Colombia's outgoing President Iván Duque has announced that the country became the first in the Western Hemisphere to make 30% of its ocean territory a protected area, banning fishing and oil exploration.
Colombia's outgoing President Iván Duque has announced that the country became the first in the Western Hemisphere to make 30% of its ocean territory a protected area, banning fishing and oil exploration.
After a much-publicized study this year found high levels of a toxic chemical class in food wrappings, many of us are eyeing that pizza or to-go salad in a new light.
Experts warn, though, that we shouldn’t just be concerned about exposure from packaged food. The compounds, PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, appear to be widespread in our food supply . PFAS have contaminated dairy and beef farms in Maine and Michigan, and recent testing from the consumer wellness site Mamavation found evidence of the compounds in organic pasta sauces, canola oils and nut butters.
But little is known about how much PFAS Americans are eating. In contrast to drinking water, which is extensively studied, “we have only anecdotal evidence for understanding (other) PFAS exposure sources for the U.S. general population,” Elsie Sunderland, a professor of environmental chemistry at Harvard University, testified to the federal House Committee on Science, Space and Technology at the end of 2021.
Advocates and some researchers say the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to test for and regulate PFAS in food are inadequate, and the agency has likely underestimated health risks from our routine exposure.
More broadly, because PFAS can get into food in many ways, the issue “further highlights the need to stop creating and emitting PFAS globally,” Courtney Carignan, an exposure scientist and environmental epidemiologist at Michigan State University, told EHN.
PFAS, a group of more than 9,000 man-made compounds, are known for their ability to repel water and oil and withstand high heat. These properties have made them useful in products ranging from firefighting foam to makeup to nonstick pans — and mean they take a long time to break down in the environment and in our bodies, earning them the moniker “forever chemicals.”
This longevity is problematic because some PFAS have been linked to certain kinds of cancer, heart disease, liver damage, lowered vaccine effectiveness, lower birth weights and other health effects. PFAS do “a really good job at crossing the placenta,” Stephanie Eick, an environmental and reproductive epidemiologist at Emory University, told EHN, adding that prenatal exposure to PFAS has been linked to cardiac issues and other problems later in life. Evidence is mounting that some newer PFAS are likely unsafe as well.
The European Union, which has more extensive PFAS testing and regulation than the U.S., has set a low combined suggested weekly food limit for four types of PFAS, estimating that most exceed this safety threshold. The U.S., meanwhile, only has drinking water health advisories for two PFAS compounds.
PFAS can get into the food we eat in a number of ways, from leaching off of food packaging coatings to contamination on farms. In a recent analysis, the Environmental Working Group estimated that the common practice of spreading sewage sludge for fertilizer could have contaminated up to 20 million acres of U.S. croplands with the forever chemicals.
Eick said it’s “very clear” from past studies that eating fish, which can concentrate pollutants found in the water they swim in and in the prey they eat, has been linked to higher PFAS levels.
Although the evidence is not as strong as for fish and shellfish, Eick said eggs, certain kinds of meat, especially liver and other organ meats and dairy products have also been found to have higher levels of longer chain PFAS in particular. EU scientists have also warned that fruit can contain elevated levels of PFAS.
Food packaging, especially for take-out food, has come under a lot of scrutiny lately as PFAS are commonly used to help grease- and water-proof containers, bags and bakery papers. A seminal study from 2019 found that people who on a daily basis ate microwaved popcorn, which generally comes in coated bags, had “significantly higher” PFAS blood levels, while regularly eating fast food and pizza also tended to be linked to higher PFAS levels. Overall, the risk from eating processed food is not quite as clear yet as eating a contaminated fish because the chemicals have to migrate from the packaging onto the food, noted Eick.
The microwaved popcorn study and others have found that some of the highest PFAS concentrations detected in humans were PFOA and PFOS — two older generation PFAS that are banned in Europe and have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers.
“It is still a major problem, even though we know that they have been phased out” said Eick, who conducted a study that found elevated levels of those and other older PFAS in pregnant people who ate fish and other animal products.
Pizza and popcorn have both been linked to PFAS exposure. (Credit: Aleksandra Sapozhnikova/Unsplash)
The consumer wellness site Mamavation has been testing a range of consumer products for fluorine, an indicator for PFAS, at an Environmental Protection Agency-certified lab. Leah Segedie, founder of Mamavation, told EHN that she has focused the testing on organic food and products marketed as green or natural, given that people buy those products in part because they think they’re safer.
