As scientists on began interpreting sonar images gathered by two deep-sea robots, they were quickly overwhelmed. It was like trying to count stars in the Milky Way.
As scientists on began interpreting sonar images gathered by two deep-sea robots, they were quickly overwhelmed. It was like trying to count stars in the Milky Way.
Bryan Tamowski for POLITICO
'Katrina brain': The invisible long-term toll of megastorms
Long after a big hurricane blows through, its effects hammer the mental-health system.
By CHRISTINE VESTAL 10/12/2017 05:10 AM EDT
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NEW ORLEANS — Brandi Wagner thought she had survived Hurricane Katrina. She hung tough while the storm’s 170-mph winds pummeled her home, and powered through two months of sleeping in a sweltering camper outside the city with her boyfriend’s mother. It was later, after the storm waters had receded and Wagner went back to New Orleans to rebuild her home and her life that she fell apart.
“I didn’t think it was the storm at first. I didn’t really know what was happening to me,” Wagner, now 48, recalls. “We could see the waterline on houses, and rooftop signs with ‘please help us,’ and that big X where dead bodies were found. I started sobbing and couldn’t stop. I was crying all the time, just really losing it.”
Twelve years later, Wagner is disabled and unable to work because of the depression and anxiety she developed in the wake of the 2005 storm. She’s also in treatment for an opioid addiction that developed after she started popping prescription painkillers and drinking heavily to blunt the day-to-day reality of recovering from Katrina.
More than 1,800 people died in Katrina from drowning and other immediate injuries. But public health officials say that, in the aftermath of an extreme weather event like a hurricane, the toll of long-term psychological injuries builds in the months and years that follow, outpacing more immediate injuries and swamping the health care system long after emergency workers go home and shelters shut down.
That’s the rough reality that will soon confront regions affected by this year’s string of destructive hurricanes. As flood waters recede from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate, and survivors work to rebuild communities in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean, mental health experts warn that the hidden psychological toll will mount over time, expressed in heightened rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, domestic violence, divorce, murder and suicide.
Brandi Wagner's home in Lafitte, La., left, and the nearby bayou, Bayou Barataria, right. Below, sandbags line the street across from Wagner's home as Hurricane Nate approached earlier this month. | Bryan Tamowski for POLITICO
Renée Funk, who manages hurricane response teams for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says it has become clear since Katrina that mental illness and substance abuse aren’t just secondary problems—they are the primary long-term effect of natural disasters.
“People have trouble coping with the new normal after a storm,” Funk said. “Many have lost everything, including their jobs. Some may have lost loved ones, and now they have to rebuild their lives. They’re faced with a lot of barriers, including mental illness itself,” she said.
In New Orleans, doctors are still treating the psychological devastation of Katrina. More than 7,000 patients receive care for mental and behavioral health conditions just from the Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority, a state-run mental health clinic in Marrero, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. At least 90 percent of the patients lived through Katrina and many still suffer from storm-related disorders, according to medical director and chief psychiatrist Thomas Hauth, who adds that he and most of his fellow clinicians also suffer from some level of long-term anxiety from the storm.
“Every year about this time, I start checking the National Weather Service at least three times a day,” he said.
These long-term mental health effects of extreme weather are a hidden public health epidemic, one that is expected to strain the U.S. health care system as the intensity and frequency of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters increase in coming decades because of global warming and other planetary shifts.
With climatologists promising more extreme weather across the country, mental and behavioral health systems need to start preparing and expanding dramatically or demand for treatment of the long-term psychological effects of future natural disasters will vastly outstrip the supply of practitioners, said Georges Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Association.
Dr. Thomas Hauth, a psychiatrist, in his office at the Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority in Marrero, La., where he treats residents still suffering from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disorders caused or exacerbated by Hurricane Katrina. Hauth and his colleagues also report post-storm anxiety and other conditions. | Bryan Tamowski for POLITICO
“On a blue sky day, our mental health resources are stretched,” said Carol North, researcher and professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet, but common sense tells us that more disasters and worse disasters will lead to worse psychological effects.”
For climate change believers, this year’s string of record-breaking Atlantic hurricanes was just a warm-up for what scientists predict will be more frequent extreme weather events in the future.
When an entire city experiences a significant trauma at the same time, as New Orleans did during Katrina and Houston did during Harvey, it can push a lot of people over the edge, said Eric Kramer, another doctor who worked in the Jefferson Parish clinic: “Some people can rely on their inner strength and resilience to get through it, but others can’t.”
In the aftermath of Katrina, many survivors struggled with short-term memory loss and cognitive impairment, a syndrome dubbed “Katrina brain,” according to a report by Ken Sakauye, a University of Tennessee professor of psychiatry who was at Louisiana State University at the time.
Even though more than half the population of New Orleans had evacuated, psychiatric helpline calls increased 61 percent in the months after Katrina, compared with the same period before the storm, death notices increased 25 percent, and the city’s murder rate rose 37 percent, Sakauye wrote.
A year after Katrina, psychiatrist James Barbee reported that many of his patients in New Orleans had deteriorated from post-Katrina anxiety to more serious cases of depression and anxiety. "People are just wearing down," Barbee said. "There was an initial spirit about bouncing back and recovering, but it's diminished over time, as weeks have become months.”
In a longitudinal study comparing the mental health of low-income single moms in New Orleans before and after Katrina, one in five participants reported elevated anxiety and depression that had not returned to pre-storm levels four years later, said Jean Rhodes, study co-author and professor of psychiatry at University of Massachusetts Boston.
Hurricane Katrina killed 1,800 people in 2005, and left behind massive property damage. But publiGetty Imagesc health officials are learning that the longest-lasting damage of several storms is psychological. | Getty Images
For a smaller percentage of people in the study, particularly people with no access to treatment, symptoms of anxiety developed into more serious, chronic conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the researchers found.
These aren’t cheap conditions to treat. One study cited by the CDC estimated the cost of treating even the short-term effects of anxiety disorders at more than $42 billion annually; double-digit regional leaps in rates of anxiety could cause serious financial strain to patients, employers, insurers and the government.
Some damage can take place outside the storm-hit region. Even for people who have never experienced the raging winds, floods and prolonged power outages of a hurricane, this season’s repeated images of people struggling against the storms on television and other news and social media created unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression nationwide, said Washington, D.C., psychiatrist and environmental activist Lise Van Susteren.
“There is a vicarious reaction. When we see people flooded out of their homes, pets lost, belongings rotting in the streets, and people scared out of their wits, we experience an empathic identification with the victims,” she said.
Brandi Wagner pulls out the medications she must take on a daily basis to control a range of storm-related disorders including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and an addiction to opioids. | Bryan Tamowski for POLITICO
“People come in saying they can’t sleep, they’re drinking too much, they’re having trouble with their kids, their jobs or their marriages are falling apart. They may not know where the anxiety is coming from, but everyone is affected by the stress of climate change.”
The same kind of vicarious reactions were documented after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and after Hurricane Katrina, particularly in children, said Columbia University pediatrician and disaster preparedness expert Irwin Redlener.
“The mental health effects of natural disasters are really important and vastly overlooked, not only acutely but over the long term,” he said.
Everyone who lives through a major storm experiences some level of anxiety and depression. But for low-income people and those without strong social supports, the symptoms are much worse, said Ronald Kessler, an epidemiologist and disaster policy expert at Harvard Medical School. The same is true for people who already suffered from mental illness or drug or alcohol addiction before the disaster occurred.
Repeated exposure to weather disasters is another risk factor for mental and behavioral disorders. Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, followed by Hurricane Rita less than a month later. Three years after that, Hurricane Gustav hit the Louisiana coast, followed by Hurricane Ike two weeks later.
In September, many who had fled Hurricane Katrina and resettled in Houston had to relive the same horrors all over again, putting them at higher risk for long-term mental health problems.
TOP LEFT: Wagner in her backyard. TOP RIGHT: Wagner's medications. BOTTOM LEFT: Wagner shows off a photo of her son, Sgt. Aaron Briggs, receiving his sergeant badge in a photo on her phone. BOTTOM RIGHT: Wagner's daughter, Jessica Briggs, her grandson, Jeremy Goudeau Jr., and her daughter, Kristina Briggs, at her home in Lafitte, La.. | Bryan Tamowski for POLITICO
But perhaps the greatest risk of adverse mental health reactions to storms occurs when an entire community like New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is so completely destroyed that people can’t return to normal for months or years, if ever. For those who left and went to live in Houston, Atlanta and other far-flung cities, the dislocation and loss of community was equally harmful, researchers say.
“People are only physically and mentally resilient to a point and then they are either irretrievably injured or they die,” Kessler said. If storms intensify in the future, the kind of devastation parts of New Orleans experienced could become more common, he said.
Psychiatric First Aid
In the past decade, first responders and public health workers began training in a type of mental health first aid that research has shown to be effective in lowering anxiety and reducing the risk that the traumas experienced during a storm will lead to serious mental illness.
Using evidence-based techniques, rescue workers reassure storm survivors that feelings of sadness, anger and fear are normal and that they are likely to go away quickly. But when survivors complain that they’ve been crying nonstop, haven’t slept for days or are having suicidal thoughts, rescue workers are trained to make sure they get more intensive mental health care immediately.
In Houston, for example, teams of doctors, nurses, mental health counselors and other health care professionals offered both physical and mental health services at clinics set up in every storm shelter. The city’s emergency medical director, Davie Persse, said the clinics were so successful that local hospital emergency departments reported no surges in patients with psychiatric distress or minor injuries.
