters reported. Marie Donnelly, the chair of Ireland’s independent Climate Change Advisory Council, said the targets are “problematic for a number of reasons”, including a lack of clarity on “how the carbon budgets will be delivered”. She also noted that the current sectoral ceilings only add up to a 43% reduction in emissions, rather than the 51% they are meant to achieve, according to the government’s own estimates. Irish broadcaster RTE noted that this discrepancy is because some reductions are “still unallocated pending further studies related to land use and other considerations”. RTE added that “very little” has been achieved in Ireland regarding previous emissions reductions targets to date, but that the new “commitment to act on climate policy is totally serious”.
UNREGULATED AIRSTRIPS: A New York Times investigation revealed that there are hundreds of airstrips in the remote reaches of the Amazon rainforest that have been illegally seized or constructed in service of the (also illegal) mining industries there. More than 60 illegal airstrips were identified within the territory of the Indigenous Yanomami people, it said. Some of the airstrips, the New York Times reported, are government-owned and are “the only way for health care officials to reach the Indigenous people in the nearby village”. Now these airstrips “are part of vast criminal networks that operate largely unchecked because of the neglect or ineffectiveness of enforcement and regulatory agencies in Brazil”, the paper added.
DESTRUCTION DYNAMICS: An estimated 30,000 miners are working illegally within Yanomami territory, “causing deadly clashes, the displacement of Indigenous communities, swift deforestation and destruction to the land and rivers”, the New York Times wrote. Similar dynamics are playing out across the Amazon rainforest, it added. The paper noted that many of the miners are from “impoverished communities”, while the bosses are from “fragmented, yet politically powerful criminal enterprises”. These efforts have been bolstered by the regime of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, which “critics say has prioritised unregulated economic development over environmental and Indigenous issues”, according to the New York Times.
PAVING PERMIT: Meanwhile, a new permit “will allow a major highway to be paved through the centre of the Amazon rainforest”, Reuters reported, “in a move that threatens to increase deforestation”. The road will connect Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city, to the rest of Brazil year-round (it is currently “an impassable stretch of mud” throughout the rainy season, Reuters wrote). Environmental experts told the outlet that paving the road “would allow illegal loggers and land grabbers to more easily access remote and relatively untouched areas of the forest” and estimated a fivefold increase in deforestation by 2030 as a result. Another licence would be needed before construction can begin, but the granting of the initial permit “means there is a good chance the road could move forward”, an analyst told Reuters. July 2022 was the “fifth worst month” for deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon since measurements started in 2015, “despite a slight decline”, MercoPress reported.
PANTANAL IN PERIL: Brazil is also home to the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland, where state lawmakers have just approved a bill to allow “extensive ranching and tourism in protected areas”, Mongabay reported. The outlet noted the bill still has to be signed by Mato Grasso state governor Mauro Mendes before it can become law; Mendes has until the end of the month to do so. Ranching advocates “hope the amendments can restore cattle productivity…boost tourism and lead to an improvement in Mato Grosso’s declining socioeconomic parameters”, Mongabay wrote. It said critics called the bill “an insult”, adding that it will “harm water quality, animal and plant species, ecological balance and traditional and Indigenous peoples of the Pantanal”. Experts say the bill violates the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention because Indigenous communities were not consulted, according to Mongabay.
News and views
EUROPE’S CROP DROP: Yields of key European crops – such as maize, sunflower and soya beans – will be “sharply down this year owing to heatwaves and droughts, exacerbating the impacts of the Ukraine war on food prices”, the Guardian reported. The EU forecasted an 8-9% yield drop for these commodities, the newspaper said. Countries affected include Spain, southern France, central and northern Italy, central Germany, northern Romania and eastern Hungary, it added. Elsewhere, EurActiv reported that the European Commission has urged EU member states “to re-use treated urban wastewater as irrigation on the continent’s parched farms after France and parts of England saw their driest July on record”. The European drought observatory has new research showing 45% of the EU’s land is under drought “warning” conditions, according to the Daily Express. Also, Bloomberg reported on the “fertiliser crisis” affecting European farmers.
BOILING POINT: Europe’s recent heatwave “hasn’t been limited to the land”, Reuters wrote, with a “prolonged” marine heatwave striking the Mediterranean sea. The marine heatwave has seen sea temperatures climb several degrees “beyond the average temperature…for this time of year”, the outlet reported. The climate-change-driven increase in marine heatwaves is “adding pressure to ecosystems already struggling from over-fishing and plastic pollution”, Reuters wrote. It added that this year’s heatwave is worse than those that struck the same sea in the latter half of the last decade, which led to “mass die-offs of marine life”. The newswire quoted ocean researcher Jean-Pierre Gattuso, from Sorbonne University, who said that similar die-offs “will probably come later in August”.
REEF BEEF: Quarrels over the state of the iconic Great Barrier Reef broke out online this month, after outlets covered a report that found coral cover in parts of the reef had reached the highest level since monitoring began 36 years ago. BBC News reported that this “new coral is particularly vulnerable: progress could be quickly undone by climate change and other threats”. The Guardian reported that “increase in coral cover was thanks to fast-growing acropora corals that are also the most susceptible to heat stress”, with scientists stating that they never pronounced the reef dead: “Scientists have been ringing an alarm bell, not a funeral dirge”. Climate-sceptic Spectator columnist Ross Clark, meanwhile, called the Guardian’s coverage “an object lesson in how environmental news is driven only by misery” and said that “nature has once again defied [climate doomsters’] grim prophecies”. On Twitter, coral reef scientist Prof Terry Hughes dismissed sceptics, pointing out that “coral cover is a dreadful metric for measuring coral reef condition (‘health’) or resilience”.
