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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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Food prices continued to reach record highs as the war in Ukraine rages on, with corn futures hitting their highest levels since September 2012. Egypt and India struck a deal on wheat imports, while the US rolled back restrictions on higher-ethanol gasoline to offset rising energy costs.
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A new report examined the sustainability of different sources of protein, including alternatives such as lab-grown meat. It argued that alternative proteins are not the “win-win-win” they are often made out to be, but critics of the report said that it will likely only further polarise the debate around food-systems change.
Brazil has been accused of “backsliding” on its climate commitments following the submission of its updated pledge submitted to the UN. The new pledge does not include promises made at COP26. Meanwhile, an audit of the logging industry in the Democratic Republic of the Congo exposed corruption and called the feasibility of the COP26 deforestation pledges into question.
Corn, wheat and conflict
PRICE SPIKES: Food and commodity prices continued to surge in part because of the war in Ukraine. A Financial Times editorial quotes UN statistics that show March food prices were up 34% relative to last year, cereals up by 37% and vegetable oils by 56%. The newspaper argued that “a key objective should be preventing new export restrictions between other nations” and that “policy needs to steer farms to low-carbon methods so they are less vulnerable to fuel crises” in the medium term. The impacts of the war on wheat imports are being felt in Africa and the Middle East, with the conflict leading to price increases of “160% in just one month in Somalia” that imports 85% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, said the World Food Programme. It warned that “a perfect storm of poor rain, skyrocketing food prices and huge funding shortfalls leaves almost 40% of Somalis on the brink”. An editorial by the journal Nature argued that “what food systems lack is an intergovernmental mechanism by which policymakers are given independent assessments of literature and commit to acting on [it]”.
FOOD VS FUEL: Corn futures hit a nine-year record high on Monday, CNBC reported, with traders betting on “higher input costs and more demand for corn as a substitute” for wheat. Corn and other agricultural commodities have been under pressure even before the war, driven by rising input costs and drought in major growing areas, including the western US. Last week, the Biden administration lifted a waiver on the sale of higher-ethanol gasoline over the summer to offset rising energy costs, CNBC explained, which could also increase demand and corn prices. A recent study by clean mobility non-profit Transport & Environment (T&E) estimated that 10,000 tonnes of wheat – or roughly 15m loaves of bread – are being burned daily in EU cars as ethanol, calling the practice “immoral in the face of a global food crisis, EurActiv reported. The EU biofuels industry rejected claims that producers were pushing for higher targets and demanding biofuels replace fossil fuels in response to the Ukraine crisis.
NAAN ALIGNED: Ukraine’s declining harvests and the Middle East’s malnutrition risk are “opening a window” not just for big Ag’s super-rich, but other cereal exporters too, reported the Times of India. For example, India – which is “typically second to China in annual wheat production, but historically account[ing] for less than 1% of global exports” – is reported to have signed a wheat deal with Egypt to export “about 1m tonnes, 240,000 tonnes of which will ship in April”, reported business magazine World Grain. On Friday, India’s commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal tweeted that “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government steps in as the world look[s] for reliable alternate sources for a steady food supply”, reported Hindustan Times. If India wants to fill the world’s wheat supply gap, “it has to confront [quality] challenges that had stymied exports before”, a comment article in Bloomberg said. Meanwhile, Hindustan Times reported that wheat production and quality in Punjab took a hit “by about 8%” from a sudden heatwave. Factors that cast a big “question mark” on India’s ability to feed the world in the wake of war include “a less-than-expected harvest” and availability of fertilisers, besides “galloping food prices at home”, wrote BBC News, suggesting the country should explore “wheat-for-fertiliser” deals.
MISLEADING MEAT: A report released by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-FOOD) examined the sustainability of protein sources including livestock, fish and “alternative” proteins such as lab-grown meat. The panel found that the debates around meat-eating and protein sources are full of “misleading statements and over-generalisations”. The report identified five “key ways” that this happens: over-emphasising the need for protein, failing to consider sustainability metrics beyond emissions, failing to consider different ways of food production, treating all world regions as having the same needs and failing to consider complexity and power dynamics.
REPORT RECOMMENDATIONS: The report followed this with three recommendations “focused on reframing the discussion, overcoming polarisation and putting the conditions and frameworks in place for truly transformative reform pathways to emerge”. The first recommendation is to focus on a “comprehensive sustainable food policy”, rather than just protein. The second is to assess sustainability of food systems through a range of metrics, including biodiversity impacts, resilience and local cultures. The final recommendation is to “reclaim public resources” such as government funding and incorporate the “understandings and perspectives of diverse actors” in food system transformation.
BROADER PROBLEMS: In Civil Eats, a comment piece by Prof Philip Howard of Michigan State University said that “the rise of highly processed alternative proteins is symptomatic of broader problems in the way we approach food systems”. Howard, a member of IPES-FOOD and the lead author of the report, argued for “reclaim[ing] public resources” and “address[ing] concentration of power across the food system”. He pointed out that “nearly all of the world’s meat and dairy giants” are now players in the global “fake meat” market, and that many so-called alternative proteins rely on ingredients grown in monocultures, which “has major impacts on human health, biodiversity and climate change”.
PROTEIN, POLARISED: However, the report received pushback from proponents of alternative proteins and others who disagreed with the report’s framing. Prof Garrett Broad from Fordham University wrote a Twitter thread, in which he said that while the report had “lots of valid points”, he was “really disappointed” in the takeaway message of “ALTERNATIVE PROTEIN BAD”. He also wrote that the framing of the report “often reinforces the polarisation it claims to oppose”. Dr Jan Dutkiewicz, a postdoctoral researcher at the Swiss National Science Foundation, wrote on Twitter that it “seems bizarre to not focus on the real problem, which is rising global intensive animal [agriculture]”. New York University’s Prof Matthew Hayek added that the Civil Eats article used “common fear-mongering tactics” about meat substitutes “without providing any empirical evidence” about their emissions impact. In November, Dutkiewicz and Hayek published an article in Vox in which they wrote that there is “clear evidence that plant-based meats are generally better for the environment”.
BRAZIL BACKSLIDE: A number of countries have been criticised for appearing to backslide on their climate ambition. Brazil has been accused of resorting to a “carbon accounting trick” by shifting its emissions baseline in its updated climate plan submitted to the UN, Climate Home News reported. The country’s updated plan “allows higher emissions in 2030 than Brazil’s first Paris pledge” and the difference is “equivalent to the annual emissions of Colombia”, calculated the Talanoa Institute. “This is like having credit card debt and only paying part of the bill,” Marcio Astrini of the Climate Observatory told Climate Home. According to the story, pledges made by Brazil at COP26 to cut methane emissions and achieve zero deforestation by 2030 do not find a place in the new plan and “civil society wasn’t consulted”. Meanwhile, Mongabay reported that decrees issued by the Bolsonaro government to protect Indigenous lands “have failed to deter illegal deforestation and may even be encouraging invaders”, while Latin American television network teleSUR reported that Indigenous protests against mining are growing.
DRC FOREST COP OUT: Allegations of corruption in the DRC have called into question the forest finance deals made by the UK at COP26 to protect the Congo basin rainforest, reported the Guardian. In April, the DRC government released a “long-awaited audit” of the country’s logging industry. The audit found that “six successive ministers had illegally allocated at least 18 logging concessions” in the world’s second-largest rainforest, flouting a two-decade moratorium on new deforestation for industry in the region. Concerns were expressed by environmental groups over the £380m committed to protecting the Congo basin by the UK, of which £32m was given to a coalition of donor countries – under the Central African Forest Initiative (Cafi) – from the UK’s aid budget. Cafi reportedly “welcomed the release of the audit, but said no money had been released yet”.
News and views
30×30: The US announced it was officially joining the High-Ambition Coalition for Nature and People at the Our Ocean Conference in Palau last week. The coalition’s central goal is to conserve at least 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, commonly known as “30×30”. It now comprises more than 90 members. In a statement, the US wrote that the 30×30 goal “represent[s] critical and science-based efforts to address the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss”. However, the statement added that the country “wishes to underscore that the High Ambition Coalition is non-binding and does not create or affect rights or obligations under international law, nor does it create any new financial commitments”.