Forced evacuation, whether temporary or permanent, can also trigger psychological problems for people confronted by natural disasters. | Wikimedia Commons
Another important factor in reducing the psychological impacts of a storm is avoiding secondary traumas like being stranded for weeks in the convention center in New Orleans, said Sarah Lowe, a co-author of the Katrina study who teaches psychology at Montclair University in New Jersey. “Repeated traumas can pile up almost the way concussions do.”
“What I’m seeing in Harvey and Irma is there’s more mitigation of secondary trauma,” Lowe said. People were allowed to take their pets to the shelters with them, for example. In Katrina, survivors either had to leave their pets behind or stay in their homes and be more exposed to physical and mental dangers.
Evacuation and relocation
Some public health experts say that we need to start thinking of longer-term solutions to the longer-term problem of severe weather; instead of trying to treat post-storm psychological damage, we should avoid it in the first place by persuading residents to move out of storm-prone areas.
“We do a great job with preparedness and response to hurricanes in this country. It’s an amazing accomplishment,” said Mark Keim, an Atlanta-based consultant who works with the CDC and the National Center for Disaster Medicine and Health. “But as climate change progresses over the next one hundred years, what are we going to do—respond, respond, respond? We can’t afford that anymore.”
According to Keim, much of the rest of the world is already taking that approach:
“Hurricanes can’t be prevented, but by refusing to rebuild in flood plains and developing the infrastructure needed to reduce inland flooding and coastal surges, we can avoid much of the human exposure to the coming storms. That’s where the world is right now in disaster management. Preparedness and response are older approaches.”
Climate change experts agree. To avoid increasing loss of lives from the mega storms expected in the decades ahead, large coastal populations should relocate, researchers say. Mathew Hauer, a demographer at the University of Georgia, recently found that a predicted 6-foot rise in sea levels by 2100 would put 13 million people in more than 300 U.S. coastal counties at risk of major flooding.
But relocating large populations has its own risks. For the hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents who rebuilt their lives far from home after Katrina, the loss of social ties and the stress of adapting to new surroundings also took a heavy psychological toll, according to recent research at the University of California.
There’s another problem with relocating people from coastal regions. It’s not just hurricanes that are expected to plague the planet as the climate shifts. Wildfires, droughts, inland flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters are also expected to increase in frequency and intensity, making it hard to find a safe place to put down new roots.
“Whether people decide to stay or decide to move, which means giving up a way of life, the long-term psychological costs of climate change appear to be inevitable,” Harvard’s Kessler said. “We can expect a growing number of people to have to face that dilemma. They’ll be affected by extreme weather one way or another, and they will need psychological help that already is in short supply.”
Christine Vestal is a reporter for Stateline, a nonprofit journalism project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
In the ruins of his hurricane-ravaged nation, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sees the homes that have to be razed, the hospital and clinics that collapsed and the power lines that failed.
But amid the overwhelming destruction wrought by a powerful Hurricane Maria last month, Skerrit also sees opportunity. On Sunday, as U.N. Secretary General António Guterres wrapped up a 24-hour visit here and to Antigua and Barbuda, Skerrit presented a bold rebuilding plan for a tiny country that today can barely provide food and water for its people but wants to be a model for the Caribbean.
He wants to transform Dominica, he said, into the “world’s first climate-resistant nation in the climate change era.” And he wants the United Nations — and Guterres — at his side on the front lines.
“Our devastation is so complete that our recovery has to be total,” Skerrit said. “We have a unique opportunity to be an example to the world, an example of how an entire nation rebounds from disaster and how an entire nation can be climate resilient for the future.
“We did not choose this opportunity. We did not wish it,” he added. “Having had it thrust upon us, we have chosen actively and decisively to be that example to the world.”
The plan, which began in 2015 after Tropical Storm Erika’s floods and mudslides left the island with a $482 million reconstruction bill, calls for more renewable energy and less fossil fuels, hospitals and clinics that won’t become paralyzed by power outages, infrastructure built around the environment and crops capable of withstanding today’s climate swings.
“The intensity of hurricanes are increasing and we need to ensure we can build better, resilient infrastructure,” said Skerrit, who arrived in Washington Monday ahead of a World Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting this week to press his case for assistance. “We’re going to need significant sums of resources.”
But if almost half a billion dollars was required to rebuild after Erika, Maria’s damage — coupled with the push to climate-proof the new construction — will likely cost many times that amount. Skerrit said his government has invited several independent agencies to assess how much money Dominica will need. Similar economic studies are also being conducted on hurricane-struck Barbuda — which Guterres toured on foot Saturday — along with the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos.
“The intensity of hurricanes and multiplication of hurricanes in the Caribbean in this season is not an accident,” Guterres stressed during his visit. “It is the result of climate change.”
Stephen O’Malley, the U.N. resident coordinator for Barbados and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, said he estimates the recovery costs will total about $1 billion for the hurricane-struck eastern Caribbean, but the final report will give a better idea of what island nations are up against. And that doesn’t include rebuilding to climate-resistant standards.
Guterres welcomed Skerrit’s vision, which dovetails with that of Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne, who announced that he, too, plans to transform Barbuda into a green, climate-resilient island. But Guterres added that the Caribbean leaders cannot rebuild their islands, much less make them more climate resilient, on their own. They will need the help of the international community, he said, through low-interest loans and new kinds of financing.
“This is going to be a battle,” Guterres told the Miami Herald, of the push to get the international community to do more to support the islands in their climate-resilient reconstruction bid. “It’s going to require thinking out of the box.”
While no country can be completely impervious to climate change, Guterres said, changes can help, such as new construction standards and farming techniques to resist drought and deluge.
The discussion among top Caribbean leaders contrasts with their closest neighbors in the U.S. In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott has avoided taking a position on climate change and on Monday, the Trump administration announced it plans to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.
But in the Caribbean, leaders don’t need convincing about the devastating effects of warmer temperatures and rising sea levels. Skerrit and Browne, whose countries were hammered by two Category 5 storms within 12 days, are convinced that a changed planet is going to require new tactics for life in paradise. And they have found a champion in Guterres.
“We need to preserve our paradises. We need to make climate protection our top priority,” the U.N. chief said. “The link between climate change and the devastation is real and there is a collective responsibility by the international community to stop this suicidal event.”
A believer in the fight to combat climate change — long before 147 countries in Paris agreed to reduce greenhouse gases and help poor countries adapt — Guterres’ drive to address the issue is a personal one, coming from his own experience.
He learned from scientific contacts and research while organizing university seminars on innovation and sustainable development in his native Portugal, where he also served as the country’s prime minister. From his engineering background, he gleaned an understanding of how building a dam in Portugal to combat forecasts of five years of drought help stave off a crisis.
And his former role as the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees has helped, too, when he had to respond to a wave of African farmers from the Sahel region fleeing to Europe because of changing weather patterns.
“Before, there were droughts every 10 years, then every five years. Now every two years there is a drought...more people are being forced to move,” he said. “Climate change will be one of the main drivers of displacement in the world.”
As he flew over parts of Dominica Sunday aboard a World Food Program flight, Guterres was shocked by the level of “systematic devastation” blanketing the country.
“Not a single leaf,” he said, looking at the trees below that had been stripped down to sticks.
The pride of nature preservationists, Dominica has been known as Nature’s Island. The rainforest is devoid of life, its colorful parrots and wildlife scattered, and the lush green mountains have turned brown. Twenty-six are confirmed dead and 31 are missing, Skerrit said.
“I have never seen anywhere else in the world a forest completely decimated without a single leaf on any tree,” Guterres said. Though he had witnessed the devastation in Barbuda, that island is linked to a bigger one, Antigua, which can support it. In Dominica, an entire nation was flattened.
Guterres and Skerrit visited Salybia, a farming village in the Kalinago territory, where descendants of the island’s indigenous population, formerly known as Caribs, live. Aid packets of rice, tuna, lentils, flour and salt were being distributed by U.N. humanitarian agencies in cooperation with the government and local authorities. Nearby, wood and chunks of concrete from destroyed homes littered the land.
Kalinago Chief Charles Williams welcomed him, telling the crowd that while Maria was a natural disaster, it was God’s will.
But Guterres offered those gathered a different viewpoint. “These disasters, they are largely due not to God’s will but to what the people on the planet are doing. ...The people on this planet have not been taking care of this planet and especially the developed world.”
Guterres said he knows that there are non-believers when it comes to climate change. But even though President Trump seems intent on having the U.S. exit the Paris climate accord and Monday’s decision will make it difficult for the U.S. to curb emissions, Guterres said he remains hopeful.
“There is a strong commitment of the American society to make sure that the engagement the U.S. assumed in Paris will be met,” he said. “And this gives me a lot of optimism. It’s one thing what the government decides, but it’s another thing what a society will do.”
Seeing the devastation of Irma and Maria up close only reinforced his feelings.
“It confirms everything I felt,” he said, as the plane approached Guadeloupe. “When you see this level of destruction, you feel a huge sense of solidarity with these people. They do not contribute to climate change, but they are the first victims of climate change. It’s a moral responsibility that is very, very important for me. I feel reassured that I am doing the right thing.”
Tony Abbott titled his London speech on climate change “Daring to Doubt” – a challenge, if you will, to reject mountains of evidence and instead lick your fingers and shove them into the plug socket of denial.
Go on, I dare you.
Throughout his speech, the former Australian prime minister urged listeners to think that dismissing decades of research backed by the world’s leading scientific institutions required bravery and fortitude, rather than other less celebrated human attributes.
But what would constitute bravery for a conservative politician like Abbott? Changing your mind when the evidence tells you you’re dead wrong, or saying what you’ve always said, using the logical fallacies that you’ve always used? One step is brave, the other is cowardly.
