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23 March 2022 15:00

Cropped, 23 March 2022: War sparks food security fears; Geneva biodiversity talks; Mass coral bleaching

Multiple Authors

NatureCropped, 23 March 2022: War sparks food security fears; Geneva biodiversity talks; Mass coral bleaching

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.


The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to reverberate through the agricultural sector, exacerbating strain brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme weather around the world. In Europe, some are calling for the bloc to rethink its commitment to sustainable farming as a result of the heightened uncertainty around food supplies.

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Key UN talks for stemming widespread biodiversity loss have begun in Switzerland. Hundreds of negotiators are attending a two-week summit in Geneva – the first in-person talks since Covid – to try to agree on the details of a new framework for reversing biodiversity decline, referred to by many as a “Paris Agreement for nature”.

A leading coral reef researcher says the Great Barrier Reef “appears to be” undergoing its sixth mass-bleaching event since 1998. Water temperatures across much of the iconic reef are 1-2C above average. Researchers are currently undertaking aerial surveys of the reef to understand the extent of the bleaching.

Key developments

Food security fears over Ukraine

BRINK OF DISASTER: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to widespread concerns over global food supplies, as Carbon Brief rounded up in the previous edition of Cropped. The chief economist of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) told the Guardian that the conflict “could tip the global food system into disaster”. The Guardian also noted that lower-income countries are “bearing the brunt” of high food prices, which were already elevated due to the Covid-19 pandemic and other supply chain issues. Extreme weather has also been playing a role in the uncertainty worldwide. Reuters reported a few weeks ago that China’s winter wheat crop “could be the ‘worst in history’,” according to the country’s agriculture minister. And an ongoing drought in Kenya makes the addition of the Russia-Ukraine war “very concerning” for food security in that country, Gerald Butts, the vice-chairman of Eurasia Group, wrote on Twitter. The Guardian reported in a separate piece that the World Food Programme was “racing to deliver emergency food supplies” to besieged Ukrainian cities.

G7 SUPPORT: An extraordinary meeting of the G7 agricultural ministers on 11 March saw the countries sign a “joint declaration” in which they committed to “support food supply in Ukraine”, EurActiv reported. International organisations, such as the FAO, were also represented at the meeting. Qu Dongyu, the FAO’s director-general, presented (pdf) to the meeting on food prices and global food markets; he showed preliminary results from models showing the potential impacts of the conflict on food prices and nutrition in both the short- and medium-term. The moderate scenario showed the world’s undernourished population growing by more than 7.5 million people over the course of the year.

POLICY POSTPONEMENT?: The food security fears have led to calls within the EU to rethink the bloc’s commitment to sustainable food systems, Politico wrote. The site noted that the conflict “poses no immediate grave threat to food supplies for EU citizens”, but that there is concern over the future accessibility of some types of animal feed. EurActiv reported that French president Emmanuel Macron told a press conference that his country will “prioritis[e] productivity over sustainable farming goals” in light of the conflict. Macron also “call[ed] for a review of the Farm to Fork objectives”. 

PROPOSALS PUSHED BACK: The EU executive is “split” on the matter of “suspending” the goals of the Green Deal, EurActiv wrote in a separate piece. EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski “wants to hold off” on the policy’s implementation, while Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, has stated that doing so will not help food production. In an open letter (pdf) signed by dozens of national and international organisations, civil society groups called for an “agroecological transition” for farmers and noted that “watering down the Farm to Fork strategy and its policies will maintain Europe’s dependence on non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels”. EurActiv also reported that the Commission “has pushed back” its discussion of the legislative proposals targeting chemical pesticide use and nature restoration, originally scheduled for 23 March. 

Biodiversity talks finally resume

NATURE IN SPOTLIGHT: Negotiators from 164 countries have arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, for a two-week UN summit aimed at reversing biodiversity loss, Reuters reported. In the first in-person meeting of its kind since the start of the Covid pandemic, countries will try to agree on the details of the “post-2020 global biodiversity framework” – a deal referred to by many as a “Paris Agreement for nature”. It comes after countries collectively failed to meet any of their 2020 biodiversity targets. The framework is due to be formally adopted at COP15, a major UN biodiversity summit to be held in Kunming, China later this year. COP15 has been repeatedly pushed back since the pandemic and is currently scheduled to take place in August, according to New Scientist.

