Tuna and mackerel populations suffer catastrophic 74% decline, research shows

The Guardian – Wednesday 16th September

We are a rapacious species and this is never more evident than in our seas, where marine species, especially tuna and mackerel, are in catastrophic decline. A new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Zoological Society of London reveals some shocking statistics: a 74% decline of the scombridae family of fish, which includes bluefin tuna (nearly extinct in the Pacific) and albacore and bonito tunas, along with mackerel; a quarter of shark species becoming extinct in a decade if the practice of shark-finning isn’t stopped; and all the coral reefs in the world disappearing by 2050. What are we doing to our seas?

Overfishing is a big part of the problem, but pollution, habitat destruction and, of course, climate change are other significant factors. The problem of plastic in our seas has become so bad that the detritus often builds up in the digestive tracts of fish and may possibly be making its way into us when we eat these fish. There are ways to turn all of these disasters around: well-managed fisheries can control overfishing and marine protection zones can help prevent further habitat destruction. WWF’s Louise Heaps, the chief advisor on marine policy and a lead author of the research, comments, “There are choices we can make. But it is urgent.” We need to take seriously the implications of oceans depleted of fish and a major ecosystem out of balance. In terms of broader human food security – during a century that will already be challenging for agriculture – we need the ocean as a healthy, sustainable resource to survive.

A huge amount of pollution comes from farming, not just power plants

Grist – Friday 18th September

It’s a bit of wake-up call to discover that more people around the world die from pollution than from HIV and malaria. New research on global outdoor air pollution reveals that some 3 million people a year succumb to the effects of breathing polluted air and die – and that figure is projected to double by 2050. Power plants generate a lot of this pollution, but in Europe and the United States, agriculture is the next most significant contributor and the biggest source of ammonia.

Our idyllic image of farms with wide fields of grains and happy grazing animals is hard to square with their role as a major health hazard; but we need to remember that this idea of the farm is now quite distant from reality. The small- and medium-scale farms this image is built on are being lost every year by on-going financial hardships. The farms that survive often go big and industrial because that’s where the money is – and it’s also where the pollution is. Scale increases farm pollution significantly as does keeping livestock indoors. Intensive livestock production is the source of up to 85% of the human-induced ammonia in the atmosphere and the application of nitrogen-based fertilisers accounts for most of the rest. Ammonia combines with other pollutants to form tiny particles of soot (or particulate matter as it is known) and this is a major cause of premature death, respiratory conditions requiring hospitalisation and aggravated asthma.

The study points out that there is a lot that can be done in agriculture to make it less polluting. However, this would mean stepping back slightly from the level of production that such farming is geared towards. Our bad habit of feeding grain to ruminants increases the level of nitrogen released in their manure, but this could be reduced by cutting down on protein in the feed. Beyond this, better management of waste and fertilisers could be both cost-effective and further reduce nitrogen. However, if we’re ever going to make a real impact on the problem, the issue of scale needs to be addressed and farm animals need to be out grazing in fields, not shut indoors where ammonia emissions mostly arise.

Britain accused of taking an incoherent position on EU sugar deal that will push thousands back into poverty

The Independent – Saturday 19th September

As the EU lifts quotas on sugar production, some 200,000 farmers in developing countries could see their livelihoods disappear. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron heads off to a UN summit on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an irony that highlights a critical disconnect in UK government policy. The hardest hit by the EU decision on quotas will be the small-scale farmers that the SDGs are intended to help. Michael Gidney, CEO of the Fairtrade Foundation, has commented that, “Trade is a powerful way to lift poor countries out of poverty, but only if it puts people first.” The EU decision definitely does not put people first. Already struggling with a fall in the price of sugar, farmers in countries such as Jamaica, Mozambique and Swaziland will soon be facing a flooded market that will bring prices down further and decimate their income.

Free trade must be fair trade, and exposing small-scale farmers and farmers’ co-operatives to a commodities market glutted with sugar only benefits the retailers who can buy up sugar at a reduced price. While SDGs are there to fight global poverty and inequality, the underlying economics of world trade consistently feed both of these, favouring big corporate entities and leaving small-scale, core producers deeply vulnerable.

Land degradation costs the world up to $10.6 tn a year, report says

The Guardian – Tuesday 15th September

There is growing recognition of the pressing issue of land degradation as evidenced in a new study by the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) initiative. The ELD points out that more than half the world’s arable land is classed as moderately to severely degraded and it estimates that the cost of this rises to trillions of US dollars, when all its impacts are added in. These include costs associated with environmental destruction, lost agricultural production and the failed ‘ecosystem services’ that healthy soil would give us – from preventing erosion to locking up carbon, which mitigates greenhouse gas emissions.

The ELD’s report is a full ‘true cost’ accounting of the economic costs of land degradation and it produces a startling figure: the $10.6 trillion total is approximately 17% of global gross domestic product. That figure makes tangible the price of our bad practice in managing one of the world’s most vital natural resources: soil. Laying bare these costs should and could drive a change towards the rehabilitation of degraded arable land – a move the report states could bring some $75 trillion into the global economy. Sustainable land management also figures strongly in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will shortly be agreed in New York. Zafar Adeel of the UN’s University Institute of Water, Environment and Health, comments that “sustainable land management is very relevant to achieving half of the SDGs, if not more,” noting that food security, poverty and water management would all be helped.

How automation could help agriculture

BBC News – Wednesday 16th September

The BBC seemingly celebrates the value of automation in agriculture in this review of a fancy new dairy that uses robots to milk, feed and clean up after a herd of dairy cows. The automated process has allowed the farm to give up milking cows manually, saving six to seven hours of work each day. Now the cows have themselves milked whenever they want, keeping them more comfortable throughout the day. Farmer Robert Veitch has seen yields rise and he feels this is because of the increased comfort. Sounds ideal, doesn’t it?

But from another perspective this automation might cause concern. For the system to work, cows have to spend their days indoors through the bulk of their lives. Veitch claims that the animals “wouldn’t want to go out even on a good day”, but that’s more than a little disingenuous as it assumes that cows prefer confinement to open fields. Grazing animals need to pursue their natural instinct – to graze grass.

There are also larger ethical questions hiding here. Is automation always a good thing, or in this case will it deprive yet more people of the chance to work with farm animals? And, does such automation, which allows a farmer only minimal contact with his or her animals, feed a larger disconnection between farmer and herd that may fuel negligence or even cruelty? Does it encourage farmers to think less about the sustainability of what they are doing and more about their profit line? The industrialisation of farming has an ugly legacy of environmental damage and significant animal cruelty – has this been generated by the alienation created in industrial systems? What does increasing automation mean for future farming? Without being a Luddite, it is important to think about these questions.

Photograph: Alex Brown

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