Abbott was giving the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s annual lecture – an “honour” previously bestowed on his spiritual and political mentors John Howard and Cardinal George Pell.
Nobody should be surprised that what we got was an absolute crap speech from a man who confessed he still thinks climate science is “absolute crap”.
Abbott went for the whole canon of tired climate science denial talking points – carbon dioxide is just food for plants, the climate has always changed, it’s the sun – in what constituted a warmed-up meal of misinformation with a side order of supercilious gravy.
Several leading Australian climate scientists have hit back. How tired they must get of debunking this stuff.
Abbott’s speech was also chock-full of internal contradictions.
He suggested a conspiracy to tamper with temperature readings, but admitted the globe was warming. He described carbon dioxide as a “trace gas” and dismissed its role in warming, but elsewhere thought warming (which might not be happening) would be good. And the “trace gas” is insignificant, but not when it comes to its ability to “green the planet” and help plants grow.
Professor Steve Sherwood, deputy director of the University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre, read the speech and said it was “the usual mix of misdirection, falsehoods and tirades against ‘brigades’ who supposedly say this and that but are never clearly identified”.
Abbott told the thinktank – which had denied requests from seasoned climate reporters to attend – that past climate changes that occurred millions of years ago showed there was nothing to worry about now.
“Abbott is trying to hide the fact that it is the scientists themselves – who know more about past climate changes than he does – who are sounding the alarm,” said Sherwood.
The former prime minister confined his scientific missteps to seven or eight paragraphs in the middle of his speech.
Professor Mark Howden, director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, said Abbott’s claim that other factors, such as sunspots cycles or wobbles in the Earth’s orbit could be just as important as carbon dioxide, was simply false.
“The evidence that our climate is changing due to human activity is overwhelming,” said Howden. “2016 was globally the hottest year on record, surpassing the 2015 record, surpassing the 2014 record. There is 99.999% certainty that humans are driving the observed temperature rises via greenhouse gas emissions.”
Abbott’s claim that “no big change has accompanied the increase in carbon dioxide concentration” was “problematic”, said Howden, given “research shows that the world has already warmed by approximately 1C since pre-industrial times”.
“We are already experiencing changed patterns of rainfall, more and more days with extreme temperatures, increasingly intense natural disasters and rising sea levels, impacting on almost all facets of life in Australia.”
Professor Andrew Pitman, director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, said while it was true that CO2 is essential to life, “life also requires many trace elements that at higher concentrations are toxic”.
“It is a myth to imply that because CO2 is essential to life, more of it is good.”
Abbott also deployed another favourite talking point from climate science misinformers – that warming (which, remember, he thinks might not be happening) will cut the number of people dying of cold.
Pitman said this argument, too, was misleading, saying: “It is true that in rich countries which tend to be in the mid to higher latitudes, some warming might help reduce deaths from cold. In the lower latitude countries – the subtropics and tropics – people rarely die of cold. In contrast they die of heat and lack of clean water.
“So, countries responsible for global warming might gain a minor benefit from warming while those least responsible will wear the consequences.”
Dr Liz Hanna, an expert on the impacts of climate change on human health, said human-caused warming was already implicated in the deaths of many thousands.
“In 2003, 70,000 people died in western Europe, and in 2010 a further 55,000 people died in Russia and eastern Europe. These figures far exceed deaths from cold snaps. The decade 2001-2010 saw a 2,300% increase in heat deaths above the previous decade. Mr Abbott’s assertions don’t tell the whole story, as they’re based on what has happened in the past rather than what is projected to happen in future. While more people die from cold than heat in Melbourne at the moment, this will reverse as more summer days reach the high 40s.”
Away from his errors on the evidence, Abbott tried to characterise climate science and environmentalism as being hamstrung by a religious-type fervour that gets in the way of “common sense”. Abbott said:
Environmentalism has managed to combine a post-socialist instinct for big government with a post-Christian nostalgia for making sacrifices in a good cause. Primitive people once killed goats to appease the volcano gods. We’re more sophisticated now but are still sacrificing our industries and our living standards to the climate gods to little more effect.
Beware the pronouncement, ‘the science is settled’. It’s the spirit of the Inquisition, the thought-police down the ages. Almost as bad is the claim that ‘99% of scientists believe’ as if scientific truth is determined by votes rather than facts.
As a Roman Catholic libertarian free market ideologue, Abbott is, presumably, immune to such group think.
Climate scientist Ben Henley, of the University of Melbourne, also spots Abbott’s facile argument. In an email he told me:
“By implication, Abbott superstitiously questions the foundations of science, and in doing so, he questions the same scientific method which discovered wifi and penicillin, and proved the Earth was not flat.
“Abbott presents an absurdly and intentionally distorted viewpoint, reminiscent of a conspiracy theorist.”
Abbott’s attitude to climate change seems to rest on a Boy’s Own “who dares wins” approach to policy that’s neither brave or daring. It’s stupid.
The High Price of Cheap Weed
The Napa Valley of pot faces an unlikely challenge: legalization.
By Stett Holbrook on Oct 9, 2017
IN COLLABORATION WITH
The drive to Casey and Amber O’Neill’s HappyDay Farms winds up a dirt track off Highway 101, three hours north of San Francisco. The road climbs to 3,000 feet along a ridge with stunning views of pine-covered mountains and the blue band of the Pacific Ocean, 25 miles to the west.
As I turn down the O’Neill’s pitched driveway, a barking Great Dane–Catahoula named Emma rushes me, hackles raised. Casey and Amber insist she’s friendly, but it be would difficult to approach the O’Neill homestead undetected. And that’s by design.
The O’Neills grow cannabis in northwestern California’s infamous Emerald Triangle, a densely forested region of labyrinthine back roads, secret valleys, and perennial creeks. For more than 40 years, it’s been a great place to hide out and grow a prohibited but highly desired product — not just for the O’Neills, but for scores of other off-the-books growers, many of whom have been farming here for generations.
Casey O’Neill was born 35 years ago on this hilly, 20-acre spread. One acre of his property is flat enough to produce vegetables and strawberries, which he sells to nearby restaurants and members of a CSA. But it’s the rows of cannabis that bring in most of his income. His brother and father grow the same lucrative product on adjacent properties: a well-known hybrid strain called The Great Success, which took 11th place out of more than 650 entries at last year’s Emerald Cup, the state’s premier pot competition.
Grist / Google Earth
The Emerald Triangle is the Napa Valley of cannabis. Blanketing more than 10,000 square miles in Trinity, Humboldt, and Mendocino Counties, the region produces about 60 percent of the nation’s pot, most of which heads out of state on the black market.
And just as winegrowing and tourism dominate Napa County’s economy, so does cannabis dominate here, helping to fill the void created by the collapse of the once-robust fishing and timber industries. In Humboldt County, the region’s heart, researchers estimate that cannabis provides a third of private-industry revenue; in the triangle at large, the California Growers Association, a cannabis trade group, says every dollar spent on the cannabis industry leads to at least two dollars spent elsewhere.
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But change is coming, thanks to voters’ passage last year of Prop 64. Starting in 2018, Californians will be able to legally grow and possess recreational cannabis. That’s in addition to medical weed, which the state legalized in 1996.
From an environmental standpoint, ending prohibition should be a boon. Illegal cultivation creates a raft of environmental problems — erosion, clear-cutting, garbage dumping, poisoned watersheds, and water diversions from creeks that support imperiled salmon and steelhead trout. The state will also begin collecting fees and taxes from growers who go legit; about $1 billion is expected next year, of which 20 percent will go toward watershed protection and remediation of state lands that were damaged by growers.
But for the O’Neills and other small-scale growers in the Emerald Triangle, legalization looks a lot less appealing. Many are either unable or unwilling to pay state or county fees, and even for those who can, legalization will increase competition from large-scale, cut-rate growers.
Fred Krissman, a Humboldt State University anthropologist conducting field studies of cannabis growers in the region, predicts “massive increases in unemployment, poverty, child hunger — a disaster.” The transformation might also offer a cautionary tale to other states embarking down the path of legalization.
In 2016, California’s legal medical cannabis industry — which fills the shelves of regulated dispensaries throughout the state — generated $1.8 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, the illicit markets pulled in $5.1 billion, according to the Arcview Group, a cannabis investment and research firm in Oakland.
Once legal recreational cannabis hits the market, Arcview forecasts its value will hit $5.8 billion in the next four years.
But how much of that pot will come from the Emerald Triangle? So far, only about 3,000 of the region’s operators, out of roughly 50,000 farms or “grows,” have applied for permits and licenses, but that number is growing as more growers come forward. For some operators, the cost of legalization – tens of thousands of dollars for even a modest-size operation, not including attorney and consultant fees — is simply too high.
Compounding the financial hit is competition from the south, where well-capitalized operators are planting cannabis in giant Salinas and Central Valley greenhouses and urban industrial parks. Economies of scale, plus easy access to labor and highways near lucrative markets, lower those operators’ price point to about $1,300 a pound. Just a few years ago, Emerald Triangle growers could get more than triple that.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the Emerald Triangle’s growers who have chosen to go legit, including the O’Neills, face further competition close to home. With lower overhead and no sales tax or permit fees, growers who choose to stay illegal can easily undercut legal operators’ prices.
As the industry emerges from the underground economy and blinks in the bright light of regulation, no one is quite sure what success will look like. The cannabis industry has existed outside the law for decades, but also well outside of mainstream agriculture. That has allowed small-scale growers to maintain financially and environmentally sound family-owned plots — a rarity in the rest of the ag industry, which has grown dependent on chemical companies and squeezed by low crop prices.
