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22 September 2022 9:56

Cropped, 21 September 2022: Seabed mining ruling; EU import ban; Hunger on the rise

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NatureCropped, 21 September 2022: Seabed mining ruling; EU import ban; Hunger on the rise

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.

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A Nauru-sponsored mining company will test a new method of seabed mining after receiving the go-ahead from the International Seabed Authority. Proponents of deep-sea mining say it is a necessary source of rare metals, while opponents point out the unknown environmental impacts

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The European Union voted to extend its new law against imports linked to deforestation to include maize, poultry and pork. Elsewhere, an investigation uncovered links between livestock farming in Italy and deforestation in South America’s Gran Chaco forest.

As droughts grip the globe, food inflation continues to rise. The number of people facing acute hunger has more than doubled since 2020, with climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and rising fuel prices all to blame. 

Key developments

Tension on the high seas

DEEP-SEA STEALTH: The International Seabed Authority (ISA) greenlighted a deep-sea mining test operation, allowing Nauru Ocean Resources Inc (NORI) to “carry out testing of…mining components” in the Clarion-Clipperton zone of the Pacific Ocean, according to a press release from the organisation. As part of the trial, NORI’s operations will “be monitored by independent scientists from a dozen leading research institutions around the world who will analyse the environmental impacts”, stated a press release from NORI parent group, the Metals Company. Mongabay pointed out that the Metals Company’s press release was posted more than a week before the ISA published its own and noted that “it is not clear when the ISA granted the authorisation” for the test. The site added that the “operation came as a surprise to opponents of deep-sea mining” due to the “stealth” with which the governing body acted to approve the test. 

NECESSARY NODULES?: During the test, NORI will “vacuum up polymetallic nodules” from the seafloor some 3,000 metres below the surface, Mongabay reported. These nodules consist of layers of “commercially coveted minerals like cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese”, the outlet said. While the test operation aims to retrieve around 3,600 tonnes of nodules from the seafloor, NORI plans to extract 1.3m tonnes annually once the operation reaches full strength. According to the Metals Company, “this mining will provide minerals necessary to power a global shift toward clean energy”, Mongabay said, but added that “a growing cadre of scientists have been warning against the dangers of deep-sea mining, arguing that we don’t know enough about deep-sea environments to destroy them”.

OCEANIC COLONIALISM: Just days before the ISA issued its press release, French Polynesia moved to instate a “temporary ban” on such projects, Radio New Zealand (RNZ) reported. Heremoana Maamaatuaiahutapu, the territory’s minister for marine resources, expressed hope that the move would serve as “an example to other Pacific neighbours”, saying “we need to convince our cousins of the Pacific to stop this craziness”. Maamaatuaiahutapu had previously stated that “if we have to examine what’s on the ocean floor, it should be solely for the acquisition of knowledge, not for exploitation purposes”. A separate RNZ article covered opposition to the ISA decision, with Greenpeace’s New Zealand branch, Greenpeace Aotearoa, “calling on world leaders to step in, and put a temporary ban on deep sea mining to protect the ocean”. A seabed mining campaigner from the group expressed that “deep sea mining is yet another example of colonial forces exploiting Pacific land and seas, without regard to people’s way of life, food sources and spiritual connection to the ocean”. 

DEAL DEFEATED: In other ocean news, Scientific American covered the UN’s failure “to finalise an ambitious treaty that would create enormous marine protected areas and enforce stricter rules for industry on the high seas”. It cited the commercialisation of the ocean’s genetic resources as a major stumbling block for the negotiations. The article explained that “genetic material from high seas organisms and the digital data from sequencing their genomes could be used to develop new products potentially worth billions of dollars” and asked: “But who owns these resources, which theoretically belong to the entire world, and who gets to profit from their use?” Historically, higher-income nations, such as the US, UK, EU and Japan, “have argued for the right to patent and solely profit from marine genetic resources”, while “developing nations…have argued that profits, data and other benefits derived from marine genetic resources should be shared among all nations”, the outlet said.

EU tightens deforestation rules

NEW PROTECTIONS: The EU has voted to extend its new law against agricultural imports linked to overseas deforestation to include maize, poultry and pork, EurActiv reported. The law aims to guarantee that new products and commodities imported into the bloc are “deforestation-free” – meaning that they do not contribute to forest loss anywhere along the supply chain. The new law, first proposed by the European Commission in November 2021, originally included six commodities: palm oil, cocoa, coffee, beef, soya and timber. “The inclusion of maize had been pushed for by the Green and Socialist party groups, but remained a contentious question due to the key importance of the product for the animal feed industry,” according to EurActiv. (The EU is the world’s second-largest importer of goods that cause tropical deforestation behind China, according to the charity WWF.)