ROLE FOR CLIMATE: A growing body of research shows that climate change and biodiversity loss are intrinsically linked and often share common solutions. The first draft of the global biodiversity framework includes a target that calls on countries to “minimise the impact of climate change on biodiversity” by 2030. It adds that countries must “contribute to mitigation and adaptation through ecosystem-based approaches, contributing at least 10bn tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year to global mitigation efforts”. Several of the other 21 “action targets for 2030” have consequences for efforts to tackle climate change, such as the flagship demand for countries to protect 30% of land and sea by the end of the decade and to reduce harmful subsidies, including for fossil fuels.

SLOW PROGRESS: The start of the talks signalled that negotiations risk “being overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine”, Reuters reported, with many major economies using their opening statements to condemn Russia. At the end of the summit’s first week on 20 March, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin concluded that a “successful outcome seems distant”. It reported that the target calling for countries to minimise climate change’s impact on biodiversity sparked “lengthy discussions” on Saturday night, with “divergent views on whether nature-based solutions or ecosystem-based approaches is the appropriate term”. It added: “The inclusion of numerical targets also generated disagreement.” An expert in UN climate and biodiversity negotiations told Carbon Brief that the Geneva talks have produced “very limited progress so far”. They added: “If you imagine the post-2020 biodiversity framework as several books, what they’re doing in Geneva is just the preamble. They’ve not even started the first chapter.” Carbon Brief’s special correspondent Daisy Dunne will be on-the-ground reporting from the talks from today until their conclusion next week.

Great Barrier Reef bleaching underway

MASS BLEACHING: “Official monitoring” is underway off the coast of Queensland to map the extent and severity of coral bleaching across the Great Barrier Reef, the Guardian reported. With water temperatures running warmer than usual, Prof Terry Hughes of James Cook University says that “a sixth mass bleaching event is now unfolding, and that it was not mild or local”. While corals “can recover from mild bleaching”, more severe heat stress can kill the corals entirely, the Guardian noted. In the Conversation, two other coral reef scientists at James Cook detailed the causes and effects of coral bleaching events, including how reef fishes and other species can – or cannot – adapt. They noted that the conditions on the reef are “so extreme” as to be hard to replicate in a lab, adding: “Scientists are at our own tipping points, too”.

NET-ZERO ‘NOT ENOUGH’: Meanwhile, a briefing released this week by the Australian Climate Council, a non-government climate change communications organisation, detailed the links between climate change, marine heatwaves and coral bleaching. The briefing states that “governments must commit to immediate, deep and sustained emissions reductions this decade” in order to “best protect” the reef, stating that the current target of net-zero emissions by 2050 “is not enough”. The report also noted that if warming continues unabated, the reef could see annual bleaching events by the mid-2040s. Writing about the report, Reuters noted that marine heatwaves in Australia are “affecting fisheries, damaging species and hurting tourism”. The site added that the release of the briefing coincided with the arrival of UNESCO experts in Australia to assess the government’s Reef 2050 Plan. The UNESCO report, “expected by early May”, will make a recommendation on “on whether the site should be listed as ‘in danger’” – an “embarrassment” that the conservative government “averted” in 2015, Reuters wrote.

UNSCIENTIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS: Earlier this month, the Guardian also reported that the Australian government had “pushed to soften” the wording around the risks that climate change poses to the Great Barrier Reef in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report on the impacts of climate change. Australian officials suggested that the report “should say the reef was ‘not yet in crisis’”, the newspaper wrote. The move was opposed by France and “several” Caribbean countries, and the “original wording was ultimately retained” in the final report. The attempt “prompted accusations” that the Australian government was being “unscientific” and “trying to play down the damage” that climate change has already caused in order to avoid taking action on emissions.

News and views

FILLING THE BLANKS: Writing in Nature, a group of scientists explained the details of the African BioGenome Project, an effort to sequence the genomes of 105,000 endemic species of plants, animals and fungi to protect biodiversity in the face of climate change. At present, more than half of Africa’s “orphan crops”, which “have a crucial role in regional food security”, have not had their genomes sequenced, the authors said. They added: “The same is true of more than 95% of the continent’s known endangered species.” A pilot of the scheme was launched in 2021, but “long-term investment” is needed for the project to be fully realised, the authors warned.

