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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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A new investigation linked agricultural commodity giant Cargill to deforestation in the Amazon. One of the firm’s Brazilian partners is suspected of deforesting land to grow soya and maize, which may have been purchased by the supplier. Cargill denied the accusations and reaffirmed its commitment to halting deforestation.
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Growth of India’s forests has reached an eight-year low, according to an official survey released this week. The India State of Forest Report found the country’s total forest cover increased by a marginal 1,540 square kilometres from 2019 to 2021. Some experts dispute the claim that forest cover has increased at all.
The EU’s agriculture commissioner has warned member states of the need for speedy submission of their national strategic plans for implementing the bloc’s Common Agricultural Policy. Details of some plans have been released, but nearly one-third of countries have not submitted them yet – several weeks after the 31 December deadline.
Cargill linked to Amazon deforestation – again
SOYA SUPPLIER: Cargill, a multinational agricultural company that is one of the world’s leading suppliers of livestock feed, has once again been linked to tropical deforestation, a new investigation from Unearthed, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Repórter Brasil and Ecostorm found. Unearthed reported that Cargill purchases soya from a Brazilian supplier farm that has been linked to deforestation over the past decade but added that “it is not known whether the crops in question were grown on a recently deforested part of the farm”. Cargill told Unearthed that the company is “committed to eliminating deforestation from our supply chains in the shortest possible time” and it is “accelerating” its efforts to do so.
REPEAT OFFENDER: Cargill has previously been “repeatedly linked” to deforestation in both the Brazilian Amazon and the Cerrado, a protected tropical savanna in Brazil, the Guardian reported. The paper added that the findings of the most recent investigation “raise questions about Cargill’s due diligence process”, especially since the company has previously “pledged to clean up its global supply chains”. The New York Times reported on companies’ pledges to end deforestation by 2020, noting that while “some companies reported advances toward their goal”, none could claim to have “eliminated forest destruction from its supply chain”.
INADEQUATE MEASURES: Earlier this month, the Forest 500 report, produced by the non-governmental organisation Global Canopy, found that “far too many” of the companies “most exposed to deforestation” are not taking adequate measures for prevention. Many of the companies that do have commitments to addressing deforestation are “failing to provide evidence of how they are implementing them”, the report continued. Agence France-Presse reported that Cargill is one of just 15 companies and institutions – out of a total 500 – with a “favourable” rating. Cargill got high marks for the strength of its commitment, but lower ones for its reporting and implementation measures.
Trees counted in India
FOREST SLOWDOWN: Forest cover across India increased by just 1,540km2 from 2019 to 2021 – the slowest bi-annual increase in eight years, the Indian English language newspaper Business Standard reported. The newspaper reported that the small rise in forest cover from 2019 to 2021 represents just a 0.22% increase. Similarly, growth in tree cover is at its lowest rate since 2015. The figures come from the India State of Forest Report 2021, a biannual survey of forests and tree cover based on remote sensing satellite data, published by India’s ministry of environment, forest and climate change.
BIODIVERSITY IN PERIL: Though total forest cover is increasing, biodiversity-rich forests in India’s northeast states are consistently recording a loss, according to Business Standard. Nagaland, a biodiversity hotspot which is home to Asian elephants and sloth bears, is losing forest at a faster rate than anywhere else in India, according to the report. Other states that saw their forest cover fall between 2019 and 2021 include Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.
FIGURES QUESTIONED: The official findings have drawn criticism from forestry experts, according to Mongabay India. Some analysts have questioned the report’s methodology, according to the publication, which appears to label trees within cities or plantations as “forest cover”. Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta told Mongabay-India: “If we go by the [government report], many of the city dwellers or coffee plantation owners are actually forest dwellers.” It comes as Scroll.in, a digital publication in India, released an investigation finding that many of the plantations listed under the country’s “compensatory afforestation” programme do not appear to exist. India’s “compensatory afforestation” scheme is its way of ensuring that forests lost to development are replanted in a different location. However, data analysis and on-the-ground surveys conducted by Scroll.in found that “many plantations that exist on paper are simply missing on the ground”.
EU CAP implementation
NATIONAL STRATEGIES: EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has warned that if member states fail to submit their national strategic plans for implementing the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms simultaneously, they “ru[n] the risk of unfair assessment”, EurActiv reported. The plans were due by the end of 2021, but eight countries – including Belgium and Germany – have yet to deliver. After all of the plans are received they must be evaluated and approved by the European Commission. Wojciechowski said: “The first half of the year, all eyes [are on] the strategic plans; this is the most important challenge for the commission – to analyse, assess and, finally, to approve the strategic plans.”
GERMANY GOING GREEN: Germany’s agriculture and environment ministers appeared together at a press conference to “advocate the end of direct agricultural payments and increased organic production”, reported a separate EurActiv piece. Environment minister Steffi Lemke said that the current CAP reform “does not go far enough in its efforts” to preserve nature, the site reported. Under the previous German government, these two ministries were headed by separate parties; both are now led by members of the Green party. Agriculture minister Cem Özdemir said during the press conference that “in future, we will no longer waste our energy in a tug-of-war between the ministries”. Among the agenda items for the new collaboration are increasing organic food production and consumption and more stringent pesticide regulations.
MIXED REACTIONS: A third story by EurActiv looks at the French national strategic plan for implementing the CAP, which, the site notes, “continue[s] to generate mixed reactions”. The plan lays out several priorities, including increasing legume production, encouraging agroecological farming methods and “doubling organic farming areas by 2027”. EurActiv also reported that the country wants to use CAP funding to “support the diversification of crops and the planting of hedges to favour biodiversity and carbon storage”. The vice-president of France’s main farming union told EurActiv that the result is a “consensus that is acceptable to us”. However, a representative of the French National Federation of Organic Agriculture called the plan a “strategic deception” and said that it will maintain a “status quo that goes against agriculture’s transition ambitions”.