Recently published testing from Mamavation found that four out of 55 organic pasta sauces tested last year had fluorine, while five out of 17 canola oils, and four out of 33 nut butters had the PFAS indicator. Subsequent testing of a smaller number of sauces and oils this year did not turn up any evidence of the compounds.
EHN.org partially funded the testing. Pete Myers, chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, which publishes Environmental Health News, reviewed the findings.
Linda Birnbaum, former director at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program and a scholar in residence at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, told Mamavation that while “the good news is that only 8% of the tomato and pasta sauces (tested) did not have any PFAS,” there would ideally be no PFAS in our food as the compounds can be toxic at low doses.
Michigan State University’s Carignan said that her initial thoughts on the Mamavation pasta sauce testing were that the results could be false positives, as there’s a number of challenges with testing for PFAS in food. But she added that researchers know that produce with higher water content, like tomatoes, can absorb more of the compounds, so “it’s possible that the results are real.”
The FDA’s effort to test for PFAS in food highlights some of the testing challenges. In 2019, the agency developed a new method to test for 16 out of the estimated 9,000+ PFAS in a range of common foods. The agency initially found the compounds in 14 out of 91 samples — including shockingly high levels in a piece of chocolate cake.
The FDA later took back those results, saying that it appeared that and the other result for chocolate milk were false positives as the test couldn’t distinguish between the compound PFPeA and chocolate. The agency also raised its detection limit, saying that there were only two foods that it could confidently say had PFAS. The FDA has said that the sample size in this study was too small to draw conclusions from.
Some environmental health researchers and advocates have raised concerns about the FDA’s testing efforts to date. The agency should test for the specific PFAS found in food packaging, not just those found in the environment, Melanie Benesh, an attorney with the Environmental Working Group, told EHN.
Additionally, the FDA should reconsider its current detection limit, given that PFAS can be harmful in very low amounts, she added. “We really think that they should be, at a minimum, disclosing all of their detection so that we have a fuller picture of exactly how many foods are testing positive for some level of PFAS, even if it's at low levels.”
Overall, there’s an “absence of validated methods” to test for PFAS in food, according to Charles Neslund, scientific officer for Eurofins USA, a leading PFAS testing lab, although researchers are working to address this. The FDA, for example, is expanding its method to test for four additional PFAS. Scientists are also working to improve methods to test for fluorine in food packaging to quickly screen for the presence of PFAS.
An emerging challenge is that limited methods exist to test for PFAS “precursors” — that is, compounds that break down in the environment or in our bodies into PFAS.
Starbucks is one multiple companies that have committed to a PFAS phaseout. (Credit: Asael Peña/Unsplash)
So far seven states — California, Maine, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Minnesota and Washington — are following Denmark in banning PFAS from food packaging, with the soonest of these bans going into effect in New York at the end of this year. In the meantime, a new certification tracks whether single-use food containers have PFAS, BPA and other toxics.
In addition, a growing number of restaurants and fast food chains have started to ban PFAS from food packaging. Burger King, Chipotle, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’, Sweetgreen and other chains have already banned or will soon eliminate PFAS from packaging — although recent testing from Consumer Reports found that many companies with bans already in place still have the compounds in their packaging.
Keith Vorst, an associate professor of food science at Iowa State University, told EHN that challenges remain in completely eliminating PFAS from food packaging, including a lack of safe and inexpensive grease proofing alternatives. Additionally, makers of recycled-plastic food containers are finding trace amounts of PFAS in their products even when the compounds are not added as a coating.
If PFAS in food packaging bans move forward, there will need to be a consensus on what counts as intentionally added PFAS versus background contamination, he added. “I haven’t heard a single one of the companies I work with say ‘there’s a future for fluorochemistry in our products.’ ”
In general, environmental health experts would like to see federal U.S. regulatory agencies cooperate to better address PFAS exposure research and issue appropriate health warnings. The EPA could, for example, conduct further testing of the sludge generated at wastewater treatment plants and crop fields where it was spread, said Benesh. “The extent to which food is being contaminated with sludge is, I think, dramatically underestimated, and the more we test, the more we're going to realize how big of a problem this is,” Benesh said.
Michigan now requires businesses, like paper mills and chemical companies, that create wastewater that’s especially high in PFAS to pre-treat that waste before it goes to public treatment plants.
There are some simple measures that pregnant people and anyone concerned about PFAS exposure can take, such as cutting down how much fish and other animal products they consume, Eick said. She also suggests tossing out any nonstick pans with scratches on them and using the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to make sure your personal care products are low-risk. Despite the widespread prevalence of PFAS, “I do really feel like it is possible to minimize exposure,” Eick added.