RIGHTEOUS: The UN General Assembly has recognised the universal human right to a clean and healthy environment as part of a “historic resolution” that received “overwhelming support”, Mongabay reported. While 161 nations voted in favour of the resolution, only eight countries abstained, including China, Russia, Iran, Belarus and Ethiopia. While UN resolutions are not legally binding, special rapporteur for human rights and the environment David Boyd told Mongabay that the resolution had the potential to “spark constitutional changes and stronger environmental laws, with positive implications for air quality, safe and sufficient water, healthy soil, sustainably-produced food, climate change, biodiversity and the regulation of toxic substances”. The vote, “which has been working its way through the UN system for 50 years, elevates efforts on climate, biodiversity, and pollution to the highest level of global concern”, Currently reported.
KILLER HEAT: A severe drought in Kenya is responsible for the deaths of “20 times more elephants than poaching”, according to officials quoted in BBC News and the Washington Post. This year alone, “at least 179 elephants have died of thirst”, the Washington Post wrote, while poaching has been responsible for “fewer than 10” deaths over that same period. Kenya’s tourism and wildlife secretary, Najib Balala, told BBC News that “it is a red alarm”, adding: “We have forgotten to invest into biodiversity management and ecosystems…We have invested only in illegal wildlife trade and poaching.” The drought has been declared a “national disaster” in Kenya, the Post reported, “with millions facing food instability and malnutrition” as a result.
MANGROVES ON THE GO: Indigenous women farmers in the Niger Delta are leading efforts to replant mangrove forests destroyed by oil pollution in the region, reported Nigerian media organisation Premium Times. The grassroots regeneration project, led by the Lokiaka Community Development Centre, compensates women farmers for raising mangrove nurseries. The Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) also trains schools and youth groups in mangrove replanting, according to Premium Times. The mangroves, a type of coastal forest that are culturally significant for communities in the region, prevent coastal erosion and filter brackish water. Premium Times noted that local communities were frustrated at government inaction over damage caused by oil extraction. In 2016, the Nigerian government introduced the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Process (HYPREP), which aimed to clean up contaminated soil and ground water. However, many local community members criticised the efficacy of the HYPREP measures.
- Losing a species, losing a culture – Madeleine Gregory, Atmos
- The god of São Félix – Terrence McCoy and Cecília do Lago, The Washington Post
- Restoring Indian grasslands does not require disturbing soil and planting grasses, but more science – Ashish Nerlekar and Ankila Hiremath, Mongabay India
- How bad will the global food crisis get? – Chelsea Bruce-Lockhart and Emiko Terazono, Financial Times
A new study documented the effects of drought on Uganda’s banana crop and drought mitigation strategies used by small-scale farmers. Signs of drought stress in bananas included lighter bunches, wilted and fewer leaves, and reduced numbers of clusters, the study found. Popular cooking variety Mpologama was the most affected and dessert variety FHIA17 was the least. Researches catalogued up to 12 different drought mitigation strategies used by 120 farms in eight districts of Uganda’s banana-growing cattle corridor. While mulching was the most common, irrigation was perceived to be the most effective coping strategy – but limited by water scarcity and expensive pumps. The study “suggests the need for government support” for irrigation infrastructure, strengthening climate data collection and developing drought-resistant banana varieties.
Recurrent droughts increase risk of cascading tipping events by outpacing adaptive capacities in the Amazon rainforest
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
New research exploring how extreme changes in rainfall regimes may cause local forest collapse found that a future dry climate and water deficit could trigger a forest’s transition to an open canopy (or savannah) state, particularly in the southern Amazon. The Amazon rainforest is “the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystem and plays a fundamental role in regulating the global climate”, the researchers said. However, it has been undergoing “intensive anthropogenic activities and increasingly frequent droughts”. Using modelling, researchers also uncovered the role of “atmospheric moisture recycling” in the forest-climate system. (This is the process where evaporation from the Earth’s surface travels through the atmosphere before returning elsewhere as rain.)
Estimating the environmental impacts of 57,000 food products
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Chocolate, deli meat and cheese, and nutrient powders are among the “multi-ingredient foods” with the highest climate impact in UK supermarkets, according to a new study. Researchers developed an algorithm to assess the environmental impact of 57,000 food products with multiple ingredients – an advance on previous research examining the impact of individual food items. Each food product was assigned an estimated environmental impact score per 100g of product, ranging from zero (no impact) to 100 (the highest impact). The study used four indicators to assess environmental impact: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress and eutrophication potential. The research found that more nutritious products were often more environmentally sustainable. “Win-win” food products, which had a low environmental impact score and a high nutrition quality score, included vegetables, breakfast cereals and some breads. Food products such as sugary drinks, crisps and biscuits were classified as “lose-win”, as they had a low environmental impact score but also a low nutritional impact score.
In the diary
Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar and Daisy Dunne. Anastasiia Zagoruichyk and Freya Graham also contributed to this issue. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected].