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NATURE
15 December 2021 15:00

Cropped, 15 December 2021: Land and water report; Agribusiness investigations; Rainforest roundup

Multiple Authors

12.15.21
NatureCropped, 15 December 2021: Land and water report; Agribusiness investigations; Rainforest roundup

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

This is an online version of Carbon Brief’s fortnightly Cropped email newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

Snapshot

A series of articles and investigations revealed ways that EU agribusiness is at odds with the bloc’s climate goals. Many major livestock and dairy corporations have neither been reporting their emissions nor making plans to reduce them, while agrochemical companies lobbied against sustainability initiatives.

Halting deforestation was a major theme at COP26 last month and continues to garner attention. In a victory for environmentalists, Ecuador’s constitutional court halted a proposed mining operation on the grounds that it would violate the rights of nature. But, elsewhere, groups that had threatened sanctions against Brazil have not followed through, despite accelerating deforestation.

A special report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) revealed that global land and water systems are “at breaking point”. It found that soil degradation affects 34% of agricultural land and water scarcity now threatens 3.2 billion people in agricultural areas. Another new FAO report found that hunger worsened substantially in Africa between 2019 and 2020 as a result of conflict, climate change and economic slowdowns.

Key developments

Investigating agribusiness

MAPPING THE LOBBY: Using corporate reports, records of meetings and other documentation, DeSmog mapped out “the powerful actors most actively lobbying against” EU regulations aimed at making European agriculture more sustainable. These include agrochemical companies and industry trade groups that spent at least €45m towards these efforts in 2019 and 2020. Some of these groups, DeSmog reported, played a role in “disputing scientific analyses produced by European bodies” that showed the efficacy of “viable alternatives to the use of pesticides”. In addition to lobbying efforts, the website reported attempts by the companies to “delay regulations” via the use of lawsuits.

SOYA TRADE: Meanwhile, the Financial Times presented data from a dashboard created by the French ecological transition ministry. The database tracks the supply chain of soya imported from Brazil and identifies imports from “areas at risk of deforestation”. The Financial Times reported that “about a quarter” of soya imports from Brazil are sourced from areas impacted by deforestation. Around 70% of the at-risk crop was imported by the agricultural commodity company Bunge. Bunge told the Financial Times that the company “was committed to reaching deforestation-free supply chains by 2025”. The ecological ministry also told the paper that the statistics did not prove that the soyabeans were grown in deforested areas and that it would be contacting importers about the deforestation risk.

AGRICULTURAL EMISSIONS: The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) examined the agriculture-related emissions from 35 of the “largest meat and dairy corporations” headquartered within the EU. In its Emissions Impossible report, the organisation found that of the top 20 corporations only 10 had announced any sort of climate plans. Including both up- and downstream supply chain emissions, those corporations together were responsible for emissions equivalent to half of Chevron’s annual emissions from both its operations and the use of its products. The IATP wrote that some companies “have failed to exhibit even minimal transparency about their operations…making it impossible to calculate trends in their annual emissions” and concluded that “no European government holds these companies accountable for their supply chain emissions”.

Rainforest roundup

RIGHTS OF NATURE: Ecuador’s constitutional court ruled that a proposed mining operation in a protected area of the northwest part of the country “violate[s] the rights of nature” and is therefore unconstitutional, the Guardian reported. The court ruled that the permits for extracting copper and gold would harm the forest’s biodiversity, which includes many rare and endangered flora and fauna. Environmental campaigners called the ruling “an important marker” for both the country and the larger region, which is “one of the most biodiverse parts of the planet”. The rights of nature have been enshrined in Ecuador’s constitution since 2008; the court’s ruling said that these rights “appl[y] across the whole country, not just to protected areas”, the Guardian wrote.