In March, the United Nations’ Environment Assembly adopted a landmark resolution, supported by 175 countries, to end plastic pollution with a legally binding treaty.
Negotiations, expected to take two years, began this week. As a group of nine international experts on plastic pollution from eight countries, we’ve recently argued in a letter to the journal Science that this treaty must cap plastic production and regulate the chemicals they contain.
In the past 100 years, humanity has introduced an immense amount and variety of new chemicals and plastics to the planet. The current global plastic production is roughly 450 million tons per year. If we add up all the plastics produced so far, their weight would surpass the mass of all land and marine animals. Annual production is predicted to double by 2045, when today’s preschoolers are adults. They will likely live in a world of fragile ecosystems and a changing climate. If plastic pollution continues unabated, it will exacerbate these problems.
Plastics are now found in oceans, rivers, lakes, air, ice and soil. Scientists have identified tiny pieces of plastics in the human digestive system, blood stream, lungs and even the placenta. While we do not fully understand the impacts of this exposure, these findings are highly concerning. Chemical additives used in plastics include BPA, flame retardants, phthalates and thousands of other chemicals, many of which are toxic and have been linked to cancer, infertility, brain damage and other serious human health conditions.
Plastics and chemicals have already altered vital Earth’s system processes to an extent that exceeds the threshold under which humanity can safely develop and thrive in the future. Plastics contain tens of thousands of chemical additives, as well as non-intentionally added substances. It’s impossible to ensure the safety of this large variety of substances, mixed in a myriad of different ways.
The life cycle of plastic also has serious climate impacts. It accounts for 4.5% of the annual greenhouse gas emissions and could consume 10% to 13% of our remaining carbon dioxide budget by 2050. This is in part because single-use plastics are heavily produced in countries dependent on coal.
As the world shifts to renewable energy sources, the fossil fuel industry is looking to increase plastics production. Plastic producers have been expanding their capacities by up to 40%, with $180 billion invested in fracking (which produces ethylene, a critical ingredient in various plastics), and in plastic production.
There are many other, yet largely unexplored ways in which plastics could impact the Earth’s system. They could affect the amount of sunlight reflected back to space in the Arctic. Or they could change the carbon dioxide sequestration by phytoplankton and the marine carbon pump, which is part of the ocean carbon cycle responsible for cycling of organic matter formed by phytoplankton during photosynthesis. Plastics could also alter essential nutrient cycling functions of soils on land.
It is clear that we need to reduce plastics now. We cannot afford to become yet more dependent on historically flawed and insufficient strategies of downstream waste management.
Even high-income countries are ill-equipped to keep pace with the growing amount of waste. Recycling is often just “wish-cycling,” as environmental sociologist Rebecca Altman puts it. Recycling rates are as low as 5% in the United States and average only 9% globally.
Sometimes recycling is simply a global redistribution of waste. Millions of tons of plastic waste are still exported from the Global North to the Global South. The toxic waste of these exports frequently ends up disposed of by vulnerable communities, who carry the burden of pollution. Scholars have identified this as a form of colonialism.
The idea of a circular economy hasn’t worked in practice and would be difficult to implement on the large scale needed. Yet the steep increase in plastic production isn’t challenged enough. As a result, more and more plastics and toxic compounds are leaking into all corners of the environment and into our bodies.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a mess we can clean up later. Breaking down into micro and nanoparticles, it’s a form of pollution that is irretrievable and irreversible. Trying to sift it up is a Sisyphean task that might endanger crucial ecosystems, such as the neuston – tiny organisms floating with ocean currents to areas where plastic waste accumulates.
Recycling rates are as low as 5% in the United States and average only 9% globally. (Credit: Lisa Risager/flickr)
Even when applying all political and technological solutions available today — including substitution, improved recycling, waste management and circularity — annual plastic emissions to the environment can only be cut by 79% over 20 years, a study of scenarios in the journal Science found. It also suggests that, even with these actions, after 2040 17.3 million tons of plastic waste will still be released to the environment yearly. The path forward must include a phase-out of virgin plastic production by 2040.
