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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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Drought continued to blight many parts of the world this month, with drought officially declared across large areas of England, record-dry conditions in China and crops decimated in the US.
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The US passed its most ambitious package of climate measures in history, including nearly $17bn to cut the environmental impact of farming. However, there are concerns about the bill’s support for biofuels.
Wildfires supercharged by drought blazed across the world’s largest tropical wetlands – South America’s Pantanal – sparking fears that fires will worsen in coming months. Brazil has recently weakened policy to favour ranchers and tourism, while NGOs have petitioned the UN in response to the fires.
Drought emergencies across the globe
NOW OFFICIAL: The Environment Agency declared an official drought across nine regions of England on 12 August following prolonged dry conditions and lack of rainfall, the Guardian reported. Another article from the Guardian stated that “despite the heavy rain and thunderstorms that have hit the UK this week, several areas of the country remain in drought”. It carries satellite footage which shows how the UK “has been scorched, turning from green to brown in a matter of months”. BBC News reported experts’ warnings that the heatwave and drought had pushed trees into survival mode, with leaves dropping off or changing colour due to stress, calling the situation in the UK a “false autumn”. Heatwave conditions hit the UK again this summer, with Sky News reporting a high temperature of 34.5C in the village of Wiggonholt, West Sussex, on 13 August. In an opinion piece for the Guardian, Green MP Caroline Lucas accused the UK government of inaction concerning the drought.
LOW WATER: Due to drought, major European waterways such as the Rhine, Danube and Po “are warming and at critically low levels, threatening agriculture, commerce, drinking water and natural ecosystems”, reported Deutsche Welle. “When water levels fall, living space is restricted, and plant and animal populations struggle to coexist,” Jose Pablo Murillo, programme officer at the Stockholm International Water Institute, told DW. Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden’s administration announced that water shortages along the Colorado River had passed a threshold for the first time that will require “unprecedented water cuts” in Arizona and Nevada, the Washington Post reported. In addition, “a record-breaking drought has caused some rivers in China – including parts of the Yangtze – to dry up, affecting hydropower, halting shipping and forcing major companies to suspend operations”, according to the Guardian. Finally, as CNBC reported, Thames Water in the UK put in place a temporary hosepipe ban for millions of residents in London and the south.
СROP ISSUES: As a result of water shortages and high temperatures, half of the UK’s potato crop is expected to fail as it cannot be irrigated, and even crops that are usually drought-tolerant, such as maize, have been failing, the Guardian reported. Additionally, BBC News reported that according to experts, “fruit and vegetables on the shelves will be smaller and look different as the summer’s hot and dry weather hits crops”. Nearly three-quarters of US farmers say this year’s drought is hurting their harvest with significant crop and income loss, according to a new survey by the American Fаrm Bureau Federation, noted CNN. Reuters reported that Chinese farmers are also struggling with drought, sending specialist teams to vulnerable regions to allocate water resources better and devise action plans for the autumn harvest. Authorities will “try to increase rain” by seeding clouds with chemicals and spraying crops with a “water retaining agent” to limit evaporation, reported the Associated Press.
US takes on farming emissions in climate bill
AMERICA ACTS: On Tuesday 16 August, US president Joe Biden signed a bill into law that he described as “the most significant legislation in history to tackle the climate crisis”. As Carbon Brief reported in an in-depth media summary, the Inflation Reduction Act contains $437bn of spending – mostly on climate and health measures – and was agreed after months of haggling with Democrat senator and coal-industry supporter Joe Manchin. The IRA devotes most of its climate spending to scaling up renewable power, including $177bn for “clean electricity”, according to an interactive breakdown of the bill in the New York Times. However, the bill also contains nearly $17bn in “funding for agricultural practices that improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses and decrease emissions”, says the paper – with almost $5bn for forest protection and restoration, and $4.6bn for drought resilience. Overall, just over 5% of the IRA’s spending is earmarked for changing farming practices, according to Vox, which added that the US food system accounts for 11% of its total greenhouse gas emissions.
FARMING JUSTICE: In a blog post, Karen Perry Stillerman, deputy director of the food and environment programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the bill gave her “renewed hope for climate action on farms”. She wrote: “The IRA would invest $20bn to help the nation’s farmers respond to climate change. This is less than the $23bn investment we advocated for in last year’s House-passed legislation. But $20bn is still a big investment, the largest since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.” Harvest Public Media reported that the bill addresses “past wrongs” against “Black and brown farmers” in the US. The bill repeals and replaces a section of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which offered funds to farmers of colour who have been discriminated against by the US agricultural department, according to the publication. It explained: “Since it passed in March 2021, the funding has fallen into legal limbo due to multiple lawsuits from banks and from white farmers alleging discrimination…Instead, the IRA provides $3.1bn for economically ‘distressed’ farmers – of any race – ‘whose agricultural operations are at a financial risk’. It also includes $2.2bn for farmers who have experienced discrimination and can prove it.”