DECLINING TO DIVEST: The Financial Times reported that “several” Europe-based investment groups that had “threatened to divest from Brazil” due to the nation’s “soaring” deforestation rates have not yet done so. In addition, the paper wrote, food retailers in Europe have “shied away” from proposed boycotts of Brazilian produce. The “majority” of these groups “now say they favour ‘engagement’” with the Brazilian government as a strategy for eliminating deforestation, the Financial Times wrote, but noted that there is concern that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro will “feel emboldened” to pursue further commercial development in the Amazon if the groups do not take “effective action”.

PROTECTION PLAN: At COP26 in Glasgow last month, Indigenous groups proposed a plan to protect 80% of the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon, Mongabay reported. The plan is backed by an “alliance of Indigenous and nongovernmental organisations” and aims to make the area “off-limits to extractive industries”, the outlet wrote. Mongabay noted that the plan has been supported by both countries’ governments, but faces a significant “stumbling block” in that “both countries rely heavily on extractive industries operating within the Amazon to help pay off foreign debt”.

Systems at breaking point

KEY FINDINGS: The FAO’s synthesis report – entitled, “The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture: systems at breaking point” – found that global land and water resources are “stressed to a critical point”, with “significant deterioration” over the past decade. It found that human-induced soil degradation currently affects 34% of agricultural land globally, while 3.2 billion people were affected by water scarcity. Per capita water resources are declining, the report said, noting that between 2018 and 2020, the number of people living in places with critical water scarcity increased from 6 to 7% and nearly 1.2 billion people live in areas where severe water shortages and scarcity challenge agriculture. Almost a third of rainfed cropland and nearly a half of irrigated land are subject to risk from human-induced land degradation, the report found.

IMPLICATIONS: The findings have significant implications given that by 2050, the world would need to produce 50% more food than in 2012 for a projected global population of 10bn, the report said. This could require a 35% increase in water withdrawals needed for farming as well as more land. Meanwhile, the report found that the agroclimatic context for the pattern of land use is changing rapidly. Increasing evapotranspiration from cropland and varying rainfall patterns could lead to changes in what areas or crops are suited to cultivation, with reduced yields anticipated during temperature extremes. Similarly, expected large variations in river run-off and groundwater will significantly impact rainfed and irrigated agriculture.

UNDERNOURISHED AFRICA: In another report released on Tuesday, the FAO identified climate change, conflict and Covid-19 as major drivers for the increase in hunger in Africa, with East Africa being the worst affected, followed by western and central parts of the continent. In spite of “a long period of improvement between 2000 and 2013”, the report found that hunger “has worsened substantially”, with the greatest deterioration between 2019 and 2020. The report estimates that more than 280 million Africans were undernourished in 2020, almost 90 million more than six years ago. Africa accounted for 55% of the global rise in the number of undernourished people over the reporting period, with the world set to miss the UN’s target of eradicating hunger by 2030, reported AFP. 

News and views

ORGANIC FAILURE: The Sri Lankan government’s ban on imported chemical fertilisers in April has led to “disastrous” consequences, reported the New York Times. The ban – enforced by Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in April as part of a 2019 poll promise – lasted only seven months. According to a survey by experts quoted in the story, three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s farmers relied heavily on chemical fertilisers and 85% of them expected yields to fall, “by as much as 40%”. In November, plantation minister Ramesh Pathirana, “confirmed a partial reversal of the policy” and said the government would import fertiliser for tea, rubber and coconut that form the bulk of the island nation’s agricultural exports. The reversal came after thousands protested in the face of high food prices, food shortages and dwindling foreign reserves, arguing the rushed push towards organic farming “has threatened to create a food crisis”, the New Indian Express reported. Reuters reported that Sri Lanka’s retail inflation rates hit “a near decade-high” in November, pushed up by surging food prices attributed to the ban.