Casey and Amber O’Neill stand on a hillside at HappyDay Farms. Stett Holbrook
“We’ve seen how 20th century agriculture can be really bad for community, and really hard on the land, hard on workers and families,” Casey O’Neill says. “If we don’t build a different 21st century agriculture, we’re fucked.”
Done right, he adds, cannabis legalization offers a way to keep small, diversified pot-and-produce farms like his afloat. “It’s much bigger than growing some weed. We’re trying to put a face on small farms and communicate what we do, and why it’s valuable to society.”
When I first met Humboldt State’s Fred Krissman at a California Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation meeting in Santa Rosa last year, I thought he was a grower. He looked the part, sitting in the back of the room wearing a beanie pulled low and a cannabis farm T-shirt.
As an anthropologist studying cannabis growers, he cultivates the look to better mix with his research subjects, with whom he lives for days at a time.
Krissman works at Humboldt’s five-year-old Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, the first academic research group to focus on cannabis — the role it plays in the regional economy and its impacts on community relations, the environment, and human health.
He hopes a majority of cannabis farmers can find the environmental and economic balance that Casey O’Neill exemplifies, but as an academic, Krissman is skeptical.
The industry’s shift into the legal sphere, he says, may pressure all cannabis growers — legal and illegal — to operate more like modern agriculture, with its “get big or get out” ethos of debt, larger investments in equipment, labor and facilities, and offsite corporate ownership.
In 2014, after Colorado legalized recreational and medical cannabis, prices plummeted as scores of new growers flooded the market, many of them large-scale operations that hold licenses for cultivation, distribution, sales, and other business activities.
According to Cannabase, a Colorado-based online retail site, the wholesale price for a pound of recreational pot dropped 38 percent in 2016, while medical marijuana fell by 24 percent. A similar phenomenon is happening in Washington State, which legalized recreational cannabis in 2012.
As an example of how industrial pot could affect California growers, Krissman points to Harborside, an Oakland-based cannabis dispensary that’s developing a 47-acre farm with 360,000 square feet of greenhouses in the Salinas Valley. Jeff Brothers, that company’s chief executive officer, told a reporter this past April: “If we want cannabis to be widely accepted, we need it to be cheap.”
That’s an imperative with which Krissman vehemently disagrees.
“If we force the cannabis industry into the capitalist mode of agribusiness,” he says, “this is the logical transition that’s going to occur — the one that our politicians and many people say they don’t want.”
To help protect Northern California’s traditional growers, Krissman suggests limiting farms to one acre, as well as imposing a government-subsidized floor price of $1,000 per pound at the farm gate — a proposal he realizes has little chance of passing muster in the current regulatory climate.
The growing glut of cannabis is already pushing prices to that floor, with no sign it will hold. But if public policy makers really do want rural communities to thrive, Krissman says, then they have to enact laws protecting them.
State lawmakers have created a tiered-fee structure, based on the number of plants and size of operation, to help cottage-scale growers survive in the post-legalization landscape. But even that, many say, isn’t enough to help Emerald Triangle growers match the economies of scale enjoyed by larger operations to the south.
Susan and Paul, partners in a small medical cannabis company called Lovingly and Legally Grown, are among those who fear the legalization juggernaut. They asked that their last names not be used because of ongoing raids in their region by authorities, even on legal growers.
They belie the cliché that all pot growers are raking in the money. Last year, they grossed $35,000, producing and distributing a line of tinctures, oils, and balms, working with doctors to create custom blends of cannabinoid (CBD) — a non-psychoactive compound that treats anxiety, epilepsy, arthritis, and other ailments.
Under the new regulatory framework, they estimate their annual fees and permits will top $30,000 next year.
“This is what is presenting us with this terrible quandary right now,” says Susan over a table filled with her homemade cheese, almonds, and gluten-free crackers. “We don’t know if we can continue.”
She and Paul now travel the state, attending hearings on cannabis regulation and explaining how legalization threatens to annihilate those who choose to stay small.
“Everybody wants to get their beak wet,” Paul adds. “All they know is this is a billion-dollar industry, and they want their piece of the pie.”
Indeed, 250 miles south of the Emerald Triangle, in California’s Salinas Valley, a 21st century cannabis industry is rising amid the region’s traditional crops of lettuce, strawberries, artichokes, broccoli, and wine grapes.
To protect Salinas Valley’s existing $5 billion agricultural industry, Monterey County officials have restricted cannabis cultivation to existing greenhouses, a land-use decision that has kicked off a real estate frenzy for tumbledown buildings that used to grow cut flowers until NAFTA opened the door to cheaper Colombian imports in the 1990s.
“Greenhouses are the most efficient way to grow,” says Omar Bitar, co-founder of Grupo Flor, a Salinas-based cannabis business consortium. “We have the ag infrastructure and, most importantly, we have the labor pool.”
Today, Grupo Flor leases or owns about 2.6 million square feet of greenhouse and indoor growing space in Monterey County. Eight-foot-tall chain-link fences, topped with razor wire, encircle the properties, which are dotted with security cameras and large “no trespassing” signs.
Inside the greenhouses, computer programs manipulate light exposure, spurring plants to flower early and produce multiple crops a year, instead of the single crop that outdoor growers, reliant on the sun, raise.
At Grupo Flor’s Salinas office, a whiteboard lists revenue projections for each of the company’s five business ventures: real estate, cultivation, manufacturing, investment, and retail. This year, the company will gross $5 million from its leases, says Gavin Kogan, a Grupo Flor cofounder. Next year, if all goes well, he projects gross earnings, from all Grupo Flor ventures, of $30 million and more than $80 million in 2019.
A former cannabis business attorney who favors checkered Van’s skateboard shoes, Kogan claims not to be motivated by riches. Instead, he touts the ability of cannabis to create economic opportunity for the majority-Latino population in an area riven by crime and lack of economic opportunity. Salinas has the highest youth homicide rate in the state and a total gun murder rate more than seven times the national average.
“The goal is to make the Salinas Valley the central plumbing for the California cannabis industry and generate jobs and completely reconstitute the economic infrastructure of this valley,” Kogan says.
And what of the Emerald Triangle growers? Kogan says he understands their plight and doesn’t want to take their business.
“I’ve faced open hostility from North Coast folks with what we’re doing here,” he admits. “But we’ve got multi-generation growers down here as well, and we’re doing what’s available to us.”
What’s available to northern growers, he adds, is appellations: identifying and marketing products with distinct geographical place names — a strategy employed by winemakers around the globe. (The California Growers Association is already pursuing this avenue.)
Emerald Triangle growers could also distinguish their product as sun-grown buds, distinct from anything cultivated under a roof in Monterey County.
But there’s another hitch: flower power may be on the decline. To appeal to new consumers, Kogan says the industry is moving away from smokable bud toward salves and candies made with cannabis oil — a commodity in the making. That’s where much of Grupo Flor’s business lies. It remains to be seen if customers will continue to seek out Emerald Triangle flower over more versatile oil.
Can big pot and little pot coexist, as Kogan imagines? Alicia Rose consulted for the Napa Valley wine industry before she opened a virtual cannabis dispensary called HerbaBuena, which specializes in sun-grown, biodynamic cannabis from heritage Emerald County growers.
She sees an opportunity for branded “farm-to-table” cannabis that comes with a story – for example, flowers grown outdoors by organic farmers on a small family plot in an ocean-cooled valley in Mendocino County — as the best hope for Northern California’s cottage growers.
For the Napa Valley of pot to survive, in other words, it might have to learn and adopt the marketing lessons of the actual Napa Valley.
“It gives me a little glimmer of hope we’ll be able to stay above the fray,” she says. Her hesitation? Backwoods growers who have long operated under the radar lack a certain business savvy. After all, they’ve succeeded in large part thanks to their ability to lay low. And that doesn’t usually translate into Napa-like promotional and sales skills.
Casey O’Neill, however, may have the adaptive qualities to make it in California’s new cannabis economy. Over the decades, he has played many roles: black market grower, plant breeder, cannabis consumer, and felon (he spent two months in the Mendocino County jail for cultivation). Now he’s a tax-paying cannabis farmer and policy activist.
Through it all, he has argued for the value of cannabis as a medicine, and for the benefits of small-scale, environmentally sound cultivation. Today, laminated cultivation permits hang on posts at the entrance to his farm. He relishes the security, predictability, and peace of mind that comes from running an above-board business.
Serving on the board of directors for the California Growers Association, O’Neill has become a strong advocate for small-scale cannabis cultivation. Perhaps hedging his bets, he also recently accepted a position in business and policy development at Flow Kana, a cannabis distributor building a 85,000 square-foot “cannabis campus” in nearby Redwood Valley.
The facility, which also houses a retreat center, will process, test, and distribute co-branded cannabis from some 80 boutique Mendocino and Humboldt county growers, operations not unlike the O’Neills’ HappyDay Farms.
So far, Emerald County growers don’t consider the San Francisco–based Flow Kana a threat. Rather, it’s a lifeline that, if all goes well, will help them stay afloat. Casey and Amber trust that the co-op will help them reach “discerning customers” — people who will seek Mendocino County sun-grown weed the way wine drinkers seek biodynamic-certified Napa cabernet.
“The strength of the story is what we’re counting on to keep us in the game against bigger, more capitalized operations,” O’Neill says. “Grown in a greenhouse has only so much story to it.”
Produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit, investigative news organization.
Puerto Ricans Still Desperate for Water Weeks after Hurricane Maria
October 9, 2017/in Drinking Water, United States, Water News, Water Quality /by Kayla Ritter
Half of the island’s residents have no access to clean drinking water.
Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Sgt. Jose Ahiram Diaz-Ramos/PRNG-PAO)
Two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, islanders are still in dire need of water and other amenities such as food, fuel, and medicine. The arrival of aid to the island has been sluggish, and its delivery is being obstructed by widespread damages to infrastructure alongside downed electricity and cell service. Although the island has seen some areas of improvement—over 70 percent of supermarkets and gas stations are now operational—conditions remain grave following the worst hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 90 years.
“Well, at least the water arrived — that’s a first. That’s for today. I guess tomorrow we have to come back. The people here were waiting, and it was not coming. We were so desperate.” –Aida Nieves, a resident of Cánovanas, Puerto Rico, in reference to the arrival of aid after two weeks of waiting. Nieves received two meals and a 24-pack of bottled water to sustain her household of eight people indefinitely. Other residents of the island, especially those living in isolated inland areas, are still waiting for basic amenities.
By The Numbers
34 The latest Hurricane Maria death toll in Puerto Rico, according to a Tuesday update by Governor Ricardo Roselló. Nineteen deaths were due to drowning, mudslides or falling objects; the rest of the deaths were caused indirectly by heart attack, suicide, or power outages that cut off oxygen or other life-saving assistance at hospitals. The Governor warned that the death toll may continue to rise.
53 percent Proportion of Puerto Ricans who do not have access to clean drinking water as of Tuesday. Many residents have resorted to fetching water from streams and rivers to meet their daily needs. In San Juan, a bottle of water reportedly costs $6.
91 percent Proportion of Puerto Rican homes and businesses that remain without power as of Wednesday. Governor Roselló expects that 75 percent will still be without electricity a month from now.
88 percent Proportion of islanders who do not have cell service as of Wednesday. A Department of Defense press release on hurricane relief efforts reported that “communications remain a challenge.” AT&T; mobile cell towers are being delivered to Puerto Rico in an effort to regain connectivity.
51 Number of Puerto Rico’s hospitals that are relying on generator power, compared to 14 hospitals with functioning electricity. A floating U.S. Navy hospital ship has arrived in San Juan to aid storm victims.
Science, Studies, And Reports
The U.S. Department of Defense is publishing daily reports on disaster relief efforts on the island. The DoD’s Wednesday update emphasized the military’s efforts to clear roads and rebuild bridges in order to distribute aid to all Puerto Rico residents. More than 10,000 DoD personnel are on the ground and eighty military aircraft are flying supplies around the island.
On The Radar
Over half of Puerto Ricans are without drinking water, and the potential for waterborne diseases is on the rise. Unfortunately, this is not the first issue Puerto Rico has had with its water supply. Even before Hurricane Maria, the island had the highest rate of drinking water violations of any state or territory. In 2015, over 60 percent of islanders got their water from sources that violated federal health standards. Crumbling infrastructure, pollution, and underinvestment are largely to blame. Now that Hurricane Maria has dealt another blow to Puerto Rico’s fragile water supply, the Puerto Rican government must commit to rebuilding water infrastructure in a sustainable way, or else water issues will continue to plague the island for decades to come.
Resources And Further Reading
After Hurricane Maria, 95 percent of Puerto Rico still without power (ABC News)
Aid Is Getting to Puerto Rico. Distributing It Remains a Challenge. (The New York Times)
Higher Puerto Rico Death Toll Reflects Survey Across Island (The New York Times)
Hurricane Maria worsens Puerto Rico’s water woes (The Hill)
Trump praises response to Puerto Rico, says crisis straining budget (Reuters)
With little food, water or power, Puerto Rico residents say ‘no one has come’ to help (ABC News)
With long lines for food, water and fuel, Puerto Ricans help each other (USA Today)
DoD Hurricane Relief (Defense.gov)
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Following the family tradition, Chris Darwin is leading the fight to protect animals from extinction
Great, great grandson of Charles Darwin says we must change our diet to prevent more wildlife dying off
Jane Dalton @IndyVoices Sunday 8 October 2017 00:00 BST
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The Independent Online
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“Chip is much more popular than me everywhere we go,” Chris Darwin says, jovially co-operating by posing for photos with the toy bald eagle he carries on his shoulder. “I nicked him from my children’s bedroom and he gets lots of attention.”
To meet Mr Darwin, laidback, cheerful and ultra-friendly, you would never guess he tried to commit suicide 26 years ago. He’s perfectly open about it, as much as he is passionate about his new work that sprang from the famous surname.
Mr Darwin’s great, great grandfather, Charles, may have developed the theory of the origin of species but today his descendant has picked up the evolutionary science baton to defend mass extinctions of species.
“We all have crucibles,” he says of the dark period when, aged 30, he tried to end his life by cycling over a cliff (he was saved by a random tree branch). “Critical moments when something normally bad happens that changes the rest of your life, and mine was this suicide event. Slowly I came to the concept that I needed purpose in life.”
Darwin the younger looked at all the world’s big problems – starvation, polluted water, disease – and settled on the crisis of mass extinctions as one he felt he wanted to help tackle. “So in 1991 I set off down that road.”
Bird man: Chris Darwin is making it his mission to halt wildlife decline (Jane Dalton)
When asked to what extent he was influenced by his legendary ancestor’s work in identifying the origins of man, he bursts into a roar of laughter. “It was entirely independent,” he insists in a voice heavy with irony.
Chris Darwin, 56, had come to London from his home in Australia for a groundbreaking conference attempting to tackle the growing crisis of the world’s rapidly diminishing wildlife, and one of the key causes of that loss – worldwide demand for meat.
Oldest land fossils suggest Darwin was right about origin of life
More than 50 of the best minds in the fields of ecology, agriculture, public health, biology, oceanography, eco-investment and food retailing joined forces over two days to brainstorm ideas on how to stem the rapid shrinkage of the natural world caused by damaging agricultural practices.
The Extinction and Livestock Conference, with at least 500 delegates, was the world’s first ever conference examining how modern meat production affects life on Earth, and, put simply, it was designed to find ways to revolutionise the world’s food and farming systems to prevent mass species extinctions.
“We have to stop this,” says Mr Darwin, and he recalls how his great, great grandfather regretted on his death not having done more for other animals – a sentiment that shaped his decision to turn around his “self-indulgent, selfish” life, which involved working in advertising, and do something for the planet.
Wildlife under attack
The fact that the food on our plates is a major cause of shocking declines in wildlife – ranging from elephants and jaguar to barn owls, water vole and bumble bees – may come as a surprise to many. But for the experts gathered for the conference the link was clear. What was less easy to see was how to force practical global change.
Nobody can be in any doubt about the alarming rate at which animals, reptiles and birds are becoming extinct. The journal Science says we are wiping out species at 1,000 times their natural rate.
In the past 40 years alone half the world’s wildlife species have been lost, with conservation giant the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) predicting Earth is on course to lose two-thirds of its species within the next three years.
Marco Lambertini, director-general of WWF International, could not have put it more starkly: “Lose biodiversity, and the natural world – including the life-support systems as we know them – will collapse.”
Changing our spots: if we don't change our diets then animals, such as jaguar, face extinction (AFP/Getty)
The depth of the crisis was underlined earlier this year when scientists announced we were already living through an era of the world’s sixth mass extinction – caused by human activity. What was happening was so urgent, they warned, it should be termed not “mass extinction” but “biological annihilation”.
The researchers revealed, in the journal Nature, their findings that tens of thousands of species – including a quarter of all mammals and 13 per cent of birds – are now threatened with extinction. The researchers, who studied 27,600 species, said: “Dwindling population sizes and range-shrinkages amount to a massive anthropogenic erosion of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services essential to civilisation.”
And it’s not just land mammals that are disappearing. Last year a study in the journal Science suggested sharks, whales and sea turtles were dying in disproportionately greater numbers than smaller animals – the reverse of earlier extinctions.
The link with food
Climate change and hunting are usually blamed for declines in the natural world but at Extinction Conference 17, WWF revealed fresh research showing 60 per cent of global biodiversity loss is down to meat-based diets.
Its report, Appetite for Destruction, laid bare how the vast scale of cereals and soya grown specifically to feed animals farmed for meat is soaking up great tracts of land, taking huge quantities of fresh water and eliminating wild species.
Charles Darwin Disney film: Naturalist gets the Indiana Jones
What’s more, the study says, the world is consuming more animal protein than it needs: the average UK consumption of protein is between 64g and 88g, compared with guidelines of 45g-55g. Poultry such as chicken and duck are the biggest users of crop feed worldwide, with pigs second.
One study found that 60 per cent of EU cereal production (and 67 per cent in the US) is used as animal feed – yet for every 100 calories fed to animals as crops, we receive on average just 17-30 calories in the form of meat and milk.
It's a jungle out there: deforestation for food production is a massive problem (AFP/Getty)
According to the charity Compassion in World Farming (CiWF), the destructive practices were set in train after the Second World War, when intensive farming techniques spread from the US to Europe. Vast landscapes were replaced by “monoculture” – a single crop – in fields liberally treated with pesticides and fertilisers. They killed the insects, bees and butterflies at the bottom of the food chain and wiped away bird habitats, while active deforestation for food production is leaving ever smaller landscapes for mammals, from jaguar and elephants to polar bears and rhinos.
It’s happening in exotic locations – such as Indonesia, where the palm oil industry wrecks habitats and leads to elephants, porcupine and wild pigs being poisoned – and closer to home, where decades of use of nitrogen and other chemicals on farms has led to dire warnings about Britain’s soil having fewer than 100 harvests left.
But worldwide, the overwhelming problem, experts say, is the highly inefficient use of land to grow soya and cereals that are then fed to chickens, pigs and cattle slaughtered for meat.
According to The Economist, although livestock provides just 17 per cent of global calories consumed, it requires twice that proportion of the Earth’s fresh water, feed and farmland because of the crops required. And this makes it the greatest user of land in the world.
Why we should work four-hour days like Darwin and Dickens
Philip Lymbery, chief executive of CiWF, which organised the conference, set out the causal links between modern intensive farming practices and the destruction of the natural world in his book Dead Zone, which explains how intensive rearing of animals in Britain and abroad to produce meat cheaply involves destroying forests half the size of the UK for farmland each year.
In South America, rainforests have been replaced by swathes of soya crops to feed cattle, pigs and chickens. Some 13 million hectares there – about the size of Greece – are used for soya imported by the EU, nearly all for industrial feed, according to WWF.
The system is so inefficient, says Lymbery, that “worldwide, if grain-fed animals were restored to pasture and the cereals and soya went to people instead, there would be enough for an extra four billion people”. Feeding animals on crops that are fit for humans is “the biggest single area of food waste on the planet”.
Sting in the tail: use of pesticides in fields is one of the factors leading to a decline in bees (CiWF)
“Many people claim factory farming is the answer to feeding a burgeoning population but this couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says.
Intensively grazed landscapes, with fertilisers and pesticides and the demise of stubble, have led to steep declines in barn owls and other farmland birds and small mammals, while chemical run-off from fields is seen as a key cause of bee decline.
CiWF is not the only voice linking extinctions with our diets. The UN has stated that “intensive livestock production is probably the largest sector-specific source of water pollution”. The Soil Association says the UK’s food system accounts for 30 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions, largely because of industrialised processes.
And WWF has warned: “We could witness a two-thirds decline in the half-century from 1970 to 2020, unless we act now to reform our food and energy systems and meet global commitments on addressing climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting sustainable development.”
Seven years ago, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity drew up a strategic plan, signed by 196 countries, of detailed targets for 2020 to slow wildlife decline. Since then scientists have repeatedly warned not just that the targets would be missed but also that biodiversity loss was worsening. The lack of action was one factor behind the Extinction Conference.
Lymbery said it should be the start of a “global conversation” on transforming food and farming worldwide, and called for a fresh UN convention. “To safeguard the future, we need some kind of global agreement to replace factory farming with a regenerative food system. But that’s not all. We all have the power, three times a day, to save wildlife and end an awful lot of farm animal cruelty.”
Mucking in: We have it in our power to prevent factory farming – by changing our behaviour (AFP/Getty)
Duncan Williamson, of WWF, proposed feeding farm animals on specially cultivated insects and algae, to dramatically reduce deforestation and water use needed as animal feed.
Food producers, meanwhile, showcased a new vegan burger that “sizzles and bleeds like meat”, endorsed by Joanna Lumley, the star of Absolutely Fabulous.
Time and again, the solutions by conference experts led to a need to end industrial animal farming – which meant animal campaigners were suddenly no longer the only ones urging people to scale back drastically the amount of chicken, pork, beef, salmon, dairy and eggs consumed.
Chris Darwin, who spent six weeks on a container ship travelling to Britain to avoid flying, said: “Verifiable evidence indicates meat consumption globally will double in the next 35 years, and if that occurs so much forest will have to be cut down around the world that we’re going to cause a mass extinction of species within the next hundred years. And we cannot let that happen.”
He explained passionately how a typical diet uses “two-and-a-half planets” in terms of resources but cutting out wasteful animal produce uses “a quarter of the planet”.
Cut it out: Rainforests are being chopped down and replaced by soya crops (AFP/Getty Images)
He is using modern technology that would have astounded his great, great grandfather to fight back against the seemingly relentless decline of the natural world – in the form of an iPhone app helping people to switch to a more plant-based diet.
By tapping in what they eat, people can receive feedback over time on how many animals, carbon emissions and how much land and water they have saved, as well as days of lifespan added, and their placing on a leaderboard.
“What is the single silver bullet to solve this problem?” he says. “We need behavioural change to solve this problem – and that is to eat less meat.”
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A new study warning Australia’s major cities are likely to reach highs of 50C by 2040 – even if the world meets its target of limiting warming to 2C above pre-industrial levels – is yet more evidence that without immediate and urgent action we are facing a looming public health crisis during heatwaves and other extreme weather events.
The study follows recent unseasonable heat across New South Wales, with Sydney experiencing its hottest ever September day, as well as the doubling of record-breaking summer temperatures in Australia in the past 50 years. This new normal has hospital health professionals particularly bracing for the coming summer.
Public Australian emergency departments are tough places to both work and be a patient. They are hectic, often overwhelmed, not infrequently threatening environments that are emotionally demanding for everyone. And, with ever increasing demand and an ageing population, along with a politically-sensitive health budget, the emergency department is increasingly the public face of a stressed health system.
Every day, sometime around 11am, the ambulances roll in. This is when we see the presentation rate suddenly increase, commonly bringing a new patient every three to four minutes, a rate that will continue until 10-11pm every evening. Generally during this 11 to 12 hour period we see two-thirds of our presentations. This is the time that the department heaves.
During this period, on any given day, the resuscitation area will be full. A delirious elderly patient with septicaemia will be lying alongside someone with chest pain who may be next to a psychotic methamphetamine-intoxicated patient screaming abuse as they are restrained by security and clinical staff, while a full resuscitation of an out of hospital cardiac arrest or a major trauma takes place in a nearby bay.
Monitor alarms will be going off continuously, the sounds broken by an ambulance priority-one call coming through, while medical and nursing staff will be moving from one patient to the next as quickly as possible, trying to keep on top of the deteriorating patients around them. And soon enough ambulances will be banking up outside the front door as the department exceeds its capacity to deal with the influx, kept from being on the road responding to emergencies as they wait to offload their patients.
While all this is going on, the inpatient units are being pushed to discharge as many patients, as early as possible in the day, to make capacity for the admissions that will come, both as emergency and elective surgical patients. All of this has to happen, has to work to an optimal level to deal with the demand of any usual day in our public health system.
Are we going to take the health of our population and our ecosystem seriously ...?
Now let us add to this day three of a heatwave (defined as three or more days of high maximum temperatures). With climate change causing a gradual increase in average temperatures, we know that heatwaves are more frequent and of increasing severity.
What we also know from the heatwaves we have seen in Australia thus far is that we can expect a very significant impact on our public health system. Increases of up to 25% for ambulance emergency call outs; up to 60% increase in emergency department resuscitation cases, often in the elderly and vulnerable members of our society; an overall increase in presentations to our already overstretched emergency departments; and an increase in overall deaths ranging from 13% to 24%. In the 2014 Melbourne heatwave, that equated to 167 excess deaths.
One hundred and sixty seven deaths. If that had been a fire, or explosion, or heaven forbid a terrorist attack, it would be a national disaster that would be in the public eye for days. Yet it will happen reliably with every major heatwave event, and we barely bat an eyelid.
These issues are discussed in an article in the current edition of the Medical Journal of Australia, which I co-authored with former Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley, and public health physician, Dr Marion Carey.
And it is not just these direct consequences that are significant. There is always a huge demand on public hospital beds, many hospitals running at or beyond a level of occupancy that allows for efficient systems. What this means is that even without additional burdens such as heatwaves, it is a constant struggle to create capacity for those who need admission. Events such as heatwaves only exacerbate this pressure, resulting in reduced access for all patients, not just those affected by heat-related illness.
So, with the prospect of increasing extreme weather along with the so many other challenges of climate change we have some serious questions to address.
Are we going to take the health of our population and our ecosystem seriously and do everything we can to mitigate the inevitable increase in ambient temperature? How do we minimise the completely unacceptable mortality rates that we are already seeing, and what do we do to invest in our health systems to cope with what will be an ever increasing burden?
These are challenges that require immediate, mid and long-term solutions, challenges that we need to see taken seriously by the government of the day.
Dr Mark Monaghan is an emergency physician and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia
It's been one week since Category 4 Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, destroying the entire island's communications infrastructure, power grid, and leaving thousands homeless. The humanitarian crisis in the storm's wake is growing by the hour.
Local officials on the island have been pleading for more help from the Trump administration, with San Juan's mayor calling for layers of red tape to be eliminated in order to better distribute aid to inland areas that have effectively been cut off from the rest of the island.
“This is a big S.O.S for anybody out there,” Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night, “a plea for this help, which is right here, to get moving.”
Cruz said many rescuers on the ground were waiting for orders of where and how to respond.
“The red tape needs to be ripped off as if it were a band aid,” she said, “there are boots on the ground... but those boots need to start walking.”
While the federal government has been scaling up its response by dispatching Navy and Coast Guard vessels to the island, along with up to 3,000 troops and aircraft carrying food, water, and other supplies, help is not arriving fast enough.
Much of the aid that has been brought in has been stranded in ports or at the airport because delivery trucks don't have any gas, and port infrastructure is in bad shape.
On Tuesday, President Donald Trump gave himself high marks for his administration's storm response, but the reality is that moving the island from crisis mode to a decade-long rebuilding phase is far more complicated than anything Trump has dealt with so far, including Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which were also Category 4 storms at landfall in the U.S.
Trump being Trump
The optics of this storm don't favor Trump. First, there's the fact that he never mentioned Puerto Rico's plight during the weekend, choosing instead to ignite a battle, via Twitter of course, with NFL players over their protests of police brutality and other issues.