‘WARM WORDS AND WARNINGS’: The tightening of the deforestation import ban has been met with “warm words” from many lawmakers and environmental campaigners, but “warnings” from industry groups, EurActiv reported. According to the publication, Green MEP Martin Häusling described the move as “very ambitious” and “a good day for the protection of international forests”, while Anke Schulmeister-Oldenhove, senior forest policy officer at WWF, praised the European Parliament for voting “for a strong deforestation law”. However, a joint statement from the EU grain and oilseed trade industry claimed the new rules could risk “fuelling supply chain shortages and price inflation in the EU”. Industry representatives from Brazil have also hit out at the rules, Mongabay reported. Caio Carvalho, president of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association, described the new rules as “madness” and “an aggressive and unmeasured posture”.

SPOTLIGHT ON SOY: Elsewhere, an investigation by several journalism groups and non-governmental organisations has uncovered links between livestock farming in Italy and deforestation in Gran Chaco, South America’s second-largest forest. The year-long investigation used satellite images to track how soy produced in the Argentine Gran Chaco moves to harbour-side crushing facilities in the country before being shipped to Italy, where the product is used in animal feed. “Without realising it nor wanting it, Italian consumers are contributing to the destruction of the most biodiverse ecosystem in the country,” the report said. The investigation raised concerns that the EU’s new deforestation law may not be enough to stop this kind of ecosystem loss, explaining: “The EU regulation draft uses the FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organization] definition of ‘forest’. However, the tropical regions that suffer the most from deforestation are complex mosaics of ecosystems or ‘biomes’ that do not fit this definition, such as the Brazilian Cerrado and the Argentine Chaco, which comprise a mix of forest, savannah and natural grasslands.”

Global hunger on the rise

‘TSUNAMI OF HUNGER’: The executive director of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley, warned of a “tsunami of hunger” sweeping the world. Addressing the UN Security Council, Beasley pointed out that 345 million people are facing “acute food insecurity” – “more than twice the number of acutely food insecure people before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020”, Al Jazeera reported. Beasley attributed the escalating hunger to “rising conflict, the pandemic’s economic ripple effects, climate change, rising fuel prices and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, the outlet wrote. A report from Oxfam found that “the number of people facing acute hunger has more than doubled in the world’s climate change hotspots”, according to Agence France-Presse and published in Deutsche Welle. The newswire noted that “the least-polluting countries are the most affected by droughts, floods and other extreme weather events” and carried comments from Oxfam international lead Gabriela Bucher calling on western countries to pay for adaptation and loss and damage for lower income countries.

GAS GAP: South Atlantic news agency MercoPress reported that UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has had discussions with Russian president Vladimir Putin over the ongoing fertiliser and food export issues caused by the invasion of Ukraine, stressing that it is “necessary to facilitate Russia’s food and fertiliser shipments to avert a global food crisis”. Guterres explained: “To remove the obstacles that still exist in relation to the export of Russian fertilisers is absolutely essential at the present moment.” Bloomberg wrote that “Russia’s squeeze on gas supplies is starting to hit sectors well beyond utilities and energy-intensive industries”. According to the outlet, Belgium’s Huyghe brewery “is facing a real risk of halting production for the first time in more than a century”, while Germany’s Wittenberg Gemuese growing company has been “left stranded when Germany’s biggest producer of ammonia and urea halted output last week”.

DRASTIC DROUGHTS: Meanwhile, concurrent droughts are straining food production around the world. Reuters reported that Argentina’s primary agricultural areas “are facing the driest conditions in around 30 years”, with “almost no rainfall in some four months” and continued dry weather in the forecast. A piece in Al Jazeera covered how “untimely and incessant rainfall in early August” has damaged rice paddies in India, with a farmer telling the outlet that “his family can no longer rely on the monsoon” for his crops. An export tariff recently levied by India on many varieties of rice is raising fears of continued food inflation and insecurity in neighbouring Nepal, which is also “bracing for a poor summer harvest” of rice, according to the Kathmandu Post. Modern Farmer wrote that about 40% of the US “has been experiencing drought for over 100 consecutive days”, leading to “an uphill battle for American farmers” and higher prices for consumers. Finally, Sentient Media carried a story detailing how that drought is impacting animals farmed in factory conditions across the US.

News and views

PLANT INVASION: Conservationists working in the Nepali Himalayas have raised concerns that warming conditions could be allowing invasive non-native species to spread into protected high-altitude regions, the Third Pole reported. Pramod Bhattarai, chief conservation officer at Nepal’s Langtang National Park, told the publication: “​​Thanks to climate change, the vegetation, in general, is shifting upwards and it is bringing invasive alien species such as banmara to compete with native grasses. As a result, musk deer and Himalayan tahr [a large wild goat] in the park might soon face difficulties in finding food.” (Banmara is a flowering plant native to Mexico that causes concerns for conservationists because it spreads quickly and can be toxic to mammals, according to the Third Pole.)