In calling for a production cap, we do not discount the benefits that plastics present in healthcare or transportation. We are mindful of the possibilities that plastics engender in low-income countries or for disability communities. We do not envision a future without plastics, but one with much less of it, just for the applications that are necessary or vital for vulnerable populations. For all remaining plastics we need a robust circular economy that regulates toxic plastic chemicals as well, keeping them out of the loop to ensure human and environmental safety. A reduced production of new plastics would likely boost the value of recycled feedstock, incentivizing recycling. If justly regulated, this would secure socioeconomic benefits and operational safety for millions of workers across the world, who draw a living removing and renewing plastic waste.
The new plastic treaty could create opportunities for innovation in technology, society, science and policy-making — bringing together citizens, scientists, industry and governments alike. We hope that it will be strong, binding and creative, bravely tackling the true roots of the issue.
This article is a collaborative work of the authors together, find their bios here.
Banner photo: Celebrating the UN resolution on plastic, which passed in March 2022. (Credit: UNEP)
What makes us fat? The current medical view is that obesity is due to overeating and insufficient exercise. That is like saying alcoholism is due to drinking too much.
For most obese people, reducing body weight to within the “normal range” is not accomplished by simply eating less and exercising more. Current approaches focus on intervention once someone is obese using diets, drugs, and surgery. If these approaches were working, there would be a decline in obesity rates. Yet, obesity continues to increase at alarming rates worldwide, especially in children and minority communities. A new approach is needed.
There is good news and bad news about preventing obesity.
The bad news is that we are all exposed to synthetic chemicals that can promote obesity, such as bisphenols, phthalates, flame retardants, and perfluorinated chemicals, in our environment and in common household products. Exposure to these “obesogens” at any time of life can increase weight gain.
The most sensitive time for obesogens to affect weight gain is when a pregnant mother is exposed, and the chemicals cross the placenta and into the developing fetus. Obesogens disrupt the normal development of adipose (fatty) tissue, as well as the liver, gastrointestinal tract, brain, and tissues involved in regulating metabolism. These permanent changes lead to increased susceptibility to developing obesity later in life, making it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it and to keep the weight off.
Obesogens can increase weight even without increased food intake because they can alter metabolism and promote increased storage of calories.
The good news is that we know that there are obesogens, we know a number of them by name, and we know where their exposures come from and how many act to increase weight gain. Reducing exposures should lead to decreased incidence of obesity. Decreasing human exposure to obesogens is a viable strategy to prevent obesity, particularly in pregnant women of childbearing age and children through adolescence. Focusing on prevention is a timely and critical component of any public health approach to stopping the obesity pandemic.
Why do policymakers and regulators not focus on preventing obesity by reducing exposures to obesogens? Perhaps because obesogens are not well understood within the medical community. The long-term goal is to change public health policies, but an important short-term goal is to stimulate global understanding of obesogens.
Most medical practitioners wait until someone is overweight or obese and then try to mitigate the weight gain and associated diseases. Whatever the reason for this inappropriate focus, their ethical obligations as healthcare providers require that clinicians empower patients to make informed decisions about their health.
It is time to have clinicians— particularly in the OB-GYN field—become knowledgeable about obesogens, how and when they act, and how to reduce exposures to educate patients.
It is also critical that pediatricians explain to mothers how to reduce exposure to obesogens in babies, children, and adolescents during sensitive times when the metabolic system is developing.
Once the clinical community understands the importance of preventing obesogen-induced obesity, we hope this acceptance will stimulate policymakers and regulators to take action to regulate and remove these harmful chemicals from products.
We have written a series of reviews that underscore the role of obesogens in the current obesity pandemic and urgently call for an increased focus on preventing obesity. The data presented in these reviews support action by both clinicians and regulators to protect all of us, especially our sensitive babies, from the effects of these harmful chemicals.
Jerrold J. Heindel, Ph.D. retired Program Administrator from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has submitted this commentary on behalf of HEEDs Elders (www.HEEDS.org), a group of pioneering senior scientists in the endocrine disruption field who focus on improving the health of all the world's inhabitants.
A grim story about human remains found in a barrel exposed by the receding shoreline of Nevada's Lake Mead caught my eye this past week.
For me, it had all the elements: I grew up in a North Jersey town known for housing a few Mafia celebs, like Willie Moretti, the real-life inspiration for The Godfather’s legbreaker, Luca Brasi.
A few miles away were the heavily-polluted Meadowlands, a once-gorgeous wetland that had become, among other things, the alleged final resting place of countless Mafia debtors, rivals, and no-account Goodfellas.
So when drought-parched Lake Mead gave up the skeletal remains of a potential Western wiseguy, I was fascinated.