FAMINE, FARMING AND FORESTS: More than 3 million people in northern Kenya are facing starvation due to the ongoing drought, the New Humanitarian reported – “an almost 50% increase since August 2021”. Kenyan website Capital News quoted a representative from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) climate prediction unit, who said “sadly, we are looking at not just three, but potentially four consecutive failed seasons”. In the story, the head of the UN Development Programme’s Africa resilience hub Alessandra Casazza said “climate shocks keep coming back”, calling for countries in the global north “to honour their commitment to climate finance”. Meanwhile, in western Kenya, forest authorities told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the country’s scheme to let farmers grow crops in forests has slashed illegal logging, although farmers are “frustrated” by the limits on what they can grow. Meanwhile, another of the foundation’s stories catalogues the rise of climate-smart agriculture in Kenya.
A NEW HOP: The Sydney Morning Herald reported on efforts to save the critically endangered spotted tree frog, a species endemic to the south-eastern Australian states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. The spotted tree frog disappeared from NSW in 2001 after being devastated by chytrid fungus. Now, the Herald wrote, “the frogs have been given a second chance”. Scientists recently released 80 individuals in NSW’s Kosciuszko National Park, hoping to bolster a population of frogs that were released into the wild there in 2015 but subsequently ravaged by the bushfires of 2019-20. The frogs face myriad threats besides the fungus, including climate change, wildfire and drought, and are “expected to become extinct without intervention”.
TEAK HYPOCRISY: Countries that imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s military-led regime were still importing timber felled in the country’s forests, Mongabay reported, according to a report by thinktank Forest Trends. The study found that the junta exported more than $190m worth of timber in 2021, of which $22m went to EU member states. Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Poland all stepped up their timber imports after the coup. In the US, total trade increased slightly even as the overall number of importers dropped, the main imports being “sawn teak for use in luxury yachts”. The rest of the timber ($154m worth) was exported to countries that did not impose sanctions on the junta – chiefly China, India and Thailand, “where imports increased by 35%, or $29m”, the story said.
- Making forest data fair and open – Renato A. F. de Lima et al., Nature Ecology & Evolution
- Our food system isn’t ready for the climate crisis – Nina Lakhani, Alvin Chang, Rita Liu and Andrew Witherspoon, The Guardian
- In Brazil’s north-east, family farmers are guardians of creole seeds – Sucena Shkrada Resk (translated by Maya Johnson), Mongabay
- A farmer’s quest to beat California’s waves of drought and deluge – Susie Cagle, WIRED
A new study found that despite often being adapted for heat and drought conditions, more than half of the cacti species endemic to the Americas will be “negatively impacted” by changing climatic conditions by 2070. Researchers used current distributions of cacti and combined them with climate models to forecast the suitable range of more than 400 cacti species under low, moderate and very high emissions scenarios. They found that 60% of the species analysed are predicted to experience a loss in suitable habitat. Furthermore, they wrote, their results are “not greatly influenced” by the choice of emissions scenario.
A new study examined the impacts of “rewilding” measures on small farmers in Europe and trade-offs between food and nutrition security, given that farmers are “simultaneously being encouraged” to step up food production. The researchers applied a theoretical World Risk Society framework to primary data and interviews by an EU project that looked at food and nutritional security in 25 European and five African regions. The authors zoomed in on a subset of interviews from their home countries: Norway, Scotland, Spain and Italy, “where particular issues around species reintroduction and conservation are prominent” and presented iconic species from wolves and sea eagles to wild boar. They found that while small farmers did not necessarily oppose environmental measures, many contended that they experienced species protection and wildlife reintroduction “as a de facto constraint on production”.
Recent expansion of oil palm plantations into carbon-rich forests
Indonesian and Malaysian forests lost 50m tonnes of carbon per year over 2001-15 due to the encroachment of oil palm plantations, according to a new study. Using satellite imagery, researchers calculated the loss of biomass from oil palm expansion into the carbon-rich forest. Although large-scale plantations “dominated” the expansion, the researchers found that small-scale plantations made a noticeable contribution to expansion in high-density forests from 2007 onwards. They also calculated the loss of carbon from protected areas and concluded that the increasing loss of forest biomass in these areas “raises the question of how effective existing mitigation policies are for protecting biodiversity and carbon hotspots”.
In the diary
- 22 April: Earth Day
- 22 April: Coalition for Rainforest Nations webinar: Alarm from IPCC Report, but hope for the Earth’s rainforests
- 2-6 May: XV World Forestry Congress
- 9-21 May: 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD COP15)
- 9-13 May: UN Forum on Forests – 17th session