BIOFUELS BOOST: Despite new measures to address farming emissions, some commentators warned the bill also contains funding for projects that could worsen environmental issues on land. Mother Jones reported that the IRA “doubles down” on a policy to expand biofuels, which could require more crop production in the US corn belt. The outlet explained: “The corn belt is dominated by just two crops, corn and soybeans, which are both harvested in the fall, leaving the ground bare until the spring planting. This leaves the soil vulnerable to fierce storms, ramped up by warming temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, that pummel the region during the off season, washing enormous amounts of precious topsoil into streams.” The IRA pledges $500m to help gas stations retrofit pumps to take fuel containing ethanol, a biofuel that already consumes a third of US corn, according to Mother Jones. Incentivising more ethanol production could lead to further expansion of corn crops, causing further harm to soils and local ecosystems in the US corn belt, the outlet said. Elsewhere, Reuters reported that the bill “could help to expand a burgeoning but controversial industry that seeks to capture gases from rotting food and farm waste and convert them into fuel and other forms of energy”.
Pantanal peat fires
PANTANAL BURNING: Fresh fires blazed through the Pantanal – the world’s largest tropical wetlands – which sprawls across the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, Mongabay reported. More than 10,000 of 78,000-hectare Pantanal do Rio Negro state park have been affected in the blaze, the story said, with 26% more area burned than in the “devastating blazes” of 2021, according to the Pantanal Observatory. In 2020, fires engulfed an area “larger than the size of Belgium”. The park is “a maze of swamps, lagoons and submerged forest [t]reasured by biologists” and is home to species such as the jaguar and hyacinth macaw. Between 1 May and 26 July, NASA satellites recorded 677 fire alerts in the park.
FIRE FACTORS: The wildfires escalated from a “handful” of small fires in the wetlands’ southern stretch in May to a blaze that spread over 450 square kilometres in two months, according to data from the University of Maryland, NASA and Global Forest Watch. While firefighters worked around the clock in mid-July to contain the flames, 13% of the park was already burned to ash. The fires restarted in August and were reportedly quelled on 14 August, according to recent satellite images, but “the fire season is only just beginning”. While the wetlands are typically nourished by rains between December to March, the region has seen back-to-back droughts. Forecasts suggest September will see 40-50% less rain than usual, ruling out the chances of naturally extinguishing the fires. While natural fires are common, researchers said these wildfires are a combination of “human actions and climate conditions”, as ranchers are known to start small fires to clear land for pasture, which can quickly spread.
HERITAGE ABLAZE: Brazil’s state of Mato Grosso approved legislation allowing extensive cattle ranching and tourism in the Pantanal’s protected areas earlier this month, Mongabay reported in another story. While the bill has sparked an outcry from 43 environmental organisations in Mato Grosso who say Indigenous communities were not consulted, ranchers say the amendments will allow them to add “a million additional head of cattle to the region”. Meanwhile, non-profit the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to include the Pantanal site on the list of world heritage sites in danger over the fires, alleging that Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s promotion of policies to enable land-clearing and livestock expansion, along with cutting funds, are compromising “the government’s ability to prevent and fight fires”. According to the World Heritage Convention, sites can be listed as in danger if threatened by “serious and specific dangers”, including but not limited to “disappearance caused by accelerated deterioration”.
News and views
FLOODS AND FOOD: Flooding in Africa has destroyed farmland and threatened food security, according to science and technology website SciDevNet. Taiwo Ogunwumi, an environmental and flood risk consultant in Nigeria, told the website that “several factors” had contributed to flooding in countries such as Gambia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria, but highlighted “the changing climate” as a “notable” cause. Tijani Bojang, Gambia’s chief meteorologist and forecaster at the Department of Water Resources, attributed the “unprecedented” rainfall to climate change in an interview with Gambian newspaper Foroyaa. Elsewhere, VOA News reported that trade between Cameroon and Nigeria has been disrupted by flood water and that vegetable harvests were rotting as a result of delayed trade.
GERMANY FARMS MORE: German ministers have approved a plan to loosen environmental measures in order to allow farmers to grow more cereals, sunflowers and certain vegetables in light of Russia’s war in Ukraine, EurActiv reported. Under the reformed EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to be enacted in 2023, farmers were to be obliged to leave more farmland empty in an effort to improve biodiversity, according to EurActiv. However, on 16 August, ministers voted to allow farmers to keep growing crops on land that they would otherwise have been forced to take out of production in recognition of “reduced supplies from Ukraine”, EurActiv said.
NET-ZERO: Talks to regulate deep-sea mining ended in a stalemate in Kingston, Jamaica, with just a year remaining before seabed mining could commence without any environmental regulations, the Guardian reported. Three weeks of discussions on the 670-page draft text that will form the rulebook for mining the oceans ground to a halt, but the talks signalled a “mood shift” among negotiating nations, the paper said, with Micronesia calling for a moratorium and the UK and Australia calling for the rules to be framed as soon as possible. In June 2021, Nauru triggered the two-year rule in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which “would theoretically allow it to start mining in June 2023 under whatever mining rules are in place by then”, Mongabay reported. The past year has seen “a flurry of activity”, Hakai Magazine reported, with mining companies testing robots to collect deep-sea polymetallic “nodules” – “fist-sized rocks made of cobalt, manganese, nickel and copper”. The Metals Company signed an agreement “to develop a nodule-processing plant in India” in March, the magazine reports. However, scientists say their “baseline knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems is not enough to even know how to monitor the harm mining might cause” or the “thresholds of environmental harm”, a key unresolved part of the negotiations.