Lake Mead is in desperate shape. Along with Lake Powell, upstream on the Colorado River, Mead is the key to prosperity for the booming cities, suburbs and farms of the desert Southwest – Arizona, Southern California, and, of course, Las Vegas. In addition to the unfortunate guy in the barrel, decades of overuse capped off by several years of brutal, climate-driven drought has exposed an intake pipe for Southern Nevada’s 2.2 million people.
They’re running out of water. Putting megacities like Phoenix and Vegas in a desert was never a good idea. They were always destined to run out of water, some day. But the rampant growth and a years-long, killer drought have made the crisis immediate.
And with the corpse-in-a-barrel story, we have one more link between climate and popular culture: The Sopranos meets fossil fuels.
It hardly made a wave, thereby joining the long rap sheet for climate change’s impact on our culture. Mostly, it’s things we’re losing.
A California vineyard
From Bordeaux to the Napa Valley, vineyards are in trouble. Bordeaux’s quarter million acres of vines face “a slow but simmering” climate crisis, according to Wine Enthusiast magazine. Increased temperatures, more frequent damaging storms and more can have a big impact on the sensitive grape, increasing the alcohol content in some varieties by 10% or more.
In California’s Napa Valley, frequent wildfires have scalded multi-million-dollar vintages. Other vintners who thought they were spared by the flames were felled by the smoke, which either ruined the taste of America’s priciest wines, or blackened the grapes to make the costliest raisins in history.
Insurers have also turned the screws on California wineries, either jacking up premiums, limiting coverage, or cancelling policies outright.
Phenology is the science of measuring plants’ and animals’ responses to long-term changes in weather and climate. (Note: phenologists get really upset when their work gets mixed up with that of phrenologists, the sideshow quacks who tell your fortune by reading the bumps on your head.)
As spring replaces winter each year, the time- honored work of the tree tappers yields the sweet sap of sugar maples from the northeast U.S. and Quebec. But researchers tell us two things about rising temperatures and sugar maples: The maple syrup is less sweet, and the trees’ range is slowly moving north. Someday, phenologists tell us you won’t be able to find Vermont maple syrup in Vermont.
Lobstermen hauling traps on the Maine coast
Offshore, New England lobsters could meet the same fate. Warming waters are chasing much of the food chain northward. Connecticut and Long Island lobstermen are struggling with a dwindling catch; within decades, Maine lobsters may only exist on the state’s license plates.
Summer flounder, or fluke, are a popular target for both sport and commercial fishermen. North Carolina commercial boats hold most of the permits for fluke in the $22 million industry, but they have to motor north to New Jersey to find the fish.
Northern right whales winter and calve off the Georgia and Florida coasts. They feed in summer in the Gulf of Maine. For now. The 300 or so remaining whales are what’s left after centuries of whaling. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear risk taking more But three recent studies indicate that climate change may be a final blow. The zooplankton that are right whales’ primary food source are increasingly scarce in the whales’ northern range.
I could go on. Ocean wildlife everywhere is under threat from acidification and from the everyday torrent of microplastics. Shorter term, the energy dynamics of the Ukraine crisis have become the newest rationales for keeping the oil & gas infrastructure afloat.
But I guess that’s plenty for now.
His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.
Banner photo credit of Lake Mead: Jakob Owens/Unsplash
Lewis presents 19th-century Senegal at a time of turmoil. She explores how French colonialism and demand for peanut oil in Europe created a peanut boom with lasting repercussions for Senegalese agriculture and reinforced a system of slavery that persisted long after France had banned it in territories it held.
EHN spoke with Lewis about her book and writing about agriculture and the environment in Senegal today.
The peanut comes originally from South America, where it evolved and spread throughout the continent. It was probably taken quite early by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors back to Europe, and from Europe to Africa. Peanuts were grown on a small scale and in kitchen gardens along with other complements to a diet … so, not at the same scale as cereals like millet or folio in Senegal, but grown probably like okra or cowpeas.
It expanded once there was a demand for peanut oil in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. They needed oil for maintaining their machines and steam engines. Before petroleum, they also needed oil for lighting. And, of course, they were killing whales for oil. A society that’s killing large sea mammals for oil obviously needs a lot of oil. But then, the main driver became the soap industry. Peanut oil has very similar chemical properties as olive oil and could be substituted up to a percentage in the Savon de Marseille.
Kajoor’s sandy soil environment was perfect for the peanut. I knew that a long time ago there had been a more robust peanut economy there; peanuts from Kajoor were so well-prized in Europe. Was it the peanut that created the expansion of slavery? In West Africa, there were people who were born enslaved. But there came to be a demand for labor in Kajoor, and that brought people enslaved through war. Why was there war? In part, because of economic developments related to European presence and capitalism.