Then when he finally did tweet about Puerto Rico, it was to remind Americans of what sorry shape the island was in prior to the storm, almost as if to absolve himself of the responsibility to save people's lives.
Then his comments during the Tuesday press conference in the Rose Garden may turn out to be his "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie," moment.
On a day when cable networks were broadcasting images of flooded streets, aerial shots of devastated homes, and desperate pleas for assistance from Puerto Rican officials, Trump insisted that he was receiving nothing but praise for his administration's storm response.
"As [Puerto Rican] governor Rossello just told me this morning, the entire federal workforce is doing great work in Puerto Rico, and I appreciated his saying it, and he's saying it to anybody that will listen," Trump said.
"And he [Rossello] further went on, he said, 'And through the Trump administration's leadership, the relationship between FEMA and my team is very, very strong.'"
It wasn't until Wednesday, six days after the storm struck, that he even tried to empathize with storm victims. Empathy, after all, isn't something that this president excels at.
"I mean, that place was just destroyed," Trump said. "That is a really tough situation. I feel so badly for the people."
The current situation bears eerie similarities to George W. Bush’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, which helped derail his second term. Like Trump, Bush appeared out of touch as the crisis grew, staying at his Texas Ranch during the storm, and then taking a now-infamous Air Force One flyby of a flooded American city. Trump, for his part, plans to visit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands next Tuesday, about 2 weeks after this humanitarian crisis began.
As with Puerto Rico, there was a racial component to Katrina as well, with majority black neighborhoods hardest hit by the flooding. Trump, who spent the weekend disparaging black members of the NFL and NBA, is seen by many as not caring about Puerto Ricans because he sees them as some sort of “other,” while Bush was tarnished with the reputation of, in Kanye West’s blunt words, not caring about black people.
And from an on the ground perspective, as with New Orleans, Puerto Rico is in such dire shape post-Hurricane Maria that even as more aid comes in, officials are having trouble ensuring it gets to where it is needed most.
FEMA is stretched thin
There's a lot of strain being placed on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is in charge of responding to disasters such as Hurricane Maria. At the same time, FEMA has personnel in Texas and Florida who are still working to respond to requests for aid from the first-ever back-to-back Category 4 storms to hit the U.S. in a single hurricane season.
Hurricane Harvey alone, which made landfall in Texas on August 25, may become the single most expensive storm on record in the U.S., while Hurricane Irma is also expected to cost well into the tens of billions, as well.
In fact, FEMA has never faced such a tall challenge before, with the task of responding to three Category 4 hurricanes hitting multiple U.S. states and territories in less than a month. The agency may train for even worse situations, such as a terrorist attack using a weapon of mass destruction, but these storms have been unprecedented in its history, dating back to FEMA's creation in 1979.
"I don’t believe there has been anything even remotely close to this over the last few decades that FEMA’s existed,” said Jeff Schlegelmilch, the deputy director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
The fact that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, rather than a full-fledged state, may explain part of the hesitation in Washington's response to the crisis. President Trump, for example, did not mention the storm damage at all despite his prolific tweeting over the weekend. When he finally did address the situation, it was in a series of tweets Monday night that paid more attention to Puerto Rico's debt than the ongoing suffering of its people.
The 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, but they lack a congressional delegation that can vote in either chamber. That limits the island's ability to marshall support for an aid package.
“They have the added disadvantage where they don’t have representation in the U.S. Congress," Schlegelmilch said. "There’s no electoral incentive to put this on the agenda,” he said.
Nowhere is this lack of incentive more evident than in President Trump's refusal to lift the Jones Act, a 1920 law that is limiting the ability of foreign-registered shippers to bring in aid to Puerto Rico and
Some lawmakers, notably Arizona Senator John McCain, are pushing for the president to waive the Jones Act, which would allow foreign ships to bring in aid to Puerto Rico more cheaply. The law requires foreign-registered vessels to pay tariffs and fees upon entering Puerto Rico. These fees in turn raise the cost of goods, such as gasoline, in Puerto Rico, but they help protect U.S. shipping companies from competition.
On Wednesday, Trump said he's hesitating on the Jones Act waiver, which has been done after previous storms, because of pressure from the shipping industry.
"Well, we're thinking about that but we have a lot of shippers and a lot of people and a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don't want the Jones Act lifted, and we have a lot of ships out there right now," Trump said.
Island needs help in order to accept more help
The poor state of the island's infrastructure prior to the storm, and the widespread destruction in the hurricane's wake, means that Puerto Rico is not equipped to take advantage of a rapid, large-scale aid effort.
Schlegelmilch said FEMA is applying the same response model to Puerto Rico that it successfully did for Texas, Florida and other states hit by the earlier storms. However, this may be insufficient, given the enormity of the destruction on the island, its geographical isolation, and the complicated politics involved in assisting a U.S. territory that lacks voting members of Congress.
“They’re applying the model for Harvey and Irma but Maria was a much more catastrophic storm,” he said. “The isolation of Puerto Rico is so much greater."
“The level of devastation to the infrastructure is still not fully understood,” he said, noting that many of the resources being sent to the island may not help right away. "The capacity of Puerto Rico to support the response and to absorb the assets” has been damaged, he said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Energy Department said the majority of the 1.57 million electricity customers in Puerto Rico were without power, with efforts underway to restore electricity access for critical facilities, such as hospitals. "Initial assessments show significant damage to transmission and distribution systems," the report stated.
Schlegelmilch said it may be more appropriate for the U.S. military to take a lead role in coordinating and shipping supplies to Puerto Rico, rather than FEMA.
Puerto Rico needs cash
Trump was not wrong in saying that Puerto Rico is facing a debt crisis, considering the island owes about $70 billion to creditors.
Over the years, the island tried to make up for a loss in revenue by borrowing and making deals with U.S. hedge funds, which turned out to be a terrible idea. One of the hardest hit entities on the island, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or Prepa, also owes about $9 billion, which helped degrade its system before the storm hit.
The debt crisis, degraded infrastructure, and poverty found in Puerto Rico made it more vulnerable to a disaster like Hurricane Maria. In some ways, the storm may be an opportunity to rebuild the island in a more resilient way, so it will better withstand the next major hurricane that comes along.
But this can only be accomplished if the Trump administration decides to invest in such an endeavor, like it is in Texas and Florida. We don’t know if that’s the case, since Trump has yet to ask Congress for a disaster funding package. It only took a few days for him to take that step with the other two storms.
That’s not a good sign.
UNITED NATIONS – The Bahamas says it is deeply concerned about the dangers of environmental degradation and climate change, stating that they threaten the region’s very survivability.
Irma leaves a trail of death and...
Antigua appeals to international...
Barbados urges UN, World Bank to...
“With what we have witnessed just recently with the passage of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and now Maria, I cannot underscore sufficiently the importance the Bahamas attaches to combating climate change, and the preservation and protection of the environment,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield told the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly Debate on Saturday.
“Even while these hurricanes were occurring, there have been earthquakes in Mexico, resulting in further tragic loss of life and destruction,” he added. “Climate change is global. We have expressed before, and today we reiterate, our thoughts and prayers to all adversely impacted by these devastating events.”
Henfield emphasised that it was the third time in three years that the Bahamas has been hit by a major hurricane, adding that “Maria is still churning in our territory”.
“There are two more months before the end of the hurricane season, and we can only pray that we will be spared from further destruction and loss,” he said, pointing out that Hurricane Irma changed course and did not directly hit the entire Bahamian archipelago, thus minimising the impact the country’s tourism industry.
But, Henfield stated that the country was not entirely spared.
He said the Bahamian southern islands experienced serious damage and Ragged Island was totally devastated and is now uninhabitable.
Additionally, he said tornadoes inflicted considerable damage on the northern islands of Bimini and Grand Bahama.
The Foreign Affairs Minister said the Bahamas is grateful to international partners who provided immediate support after the passage of Hurricane Irma, and now continue to stand by its side as it begins “the painful and burdensome process of restoration and rebuilding”.
Henfield commended the UN Secretary-General for convening the recent High-Level Meeting “to allow those of us impacted to bring focus on these events to other potential partners”.
He noted that one of the countries immediately affected by Hurricane Irma was Cuba, “which, as on previous occasions, caused this massive hurricane to lose some of its energy and probably led to a lesser impact on our neighbour, the United States of America”.
Henfield lamented that while all developing countries affected have been placed on a short-list for assistance to shore up their internal conditions towards recovery, Cuba does not enjoy this capacity to the fullest.
He also said the Bahamas joins other nations in calling for the Congress of the United States to reconsider the legislative barriers to the biggest of the Caribbean islands “in order for it to develop to its fullest potential as a member of the international community”.
Henfield said it is the intention of the Bahamian Government, working with the private sector, to create out of the destruction of Ragged Island the first fully green island in the region, utilising renewable energy and smart technologies from solar energy to sustainable water purification systems to create a “more sustainable, resilient, island community”.
He said the implications for the existence of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), like the Bahamas, as they are confronted with global warming, rising sea levels, and more severe and frequent hurricanes and other extreme weather events, are “all too clear”.
“For the first time in its history, the Bahamas evacuated whole communities to safe quadrants ahead of Hurricane Irma. What’s next: wholesale evacuation of the entire Caribbean?” he asked, calling on the international community to recognise “the imperative of accelerating the efforts to deal urgently with the adverse impact of climate change and to do so in a coordinated way.
“Only then will we mitigate against these ferocious and frequent destructive weather events, which now potentially threatens to add to the world’s migration issues,” he added, stating that well over two decades ago, the Bahamian Government, recognising the very real threat posed to its very existence, upgraded its human capital capacity to address the unintended consequences of climate change, as well as its commitment to environmental conservation.
