Ecomodernism: creating more questions than it answers

ecomodernistBy Katy Wilson

In April 2015 ahead of the 45th Earth Day, a group of 18 authors, including the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, released An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a report outlining how to “use humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene”. Released on the 26th September in the UK, the publication outlines the authors’ beliefs that human well-being must be decoupled from environmental destruction and that alongside reducing our impact on the environment we must refrain from trying to balance nature with development if we are to “avoid economic and ecological collapse” and “make more room for nature”. This decoupling is to be achieved through several ways such as intensification, demographic change and through the use of technological substitutes.

Intensification of agriculture, energy extraction, forestry and human settlement is believed to be key to separating the natural world from ongoing human development and to enhancing nature, alleviating poverty and mitigating climate change. Authors use as evidence of this effect the fact that since the mid-1960s the amount of land needed for growing crops and animal feed for the average person has decreased by about half. Net reforestation has also been made possible in some areas such as New England due to agricultural intensification and a reduction in the use of wood as fuel.

Technology has, over history, reduced our reliance on natural ecosystems (or at least their directly obtained goods) and increased our resource-use efficiency but it has also allowed the human population, and associated consumption, to expand exponentially as well as increase the reach of society’s impact on global ecosystems. Although our consumption patterns are changing (in developing countries diets are shifting to include more meat and processed foods, while in some developed countries more sustainable protein sources are growing in popularity) and human population is predicted to peak and decline this century, globalisation and the distance between societies and the resources they consume, continues to increase. The development of technological substitutes could lower the impact our lifestyles have on ecosystems far away. Technological development supported by the report include urbanisation, nuclear power, agricultural intensification, aquaculture and desalination. On the other hand suburbanisation, low-yield farming and some forms of renewable energy production are believed to increase human demands on the environment. [Read more…]

Boom and Bust: the future of our food producing ecosystems

ID-100219796A recent paper, No Dominion over Nature, authored by UK ecologists, Professors Mark Huxham, Sue Hartley, Jules Pretty and Paul Tett, describes how current approaches to food production are damaging the long term health of ecosystems, hampering their ability to provide ecosystem services and leaving them vulnerable to collapse. Focusing on continual (and unsustainable) increases in agricultural productivity, for example through intensive monocultures, will inevitably lead to a “boom and bust” cycle.

The “dominant narrative” in meeting the ever increasing demand for food (some estimate we need to increase food production by 100% by 2050 to meet this demand) is to intensify agricultural production, an approach, such as the Green Revolution, that has so far allowed food production to keep pace with population growth. Such a pathway, as authors argue, is causing ecosystem deterioration, eroding the ecosystem services we rely upon such as pollination, climate regulation and water purification. Intensification comes at an economic and ecological cost – ever increasing synthetic input amounts are costly, too costly for some, while they have serious impacts on the environment.

An alternative is low input agriculture such as organic farming, which may not produce the yields to meet future demand without expansion of farming area and similarly poses a threat to the environment with agricultural expansion being a major factor in the conversion of natural habitats, deforestation and biodiversity loss. In particular the report talks about the debate between those arguing for intensification and those for low-input farming, most often framed as an argument between economists and environmentalists, or ostriches and romantics as Paul Collier terms them. Ostriches in that proponents may have their head in the sand ignoring looming environmental and climate crises, romantics in that their advocacy of environmentally friendly approaches such as organic may seem appealing but could have negative impacts, for example increasing the cost of food to account for environmental externalities, which could exacerbate hunger.

The authors reject both approaches suggesting instead “a focus on maintaining ecosystem health through the management of terrestrial and aquatic environments as multifunctional mosaics”. In a sense combining intensive agriculture with neighbouring land that provides ecosystem services in a way that maximises ecosystem resilience. In particular the concepts of bioproductivity, “the ability of ecosystems to capture energy in organic form”, an ability which forms the basis of food production, and thresholds or planetary boundaries are discussed as key management guidelines. Ecosystems should be seen as “functional self-regulating systems” and should be managed to ensure a continual and adequate supply of ecosystem services. [Read more…]

Land use change to increase livestock productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions

ID-10013909Land use change, while most often associated with the loss of natural habitat, could be a cost-effective method of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving threatened species. A new study in Nature entitled, Cheap carbon and biodiversity co-benefits from forest regeneration in a hotspot of endemism, investigated carbon stocks, biodiversity and economic values in the western Andes of Colombia, a threatened ecosystem rich in endemic species where land is predominantly used for cattle farming.

Results of the study found that if farmers were to allow forest to regenerate on their land, foregoing cattle farming, they would match or increase their current incomes through receiving payments for carbon. Under current carbon markets the price per tonne of carbon dioxide trees remove from the atmosphere is $1.99. Farmers’ land would be leased for 30 years and they would be paid for the carbon grown.

Aside from the benefits for climate change mitigation, forest regeneration would also support biodiversity. In their study, researchers found 33 out of the 40 red-list bird species in the area existed in secondary forest, compared to 11 in cattle pastures.

While researchers claim the regeneration of forest on cattle land in this region to be a win-win, for climate change, biodiversity and farmers’ livelihoods, such a study fails to take into account the sustainability of carbon payments through, for example, REDD+, particularly if cattle prices increase on the global market, the growing demand for livestock products and the broader role livestock play in the livelihoods and cultures of communities in the region.

Another study recently published found, through the use of an economic model of global land use, that the intensification of cattle farming in Brazil, through either a tax on cattle from conventional pasture or a subsidy for cattle from semi-intensive pasture, could reduce deforestation and associated greenhouse gas emissions, and double productivity in pasturelands. Cattle ranching in Brazil is thought to be responsible for 75 to 80% of deforestation in the country. [Read more…]

Going vegetarian: the answer to the world’s problems?