SOIL HEALTH: Climate change and unsustainable land use in the Caribbean “threaten to rob the region of its prospects for a food-secure future”, Forbes wrote. More than 50% of soils in the Caribbean are being degraded by “inappropriate agricultural practises” such as overuse of chemical fertilisers, the outlet reported. In addition to unsustainable agriculture, development, urbanisation and mining have degraded soil health and caused forest loss. Forbes noted that “shallow and eroded soils are not deep or healthy enough to sustain the region’s indigenous crops”. Extreme weather, such as hurricanes and droughts, have also negatively affected soil health and contributed to food insecurity in the region, the outlet said.

WINTER COVER: As part of post-Brexit agricultural reforms, the UK government plans to pay subsidies for farmers to protect winter soil, BBC News reported. Under its new Sustainable Farming Incentive, it hopes to “entice 70% of farmers to smother 70% of land” in winter with “cover crops” such as grasses, beans and herbs, the outlet explained, offering farmers £22-58 per hectare if they manage to do so. Soil protection is the first phase of the incentive roll-out; farmers could be paid to reduce fertiliser and pesticide use and to set aside large areas of their land to protect wildlife or “capture CO2 emissions through vegetation”. According to UK environment secretary George Eustice, the scheme hopes to “create more space for nature in the farmed landscape”. Critics of the scheme told BBC News that the plan was “desperately unambitious” and would see farmers “paid for doing the very basics of good practice, nothing extra”. 

SEED BANK: More than 200 women in the south-eastern Zimbabwean town of Chimanimani have built a seed bank to store large quantities of seeds from the country’s traditional grains, Zimbabwe’s the Herald reported. The programme is designed to help farmers cope with the impacts of climate change, but also with a view towards “conserving and promoting cultural heritage”. One such farmer, Queen Majokwiro, told the Herald that combining the seed bank with agroecological practises will help local farmers adapt to climate change. She added that the seed bank provides access for farmers who would otherwise be unable to purchase the seeds, “thereby ensuring food security at household and village level”.

Extra reading

New science

Multidimensional tropical forest recovery
Science

While the world “rapidly” loses tropical forest cover, new research has found that tropical forests and their soils are “highly resilient” and can recover relatively fast on abandoned agricultural lands and pastures. Researchers analysed patterns of forest recovery in 77 secondary forest sites in the Americas and West Africa. They found that secondary forests can attain 78% of their old-growth values in 20 years for 12 specific forest attributes that include soil, ecosystem structure and biodiversity. They found that soil recovers fastest and in under a decade, while biomass and species composition recover the slowest, taking roughly 120 years to return to old-growth values. The authors “urge the embrace of secondary forests as a low-cost, nature-based solution”, which “should feature prominently in restoration portfolios, where older secondary forests and old-growth forests are conserved, severely degraded areas are actively restored, and young regrowth is protected from deforestation”. 

Sustainable intensification for a larger global rice bowl
Nature Food

Making targeted changes to a “relatively small number” of the world’s major cropping systems could increase their total rice production by 32%, a new study found. Researchers used data on about half of the world’s “rice-harvested area” and crop models to determine where resources were and were not being used efficiently. They found that “most” cropping systems studied have the potential for “increasing yield, resource-use efficiency or both” and that “fine-tuning current crop, soil and water management practises” could address these issues in much of the world. The authors wrote that this work “provides essential strategic insight…for prioritising national and global agricultural R&D investments”.

A constraint on historic growth in global photosynthesis due to increasing CO2
Nature

Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere over the long-term increased global annual photosynthesis by nearly 12% between 1981 and 2020, a new study estimated. Researchers combined terrestrial biosphere models with global carbon budget estimates, machine learning and two satellite-based approaches, arriving at results often underestimated by satellite-based methods but overestimated by biosphere models. Researchers said the results suggest land carbon sequestration is increasing due to larger photosynthetic carbon uptake, “suggesting that the potential of current natural climate solution strategies may be underestimated”. At the same time, they concluded that “increased carbon uptake can not keep pace with our anthropogenic carbon emissions”. 

In the diary

Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione and Aruna Chandrasekhar. Please send tips and feedback to [email protected]

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