Trucost reveals $3.33 trillion in environmental cost of farming

Trucost – Thursday 15th October

An important new report commissioned by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and carried out by the consultancy firm Trucost has begun to map the massive environmental cost of industrial farming. It is an important step forward in monetising the invisible expense of poor agricultural practices, creating a transparent account of costs that have been long outsourced from food production.

The report lays out the case for the value of a more sustainable food system, making a compelling financial argument that finds savings not just in expenditure, but also in environmental damage. It includes a series of case studies on the costs of current practices in industrial farming and compares them with those of more sustainable practices. The results are eye opening: conventional crop production, for example, costs $1.15 trillion per year when the environmental costs are included, close to 200% of its production value. This tells us that sustainable farming offers much more cost-effective options.

The report shows that there are economic benefits to sustainable practices across a broad range of sectors in farming. Accounting these and making them visible is a powerful means of convincing policy makers and governments that, as Trucost director Richard Mattison states, “alternative approaches to agriculture can benefit farmers and the environment, ensuring sustainable and affordable food supplies for all”.

Soil carbon loss in England and Wales linked to climate change

Farming Online – Friday 16th October

There is concern that the loss of carbon in soils in England and Wales is linked to climate change, which does not bode well for the future of agriculture in Britain.

Soil and the plants that live in it hold a sizeable cache of the world’s carbon – some 5%. But long-term research from the EU shows that this has been declining in England and Wales over the past 25 years. As temperatures rise and weather patterns change, soil is more and more under siege. But the study also identifies a subtler change that could be affecting the soil’s ability to lock up carbon: a reduction in the number of ruminants grazing the land. Due to changes in land use, the number of pastured animals on the soil has fallen and, as a result, less manure is on the land. It highlights the fundamental importance that ruminants play in soil health. For all the talk of how much they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, we mustn’t forget this crucial contribution. Healthy soil locks up more carbon and as climate change contributes to its degradation, we should keep this in mind.

Bats worth $3.7 billion to US agriculture

The Guardian – Wednesday 14th October

New research mapping the value of the ‘ecosystem services’ that bats provide to agriculture is turning up some notable numbers. Those little creatures are doing an impressive pest control job for a range of crops. Research puts their worth to US agriculture at $3.7 billion.

UC Davis researcher Katherine Ingram has been looking more closely at what bats eat on Californian farms and the value they contribute to varied crops. Bats not only eat a lot of the moths and other insects that attack agricultural crops such as almonds, corn, cotton and rice, but they also help pollinate them. All in all, bats are beginning to be recognised as an important species for agriculture. As the monetary value of what they do is tallied up, it could mean stronger efforts at conservation. Bat populations have been suffering particularly from the growing number of wind turbines and also from White Muzzle disease, to which they are increasingly susceptible.

The new research on the importance of bats in our agricultural ecosystems points out how little we really know about the delicate balance in which they exist. As their economic value is foregrounded, we’ll likely pay better attention to them. But it begs the question of what other creatures are supporting agriculture in ways we still don’t recognise?

Do industrial agricultural methods actually yield more food per acre than organic ones?

Grist – Wednesday 14th October

There’s a lot of food for thought in Nathanael Johnson’s extensive investigation into this question – make sure you are up for the long read and ready to dive into a complicated exploration of the research. This piece will definitely pull you away from the black and white polarity of whether you’re on the side of conventional agriculture or organic – and it’s always good to re-examine your position.

Johnson is not taking sides on this, arguing instead for a case-by-case basis that leads him to conclude: “Sometimes it feels as if the divide between organic and industrial farming is too wide to bridge — but we’re almost certainly going to need the best of both for a future that makes sense.” And he’s right, we spend too much time dismissing what each end of the farming spectrum has to offer. As Patrick Holden called for in his recent talk at the ZSL symposium on the Future of Food, we need to come out of our silos and debate these issues in the spirit of friendliness.

McTeacher’s Nights: teacher’s unions say no to school fundraisers

NPR – Thursday 15th October

More bad behaviour by Big Food! McDonald’s has been running fundraisers for local schools in the United States, in which teachers work the tills to serve students on McTeacher’s Nights, when the school gets a cut of the night’s taking. This story follows on the heels of a New York Times piece evidencing that Coca-Cola has been funding research on obesity to claim that the problem is not what you eat and drink, but not taking enough exercise.

The McTeacher’s Nights are yet another example of the ways in which Big Food manipulates consumers. Using brand marketing to infiltrate schools and influence one of its most valuable markets is a smart tactic for the fast food company. It’s a fun, feel-good evening for kids, eating junk food served by some of the most influential people in their lives – those that teach them.

The National Education Association has now joined forces with parents and consumer rights groups to stop the McTeacher’s Nights. The relatively small amount of money the event raises for schools is dwarfed by the priceless value of brand identification these nights ensure for the company. The fact that this might be exploitative of a vulnerable population is apparently lost on McDonald’s, which says that the nights “are all about community, fun and fundraising”. And a bit of market capture…

Photograph: Asian Development Bank

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