Speaking at the First International Conference on Global Food Security held last month in the Netherlands, David Tilman, Regents Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair in Ecology at the University of Minnesota and professor at University of California, Santa Barbara‘s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, presented his views on how we can achieve global food security and environmental sustainability.

Food insecurity and unsustainable use of the environment are two of the greatest challenges we as a society face. And they are linked: how we tackle one problem will affect the other. Prof. Tilman laid out the main barriers we face to achieving food security and environmental sustainability:

1)      Increased demand driven by population and income growth

2)      Dietary shifts and health including under and over nutrition

3)      Environmental issues which include greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss.

Speaking to the second barrier in his list, Prof.Tilman explained that as income increases so does the demand for calories and animal protein. He pointed to the need for changes in dietary behaviour, without which it is unlikely we will address the world’s problems.

By 2050 global demand for crop protein will have increased by 110%, for crop calories by 100%. 30% of these increases will be a product of population growth, 70% from higher incomes, which are increasing most rapidly in poorer nations.

Changing our diets will not only address some of this growth in demand but it could also make us healthier. Recent evidence points to a 50 to 60% lower incidence of diabetes in lower meat diets. A pesco-vegetarian diet can add up to 10 years of life to a human adult, although there are multiple confounding factors that could bias this result. There is also a huge disparity in terms of access to meat, with half the global population having access to less animal protein than recommended under a low meat diet. So some people eat too much meat, some not enough.

Health benefits aside, a lower meat diet, for those with excessive meat consumption, also has environmental impacts in terms of agricultural production and how it expands. For example shifting towards greater production of fruits and vegetables, for which the whole world is underachieving in terms of eating the recommended amounts, less livestock and increased aquaculture.

Looking to the environmental sustainability challenge, Prof. Tilman explained that annual greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion equate to almost 9 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon equivalent, an amount that is hard to reduce given the world’s energy needs. If everybody drove a hybrid car, for example, this total amount would be reduced only by about one twentieth. At the moment it is hard to see how we will even reduce the rate at which emissions are growing each year. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture (not including fossil fuels which make up about 10% of agricultural emissions) are just under 4Gt of carbon equivalent per year, most of which comes from land clearing, livestock production and nitrogen fertilisation.  If diets continue to change and yields continue on their past growth trajectories, by 2050 agricultural emissions will have increased by an additional 4Gt per year. [Read more…]

Where we stand in understanding global food security

ID-100201149The First International Conference on Global Food Security took place on the 29th September to the 2nd October in Noordwijkerhout, The Netherlands. The conference brought together scientists and experts across disciplines to discuss food security from many different aspects.

Louise Fresco, Professor at the University of Amsterdam, in her presentation, discussed what we know about food security and what the global situation is. Food security has various dimensions and many complexities that make it hard to generalise. Around 870 million people in the world are hungry in terms of basic calories and 2 billion people are undernourished, that is they lack adequate vitamins and minerals in their diet.

Hearing figures such as these it is hard to see where we are having any effect in tackling hunger but progress is being made. In the last 2 decades, 1 billion people’s nutrition has improved and the UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing the number of those in poverty by half was achieved 5 years early. A century ago half the population was malnourished, this is now 1 in 8 people. A figure that is declining although still unacceptable. Three quarters of the decrease in poverty and malnutrition has occurred in China and there is an urgent need for similar progress in Africa and India where the situation is made more complicated by political failures.

Poverty and hunger, as discussed in chapter 2 of One Billion Hungry, are inextricably linked and can take many forms, as outlined by Professor Fresco:

1)      Civil unrest, failed states and in the aftermath of natural disasters where people lack the basic means of survival and have been driven from their homes.

2)      Rural poverty. The majority of the world’s poor and hungry reside in rural areas where there are fewer opportunities to earn income and, as in many developing countries, agricultural yields are low.

3)      Urban poverty, which is becoming increasingly significant with urbanisation. Urban poverty can also occur in developed countries. In the US, for example, 49 million people are on food stamps.

Given their dimensions, reducing hunger and poverty requires targeted approaches ranging from humanitarian aid and emergency response, in the case of say war or natural disasters, to child nutrition interventions in the first 1000 days of life, as well as agricultural development and general economic development.

70% of the world’s population is involved in agriculture so investments in this sector in countries with a dominant agricultural workforce can have huge implications for the poor and hungry. In other countries, where agriculture is less dominant, economic development can help reduce poverty. As Prof. Fresco stressed, there are very strong indications that equitable growth in developing nations helps to reduce poverty and hunger. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Africa leading the way, Impatient Optimists

Is it crazy to think we can eradicate poverty?, The New York Times

Guest post: to find African development, look for good governance by the sea, Financial Times

Bill Gates Joins Tony Blair in Praising Africa Economic Progress, Bloomberg

Open Data Opens Doors, Feed the Future

Food Biotechnology: A Communicator’s Guide to Improving Understanding, Food Insight

Encouraging signs of progress from Bonn climate talks, Thomson Reuters Foundation

GM crops: Promise and reality, Nature

Over half world’s population could depend on imported food by 2050, Environmental Research Web

Agriculture and Livestock Remain Major Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Worldwatch Institute

Agricultural intensification could run up high bills in the long-run, SciDev.Net

New GM crop wave may ease Frankenfood fright, Western Farm Press

The Expanding Role of Smallholder Farmers in Feeding the World, CSIS

Africa: Economists Warn of Gaps Amidst Africa’s Growth, All Africa