FARMING FUNDING: The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced that it will triple its investment in “projects to reduce climate-harming emissions from farming and forestry”, bringing the total to nearly $3bn, Reuters reported. The newswire added that the funding is “part of a broader effort by the administration of President Joe Biden to decarbonise the US economy”. It will support 70 projects for emissions reductions, including “planting cover crops to enhance soil health and absorb carbon, improving manure management to cut methane emissions and collecting data on environmentally friendly beef and bison grazing practices”. USDA commissioner Tom Vilsack added that a further $1.4bn for the projects would be coming from the private sector.

DEFORESTATION ACCUSATION: Several communities of Mennonites – a Christian group that traces its origins to 16th-century Friesland, the Netherlands – that have set up farms deep within the Peruvian Amazon now stand accused of illegal deforestation, the Guardian reported. A representative of the group told the Guardian that they had “acquired the land in good faith on the understanding that they would be granted legal titles once the area was cleared for farming”. But this argument was rejected by environmental prosecutor José Luis Guzmán, who told the Guardian: “I can’t deforest and then ask for a permit! It doesn’t work like that.”

AFRICAN AGRICULTURE: Climate Home News covered the growing tensions in African agriculture “over how best to boost resilience among farmers”. At the African Green Revolution Forum, hosted in Kigali, Rwanda, “African ministers, multinationals and philanthropists” pushed increased fertiliser use as the solution to improving yields, the site reported, but smallholder farmer advocacy groups say that “this model has put farmers at the mercy of volatile global markets and worsened food security”. Rwandan daily the New Times carried details of a new strategy “to establish a new way of practising agriculture on the continent, but also support governments to create an enabling environment for private sector involvement in agricultural transformation”. Meanwhile, a new report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called for “innovations in farming technology” such as genetically engineered seeds to address the global food crisis, reported the Associated Press (AP). The focus on new technologies, the AP added, “puts [Gates] at odds with critics who say his ideas conflict with worldwide efforts to protect the environment”.

DEFORESTING FIRMS FORGIVEN: Indonesia has officially pardoned 75 companies that have operated illegally inside forests, with hundreds more to be offered amnesty in the future, Mongabay reported. A 2013 law in the country prohibited activities such as palm oil cultivation and mining inside forests, but many companies continued amid “lax enforcement”, according to Mongabay. Indonesian officials have introduced an amnesty scheme to give these companies a “grace period” of three years to obtain “proper permits” for their activities, the publication said, adding: “Critics have said the scheme whitewashes the crimes of setting up plantations inside areas zoned as forest, where deforestation, wildfires and land conflicts are rife.” Elsewhere, Mongabay also reported that Indonesia has signed a new climate deal with Norway “that will see the Nordic country pay the south-east Asian one to keep its forests standing”.

Extra reading

New science

A pantropical assessment of deforestation caused by industrial mining
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

According to a new study, 80% of direct forest loss due to industrial mining of mineral resources over 2000-19 occurred in just four countries: Indonesia, Brazil, Ghana and Suriname. Researchers interpreted satellite imagery and forest loss data, and combined these to model both direct and indirect forest loss. They found that indirect deforestation – such as razing nearby areas for settlements or for power generation – occurred in two-thirds of the 26 countries they investigated, while direct deforestation was more geographically concentrated. The authors write: “Impact assessments and mitigation plans of industrial mining activities must address direct and indirect impacts to support conservation of the world’s tropical forests.”

Global seaweed productivity
Science Advances

A new study found that seaweed forests have an “exceptionally high” rate of productivity, especially in the mid-latitudes. Researchers compiled data of seaweed productivity from more than 400 sites around the globe and used these measurements to understand the role of seaweed in the ocean’s carbon cycle. They found that in the coastal regions of temperate and polar seas, seaweed forests are up to 10 times as productive as phytoplankton, in some cases exporting more than 1 kilogramme of carbon per metre squared every year. The researchers call for a better integration of seaweed into models of the oceanic carbon cycle, saying that it has “traditionally been overlooked”.

The risks of overstating the climate benefits of ecosystem restoration

An influential 2020 Nature study that found that restoring 15% of Earth’s degraded land could remove the equivalent of 14% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions may have been “overly optimistic”, according to a new “matters arising” article published in response to the original article. The new commentary says that the findings of the 2020 research paper were “partly based on inaccurate assumptions and that this creates unrealistic expectations for the contribution of restoration to the mitigation of climate change”. The authors of the original paper have written a reply, saying that they “strongly disagree” that they “overestimated the scale of plausible contributions or failed to consider practical limitations to their delivery”.

In the diary

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

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