MEAT ON REPEAT: The Guardian published a series on meat explaining its impact on the climate, the current trend on its consumption and ways to cut down emissions from the industry in the UK. One of the articles reported that “there appears to be a slight downward trend in meat-eating but figures are still high” . It said the most effective way to cut down the demand for this commodity is a “meat tax”. Henry Dimbleby, a British restaurateur who led England’s National Food Strategy, told the Guardian that “although asking the public to eat less meat – supported by a mix of incentives and penalties – would be politically toxic, it was the only way to meet the country’s climate and biodiversity targets”. The Conversation carried a piece looking at how a meat tax could work. Additionally, Carbon Brief and Deutsche Welle collaborated on an Instagram post examining the climate impact of meat and dairy.
CAPE HEROES: More than 100 small-scale fishers demonstrated at the entrance to Cape Town harbour last week, asking the South African government to stop approving permits for oceanic oil and gas exploration, GroundUp reported. Protestors carried signs that said “oil and water do not mix”, the story said, with local NGOs pointing out that “drilling causes fish to disappear” and that they would not “allow the government and foreign companies to take over our oceans.” The protests were supported by the African Climate Alliance, 350.org, Greenpeace Africa, Masifundise and other organisations. On 11 July, South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment proposed regulations for the exploration and production of onshore oil and gas for public comment, the Conversation reported.
SHEEP OR CARBON: In New Zealand, sheep and cattle ranchers are increasingly selling their land to “carbon farmers” looking to take advantage of the country’s emissions trading scheme, the New York Times reported. The newspaper explained: “So-called carbon farming has become a key element of New Zealand’s drive to be carbon neutral by 2050. Under a market-based emissions trading program, companies in carbon-intensive industries must buy credits to offset their emissions. Many of those credits are purchased from forest owners, and as the credits’ price has soared, forestry investors have sought to cash in by buying up ranches.” Because of the tree-planting push, farmers have “voiced concerns that sheep and cattle ranching, a major employer in many communities and one of the country’s top exporting sectors, is bound for a significant decline”, according to the paper.
- Drawing the wrong lessons from Sri Lanka’s organic farming experience – Nethmi S Perera Bathige & William G Moseley, Mongabay
- A response to Cafaro, Hansson & Götmark (2022): Shifting the narrative from overpopulation to overconsumption – Aalayna Green, Asia Murphy and others, Biological Conservation
- Keeping it wild: how mules help preserve the last untamed places in the US – Jessica Reed, The Guardian
- Carbon offsets: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – Last Week Tonight, HBO
A new study looked at the impact of extreme weather events and climate change on food supply chains in Australia. It found that extreme heatwaves can cause up to a 40% drop in the output of dairy and cattle farming in New South Wales – Australia’s heartland of dairy production – while also leading to a 25% loss of apple and pear crops in the state of Victoria. The researchers modelled scenarios of climate change and extreme weather events – particularly heatwaves and cyclones – in key food-producing hubs. When extreme weather triggers short-term food shortages, rural households appear most vulnerable, followed by urban low-income households, the study found.
Conserving forests in Melanesia, south and south-east Asia, the Anatolian peninsula, northern South America and Central America would yield the largest gains in species conservation over the next 50 years, a new study found. The researchers used a decision-making approach to determine the “optimal sequence” in which plant species in 458 forested regions across the world should be conserved. They considered factors such as species richness, deforestation rates, the cost of conservation, existing protections and restoration potential. According to their findings, forest protection would begin first in a handful of ecoregions where conservation costs are low and where further deforestation would lead to large species reductions, followed by investment in primary forest protection in other ecoregions. They concluded that their results “highlight the potentially large gains in conservation that can be made with carefully targeted investments”.
Climate resilience and the human-water dynamics. The case of tomato production in Morocco
Science of the Total Environment
Increasing droughts in Morocco are accelerating groundwater water depletion, putting tomato farmers at risk, according to a new study. The research examined how environmental and socioeconomic processes combine to influence tomato production in Morocco. The study authors said: “Our results show that tomato production is not yet severely impacted by droughts. However, droughts are accelerating the process of groundwater depletion, impacting farmers’ livelihoods, by decreasing crop productivity and reducing farmer’s revenue over a longer time period.” The findings prompt the need for a “more radical approach toward water resource conservation” in Morocco, according to the authors.
In the diary
- 22-26 August: Sixth European Congress of Conservation Biology
- 24 August: Angola general elections
- 5-9 September: FAO 35th Committee on Fisheries
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]