Scientists keep saying we should put a price on nature. Now they’ve finally done it

The Washington Post – Monday 8th February

Significant headway is being made on assigning a monetary value for our natural capital. Researchers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies have developed a method for determining the monetary value of the earth’s natural capital and how fast we’re destroying it. This is a vital step in understanding the true finances of the planet in a way that might encourage policy makers and politicians to be wiser about how we use nature’s bank account. As with any economic exercise, putting the numbers down on paper can reveal the reality of how much we are really spending and help us budget more accountably.  

The researchers make a vital distinction between the ‘wealth’ of natural resources and the ‘income’ that we receive from our ‘ecosystem services’, another area of environmental ‘true cost accounting’. Values have been put on the income, for example, that we make from the rain which falls on the La Plata basin in South America that is generated by the Amazon rainforest. The La Plata basin is one of the world’s biggest agricultural regions and it grows some $240 billion a year in food for the world. Destroy the Amazon rainforest and that money disappears.

Natural capital, however, is not income – it’s wealth comprising both liquid and fixed assets. But like any bank account, our wealth declines if we don’t ever put anything back into it, and that’s the problem. The Yale researchers, led by Eli Fenichel, are trying to raise attention to what we’re spending in natural resources by making the economic impact of our profligacy explicit. To develop their formula for this, they took the High Plains Aquifer in the Midwest of America as its example, assessing how the water’s ‘stock’ had performed between 1996 – 2005 with startling results. Its value was declining by $110 million each year.

Such calculations are critical in understanding the bigger picture of sustainability and while some may feel it’s problematic to monetise our natural resources, it makes more evident the cost of our consumption and that is truly critical for us to understand.

Glyphosate now the most used agricultural chemical ever

Newsweek – Tuesday 2nd February

The controversy over glyphosate use becomes ever deeper as the herbicide is declared the most used agricultural chemical ever. Its use has exploded in the last two decades with the arrival of genetically modified crops in the 1990s and a relaxing of regulations on its use by the USDA at the same time. Today 50 times more glyphosate is sprayed on corn than 20 years ago, according to Bill Freese from the Center for Food Safety, and it doesn’t stop there. Since the herbicide’s introduction some 9.4 million tonnes of it has been sprayed onto fields globally. Concerns have been raised by consumer groups and NGOs that the herbicide may now be pervasive through the food chain.

With this growth in usage has come a rising awareness of the health impacts of the herbicide. In addition to its recent denomination as a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization, it is also a known endocrine disruptor, one of a family of chemicals that disrupt the hormones of the body and are linked to a number of cancers including testicular, uterine, prostate and others. New research has also noted links between Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) and neurological conditions, male reproductive disorders and obesity and diabetes. 

While companies like Monsanto continue to assert that glyphosate does not present “an unreasonable risk of adverse effects” to humans, that assertion is looking more and more dubious as evidence mounts of its dangers. Couple this with the nightmare of resistant weeds the herbicide has created and there’s a very good case to take it off the market.

Milking it: Critics take aim at new environmental guidelines for the dairy industry

The Guardian – Wednesday 3rd February

The US dairy industry is on a road towards sustainability, driven by a growing recognition that their customers want them to be more sustainable. Guided by the Innovation Centre, an organisation that is introducing voluntary standards of sustainability for dairy farmers, the industry is beginning to integrate sustainable practices into their business models – they’re building anaerobic digesters, solar power systems and recycling their water. But is it enough?

This year, the Innovation Centre has introduced sustainability metrics for the industry to assess their sustainability successes. It has raised some questions on whether the voluntary standards developed by the Innovation Centre are the best way to ensure sustainability in the sector. While it’s a good place to start, will it really drive a fundamental, systemic change in the way the dairy sector operates? Building an anaerobic digester to deal with waste makes a big statement about sustainability, but does it mean that stocking levels will go down and animal welfare will increase? These systemic shifts in industrial practices will be harder to enforce on a voluntary basis and the problem is that this is the level on which sustainability most matters. If these fundamental changes aren’t achieved, those steps towards sustainability are really a bit of PR window dressing for your business.

Review reveals problems with protecting workers from pesticides

Associated Press – Wednesday 3rd February

This recent investigation by the Associated Press reveals significant ongoing issues with the protection of agricultural workers from exposure to pesticides in Florida, the US’s second largest agricultural region after California. It is deeply concerning that in 2016, labour abuses are such a persistent and widespread problem in agriculture. 

Florida has a pretty terrible record for labour abuses – detailed in depth in the film Food Chains released in 2014, which focuses on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers which started as a group of tomato pickers fighting for the protection of their labour rights and has extended to become a wider Campaign for Fair Food. However, despite their successes the violation of labour rights appears to be endemic in the state.

A large part of this comes from a weak regulatory system. Cases of pesticide exposure rarely result in fines or penalties for farms and may take years to prosecute. There are insufficient protections on anonymity for workers who make complaints. This is a critical problem as many workers are illegal or in the US on worker visas overseen by their employers. Making a complaint about working conditions can mean deportation or blacklisting for a worker.

While President Obama has recently pushed through greater protections for farmworkers, these won’t come into force until 2017, and they are sorely needed to ensure basic protections are federally mandated. However, AP points out that enforcement of these new regulations will still be reliant on each state’s governance – which is clearly failing in its duty in Florida. This doesn’t bode well when in every state in the US except California, the regulatory agencies tasked with enforcing pesticide safety, are also those who support wider agricultural industries. Farm workers will remain vulnerable until the system is cleaned up and conflicts of interest excised.

One recent victim of pesticide exposure commented, “I feel so bad, because I have no rights because I have no money and can’t afford a lawyer.” That is not right or fair in this day and age, and more needs to be done to change it in Florida, in the US and around the world.

FAO: World food prices at 7-year low

Farming Online – Monday 8th February

There are difficult times ahead for farmers as the global commodities market continues its downward trajectory. Sugar, in particular, along with dairy have seen the sharpest falls, but other commodities are falling as well – including cereals, vegetable oils and meat. Agricultural prices are now down nearly 30% over the past five years. 

The madness is that this results from having an ample food supply and a strong US dollar (which sets the standard for the market). And yet despite these high yields, 800 million people around the world are undernourished – that’s 13% of all the people living in developing countries. Food production levels may be increasing in some quarters, but farmers across the world are being squeezed out of business by huge industrial farming operations working on a vast scale. Combined with this, climate change is further complicating life for farmers as the weather becomes increasingly unpredictable.

Our era of global deregulation and free market free-for-all has left us vulnerable in complex ways: we have both an oversupply of food, and a weak global food system that lacks resistance to unpredictable economic and climactic shocks. We have both an abundance of food and millions of people who can’t access it. Do we, perhaps, need to re-think the economics of this neo-liberal system before we find ourselves starving in the midst of plenty?

photograph: Garycylcles8

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