I’d been reading a book about slavery in the 19th century, and there was a brief reference to a Sierra Leonean Protestant missionary named Walter Taylor, who established a shelter for runaway slaves in Saint Louis. I found that this Black missionary from a British-held territory had 20 years of letters with the mission directorate in Paris.
Even though Taylor was working, in a way, for the colonial enterprise, he had such an interesting backstory as a Black man in a white-dominated colonial system, as an Anglophone in the Francophone world, and as the son of liberated slaves who'd grown up in a community of people who had been liberated. I became a little obsessed with his story.
There was a movement of enslaved people from the interior trying to get to Saint Louis as a kind of promised land. But the process of claiming freedom was administratively difficult. Arriving runaway slaves would have to register with the city and say, “I declare I have a right to my freedom.” But then they had to wait three months. And within those three months, a slave owner could come and reclaim that person.
The court preferred people not bring these matters before the court, so a slave master might find the person and say, “I can leave you alone if you pay for your freedom.” But who has that much money? So Walter Taylor had the idea to take up a collection in the church. He realized there was an opportunity to evangelize among this group, who were open to the mission because it had helped them.
Taylor was trying to build a career for himself in the mission. He needed converts. But as a person who'd grown up in a community of liberated people, I think he really did care for them, and their stories resonated with his own on some deeper level.
Lat Joor became damel, was forced out by the French, and then came back through dubious methods and betrayals. He was jockeying for influence to keep his throne. He thought for a while that the French could be a tool to help him do that — before he started to understand, as maybe all colonized people eventually understand, these people are not here to help you, they are here to take your land.
Lat Joor had a lot of enslaved people. I found letter after letter in which he wrote to the [colonial] governor or commandant to say, “Please return to me my slave.” But Lat Joor is an epic, heroic figure in Senegalese history because of his resistance to colonization. I think my book shows that that resistance was not always straight. There was some collaboration before there was resistance.
I wanted to include women’s voices and others who weren’t part of the elite. I also wanted to include the voices of the enslaved. I found some stories in the mission’s archives and court records, narratives of how they came to be enslaved and how they came to be free. Trying to tell this story from that perspective was really important to me, especially because sometimes an approach to popular African history tends to create hero narratives as a corrective — a very sensible corrective — to hundreds of years of denigration of African culture and history. But I also wanted to show the whole history, to say we have complicated stories about people who are not just good or bad, because we're all complex characters with different motives, who at different points in time err on the side of goodness or evil.
I see Senegalese agriculture scaling up, trying to be like American or European agriculture. The same ideas of industrialized agriculture predominate. There are some small movements here, but what Senegal probably needs is extreme regenerative agriculture, and I don't particularly see that happening. I see the agriculture industry is largely business as usual — fertilizers, pesticides. Let's modernize. That's something you hear a lot, which means becoming like the industrialized agriculture of America,Europe, China, or even India. All of them have their imprimatur on the way Senegal sees its agricultural system.
The baobab tree is so omnipresent in Senegal’s history and understanding of itself. But at the same time, it's so endangered. When I travel in Senegal, I think about all those lost trees, and the amount of history they represent, because baobabs are so long-lived, almost like redwoods. It’s hard even to fix our imagination on what it means to be in the presence of a thousand or two-thousand-year-old tree, right?
Our human living memory is only like 110 years old. But the baobab tree — how long is the living memory of that tree? It's incredible to imagine how many shifts humanity has been through in those 2,000 years.
In a couple of chapters, I mention a period called the “hunger years,” brought on by cyclical drought. People were at the whims of the natural environment that pushed them to make political or economic decisions. You’d see more conflict sometimes, people migrating to the city. It’s really interesting to get the broad sweep of history and see how climate is its own character in the book.
Today we’re so insulated, especially in America. But even in Senegal, a certain class of people is really insulated from the reality of the climate. What’s the impact of that over the long term? We just keep cutting things down, not paying attention to what the signals are telling us.
The climate’s part of it, but our political decisions are more often than not what determines access to food, safety, water, all of it, which brings us back to Slaves for Peanuts. Unwittingly, the consumer of French soap was driving continued enslavement in Africa. It’s important to understand how our choices impact the larger system, the larger world.
Lewis’ book is published by The New Press and available from independent booksellers and online vendors large and small.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.