BLUE CARBON: Restoration and creation of saltmarsh and seagrass ecosystems could help to remove “well below” one million tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year in the UK, a new briefing from the government’s official climate advisers found. An assessment of “blue carbon” by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said the potential for shallow coastal ecosystems to contribute to CO2 removal “is small when considered against the emissions from the wider economy (405.5m tonnes of CO2e in 2020)”. However, it added that coastal ecosystems still “represent potentially very large natural carbon stores” and “may provide extremely efficient carbon removal on a local scale”.

FOOD SYSTEMS POLICY: The Global Alliance for the Future of Food released a new report analysing the commitments that 14 countries have made towards food systems transformation in their climate pledges under the Paris Agreement. They found that none of the countries fully accounted for emissions from food systems in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), and each NDC had varying levels of ambition for tackling transformation. The organisation also created a “toolkit” for others to apply the same framework to other countries’ pledges. In China Dialogue, one report co-author wrote that “governments are largely overlooking” the massive potential of food systems transformation for emissions reduction and added that “there is no good reason for countries not to include it in their NDCs”.

SECRET SOY: The average European consumes 60kg of soy each year through eating animal products such as meat, eggs and yoghurt, according to a new WWF report covered by EurActiv. The report, presented in an interactive format on WWF’s website, also found that 90% of the soy consumed via animal products in Europe is not listed as an ingredient on the packaging. The majority of the soy consumed in Europe comes from South America, with some of it linked to deforestation of biodiverse ecosystems in the Amazon, said WWF.

RED FLAGS: The bullfighting industry in Europe is “being kept alive” by agricultural subsidies, animal-rights campaigners told the Guardian. Bulls are bred on farms that receive “millions of euros” paid out under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), despite a vote by members of European Parliament in 2015 that was “overwhelmingly in favour” of blocking the use of these funds for “the financing of lethal bullfighting activities”. However, that ban was shelved “over concerns that it would modify the legal provisions of the CAP”. The European Greens proposed an amendment to the CAP in 2020 that would ban these funds from being used for raising cattle for bullfighting, but the motion was ultimately dropped. Breeders’ associations have called proposed bans “discriminatory”, the Guardian wrote.

FOREST CONFLICT: The Israeli government is set to resume a “controversial plan” to plant trees in the Negev desert closeby to Palestinian towns, the Middle East Eye reported. In December and January, hundreds of Palestinans protested against the forestation plan, which they say “is a pretext to pushing them out from their lands” to make way for new Israeli settlements, the newspaper said. Earlier in March, Israel said that it intended to build two major towns in the Negev desert as part of a settlement expansion plan. Almost 300,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel live in Negev.

Extra reading

New science

Seaweed ecosystems may not mitigate CO2 emissions
ICES Journal of Marine Science

Seaweed ecosystems may act as a net emitter of CO2 rather than a carbon sink, a new study has found, after many had raised hopes that boosting such habitats would help to tackle climate change. Seaweed stores around 175m tonnes of carbon on an annual basis – equivalent to 10% of the emissions from all the cars in the world, the study authors explained in the Conversation. But there’s a problem: Filter feeders that live in seaweed ecosystems, such as sea squirts and shellfish, produce CO2 as they eat plankton. The new study found that, together, the activities of filter feeders is enough to make entire seaweed ecosystems net sources of CO2 rather than sinks.

Relocating croplands could drastically reduce the environmental impacts of global food production
Communications Earth & Environment

Shifting agricultural areas to their “optimal locations” could reduce the carbon footprint of crop-growing by 17% and reduce the impact on biodiversity by 87%, a new study found. Researchers used data on current cropland distribution and impacts to model how these impacts could be minimised by relocating croplands either globally or within each country. They found that even relocating “a small proportion” of global production could lead to “substantial impact reductions” when paired with less-intensive farming practices. Despite the “undeniable” challenges that such relocation poses, they wrote, it also provides “enormous potential” for alleviating some of the environmental impacts of farming.

Lords of the biosphere: Plant winners and losers in the Anthropocene
Plants, People, Planet

A study of more than 86,000 plants found that many more species will be “losers” than “winners” as human impacts such as climate change and pollution continue to worsen. The study split plants into “winners useful to humans”, “winners not useful to humans”, “losers useful to humans”, “losers not useful to humans” and “neutral species”. Losers useful to humans include Magnolia ekmanii, a critically endangered tree endemic to Haiti harvested for wood to produce charcoal and for the construction of houses, and Ceratozamia kuesteriana, a critically endangered cycad endemic to Mexico, threatened by habitat loss and over-collecting.

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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