News and views
LOOMING FOOD CRISIS: In Liberia, successive poor harvests are “wreaking havoc” on the country’s farmers, reported Front Page Africa. About 80% of the country is dependent on subsistence agriculture and growing “inconsistency” in weather – especially rainfall – is costly for farmers. The outlet noted that the effects of climate change are “falling most heavily” on women, who “carry the biggest burden” in terms of collecting food and water. Liberia’s government has proposed a nearly $500m “adaptation plan” that will focus on six key sectors, including agriculture; 85% of this money will need to come from donors. Applying for external funds will be complicated by a new “anti-corruption investigation” into Liberia’s agricultural ministry, Front Page Africa wrote.
MONOPOLY MONEY: Australia’s newly expanded carbon credits scheme has drawn criticism from analysts, Australian Associated Press reported. Earlier this month, the Australian government announced that the types of projects that will be allowed to generate carbon credits under its Emissions Reduction Fund will be expanded to include coastal wetlands, plantation forestry and “biomethane” (which includes activities such as creating biogas from manure). Polly Hemming, an adviser at the Australian Institute, an independent thinktank, told AAP that the government was “grossly overestimating” the capacity of such schemes to generate carbon. “Offsets are being handed out like Monopoly money,” she said.
NO PROTECTION: Expanding areas protected for nature will not be enough to halt Earth’s burgeoning biodiversity crisis, the Guardian reported. Later this year, nations are due to gather in Kunming, China to reach an agreement on measures to tackle biodiversity loss, including a pledge to protect at least 30% of land and the ocean by 2030. However, a review of the draft agreement by more than 50 scientists found that tackling biodiversity loss would require far more “transformative changes”, such as slashing harmful agricultural subsidies and reducing levels of overconsumption. Expanding protecting areas “is a good start if done well, but far short of what is needed”, a scientist told the Guardian.
YOUTH ACTIVIST MURDERED: The murder of a 14-year-old indigenous environmental activist in Colombia earlier this month has “shone a spotlight on the extreme vulnerability of young indigenous activists in communities caught in the crossfire of illegal armed groups”, El País reported. Breiner David Cucuñame was a member of the Nasa people and a member of an unarmed group called the Indigenous Guard, which “seeks to protect indigenous communities and land”. The guard opposes the expansion of mining and large-scale monocropping agriculture, which displace Indigenous crops and pollute the water. He was killed in an ambush that is being blamed on dissidents from the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The paper wrote that 145 human rights and environmental activists were murdered last year in the country – about one every 2.5 days.
MANURE PROBLEM: Each year, US farm animals produce between 1.27bn and 1.37bn tonnes of manure – up to 20 times more than people produce – and it is becoming a problem, according to the Guardian. The build-up of manure from livestock drives water pollution and climate change, with 12% of all US agricultural emissions coming from manure management, the newspaper reported. One solution being touted by the Biden administration is the rollout of anaerobic digesters, which turn manure into a form of energy called biogas. “But digesters come with their own set of problems,” the Guardian added.
- Shepherds in Indian Himalayas turn backs on traditional livelihood – Varsha Singh, The Third Pole
- ‘The treeline is out of control’: how the climate crisis is turning the Arctic green – Ben Rawlence, The Guardian
- Venezuela’s environmental crisis: ‘the beginning of a wave of destruction’ – Gideon Long, Financial Times
- Black farmers are rebuilding agriculture in coal country – Natalie Peart, YES! Magazine
Risk and reward of the global truffle sector under predicted climate change
Environmental Research Letters
Black truffle production rates could fall by around 15% globally by the end of the century as growing regions experience increases in aridity and heatwaves, a study found. Using global climate models, the researchers assessed the impact of future trends and extremes in temperature, rainfall and soil moisture on black truffle production rates and price levels in the Americas, Europe, South Africa and Australasia under both a medium (RCP4.5) and high (RCP8.5) emissions scenario. As well as projecting a decrease in production rates, the research also found that black truffle prices could increase by a global average of around 36% by the end of the century. “At the same time, a predicted increase in summer precipitation and less intense warming over Australasia will likely alleviate water scarcity and support higher yields of more affordable truffles,” the authors said.
Climate and agronomy, not genetics, underpin recent maize yield gains in favourable environments
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
A new study found that genetic technologies are only responsible for 13% of gains in the potential yield of maize crops – a “substantially smaller” proportion than previous research had shown. Researchers analysed crop models, weather data and yield data from across Nebraska, one of the key maize-growing regions of the US. They found that nearly half of the increases in maize yield were due to climate change and almost 40% were due to agronomic improvements, such as crop rotation. They argued that there is an “urgen[t] need to reevaluate” the causes of changing yield potential for other key crops and said that future gains may “increasingly rely” on improved farming practises.
Ozone pollution in East Asia could account for US$63bn in lost staple crop production each year, a new study estimates. The research combines air monitoring data in 3,000 sites across China, Japan and Korea with yield data for rice, wheat and maize. East Asia is a “hotspot” for ozone pollution, which is created by cars, power plants and chemical factories, according to the authors. They added that the “large impact” of ozone pollution “on crop production urges us to take mitigation action”.
In the diary
- 26 January: Responsible land governance for sustainable food systems
- 2 February: World Wetlands Day
- 14-18 February: Approval session for the IPCC working group 2 AR6 report