Through its many marine protected areas, Henfield told the Debate that the Bahamas is committed to the conservation of sustainable oceans, as well as through active involvement in initiatives such as 10X20, and participation in the consultative process of Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction.
In this context, the Foreign Affairs Minister said the Bahamas has presented its candidature once again for a seat on the Council of the International Maritime Organisation in Category “C”.
He said the continuing imperative for the Bahamas, as well as the rest of the Caribbean is the re-evaluation of the measurements used to determine economic well-being.
He noted that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its Policy Brief on “Vulnerability and Debt in Small States” recognised that “Many [SIDS] face an uncertain future.”
Henfield said the Bahamas continues to dispute the use of Per Capita Gross Domestic Product/Gross National Product (GDP/GNP) as an instrument to measure wealth and economic development, stating that “the use of this one-dimensional instrument prohibits countries that are most in need to receive development assistance or loans at concessional rates.
“It is time for us to replace that metric with a realistic measurement that takes into account the vulnerability and fragility of SIDS to exogenous shocks,” he said.
Notwithstanding the Bahamas’ best efforts at self-sufficiency, Henfield said exogenous shocks, in the form of reduced correspondent banking relationships, continue to create challenges for the region.
He said international banking institutions, fearing that they may be subject to fines and sanctions related to illicit activities of money laundering and terrorist financing, “have pulled out en masse”.
The Foreign Affairs Minister said citizens in the region depend on the services provided by these entities, adding that they have now become “severely disadvantaged as a result of the actions taken”.
“This threatens our ability to remain competitive as one of the leading international centres and hinders our efforts to expand our trading relationships,” he said, urging the international community to work together to find another way to deal with the issue “and allow input from those to be impacted by their decisions before moving the goalposts again”. (CMC)
India is rice country: the cereal provides daily sustenance for more than 60% of the population. Half a century ago, it was home to more than 100,000 rice varieties, encompassing a stunning diversity in taste, nutrition, pest-resistance and, crucially in this age of climate change and natural disasters, adaptability to a range of conditions.
Today, much of this biodiversity is irretrievably lost, forced out by the quest for high-yield hybrids and varieties encouraged by government agencies. Such “superior” varieties now cover more than 80% of India’s rice acreage.
The Koraput region in the state of Odisha in India’s east was historically among the world’s leading areas of rice diversification. In the 1950s, an official survey found farmers here growing more than 1,700 different rice varieties. Now, more than 1,400 farmers in the region are at the heart of a movement to safeguard what remains of this genetic wealth.
The effort is anchored by a small conservation team led by ecologist Dr Debal Deb. Almost 200 of the 1,200 varieties in Deb’s collection have been sourced from Koraput’s farmers, indicating that villagers have not abandoned their native seeds for modern varieties. Anxious that his collection not end up as the last repository of endangered local varieties, Deb asked some farmers to grow them and circulate their seeds to help safeguard them from extinction.
Several farmers outlined economic reasons for not abandoning indigenous heirloom varieties, which they refer to as “desi dhaan”, as opposed to modern hybrids, “sarkari dhaan”, quite literally, “government rice”. “With hybrids, we have to keep spending money on buying them,” one farmer said. “With desi, we store our seeds carefully and use them the following season.”
Other farmers wanted to get off the pesticide treadmill to reduce costs and stem the visible ill-effects of chemicals on soil quality and biodiversity. “Hybrids demand ever-increasing pesticide applications and our costs go up in an unsustainable way,” said farmer Duryodhan Gheuria.
Gheuria cultivated four desi varieties – Kolamali, Sonaseri, Tikkichuri, Kosikamon – “just like generations of my family”. After encountering Deb’s team, Gheuria began growing three more endangered heirlooms: Samudrabaali, Raji and Governmentchuri.
Heirloom varieties, adapted over centuries to local ecologies, also proved hardier in the face of problems such as pests and drought, the farmers said. In contrast, modern varieties bred in faraway labs were designed for the neat routines of intensive agriculture. They were tailored for mechanised farming, intended to absorb large doses of chemical fertilisers and predictable supplies of water. But farmers reported that such varieties were unsuited for the variable conditions they cultivated in, from undulating land to increasingly unpredictable weather.
The nephew and uncle farming team Laxminath and Sadan Gouda said that on flood-prone land along a riverbank like theirs, modern varieties fared poorly. “They barely grow, pests attack them … we face a world of trouble. But desi dhaan grow well, which is why we will never abandon them.”
Many farmers reported that some heirloom varieties were able to withstand cyclones better than the modern ones, while others could cope better in conditions of drought or low rainfall.
Farmers had other reasons to prefer desi varieties. Their taller paddy stalks yielded valuable byproducts: fodder for cattle, mulch for the soil, and hay for thatching the roofs of their homes, unlike the short-statured modern varieties.
And then there is the universal motivation of taste. Scented varieties like Kolaajeera and Kolakrushna has a sweet aroma, making cooking and eatingthe rice a pleasurable experience.
“With sarkaari rice, even if you have three vegetables accompanying it, it does not taste that good,” laughed farmer Gomati Raut. “Our desi rice, you can eat it by itself.”
Deb has said that having a huge number of rice varieties is not an end in itself. “Rice conservation is a handle to ask ourselves, how do we build sustainability in our societies?” he said.
It is a question India must increasingly confront, with increasingly depleted water tables, infertile soils, greenhouse emissions and debt that pushes farmers to suicide.
Meanwhile, hundreds of farmers in Koraput embody an alternative model of agricultural development. Drawing on centuries of knowledge and skills, these farmers sustain 200 rice varieties. In the process, they are reducing their dependence on external agencies, from the seed company and the pesticide seller to the government subsidy and bank loan.
By reviving seeds, they are also reviving food, taste, ritual, nutrition, and sustainability – attributes often forgotten as a result of the obsession with yield. Attributes that make rice more than just a bundle of calories and starch.
by Adela Suliman | @adela_suliman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 September 2017 18:05 GMT
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If London adopted so-called "circular model" to cut waste, it could create 12,000 new jobs and provide £7 bln net benefit to city's economy
By Adela Suliman
LONDON, Sept 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Recycling rates in London have dropped to their lowest level since 2010 but innovative new ways to cut waste could rescue the British capital from the trash heap, creating jobs and making billions, according to a report released on Thursday.
In 2016, local authorities in London collected 3.7 million tonnes of waste – enough to fill more than 1,500 Olympic-size swimming pools - as the city's garbage piled up.
But if London adopted a so-called "circular model" to cut waste, it could create 12,000 new jobs, provide a £7 billion net benefit to the city's economy and reduce 60 percent of waste by 2041, the report said.
Under a circular model, rather than simply recycling or incinerating a city's trash, rubbish is re-used and recirculated to extract maximum value, or waste is avoided in the first place. In doing so, carbon emissions fall, while new jobs are created along with economic activity, the report found.
The report - entitled "Waste: The Circular Economy" - was published by the London Assembly's Environment Committee, an elected local government body that holds the mayor to account and examines his policies.
Examples of re-use include redistributing food waste from restaurants and passing on clothes and textiles dumped by stores.
"The way we deal with waste in London needs to change," Leonie Cooper, who chairs the Assembly's Environment Committee, said in a statement. "Recycling rates have fallen, the population continues to grow, and landfill space is quickly running out."
Cooper said the potential for new jobs was enormous and called on Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to back the new circular approach to cutting waste.
London's Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy, Shirley Rodrigues, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that Khan was adopting a "circular approach to the use of resources in London and is committed to helping Londoners waste less and recycle more."
She said London was working towards increasing its recycling rate to 65 percent by 2030.
"Cities are the engine room of the circular economy," said Wayne Hubbard, Chief Operating Officer of the London Waste and Recycling Board, a body that backs the strategy to reuse and recycle London's rubbish.
For the first time ever, more than half of the world's population lives in urban areas, with London's population expected to exceed 11 million by 2050.
"If the mayor can pull it off, it will be a real success," said Angela Francis of charity Green Alliance, who welcomed the report and proposed shift to a circular model.
"By doing this he will help make London's businesses more competitive, not only for the UK market but also for changing global markets."
Theresa May has issued a veiled warning to Donald Trump, arguing that his plan to withdraw from the Paris climate change treaty ranks alongside North Korea’s nuclear missile tests as a threat to global prosperity and security.
In a speech to the United Nations general assembly, the prime minister, whose authority at home has been severely tested since June’s general election result, sought to project her vision of a “rules-based” international order.
She said global cooperation was the only way to confront shared international challenges, including terrorism, climate change, and mass movements of refugees – and condemned countries that fail to play by the rules.
The prime minister did not name the US president directly but made clear that she believed ongoing membership of the Paris climate change accord was as important as the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in maintaining global security.
“As the global system struggles to adapt, we are confronted by states deliberately flouting – for their own gain – the rules and standards that have secured our collective prosperity and security,” she said.
She singled out Russia, Syria and North Korea for direct condemnation, but described the climate change treaty as part of the “rules-based system” that protects global peace and security.
“It is the fundamental values that we share, values of fairness, justice and human rights, that have created the common cause between nations to act together in our shared interest and form the multilateral system.
“And it is this rules-based system which we have developed – including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris climate change accord, and laws and conventions like the non-proliferation treaty – which enables the global co-operation through which we can protect those values.”
She warned that undermining these international institutions, including the UN, ultimately threatened states’ national interests.
“If this system we have created is found no longer to be capable of meeting the challenges of our time, then there will be a crisis of faith in multilateralism and global cooperation that will damage the interests of all our peoples.”
The prime minister was the first world leader to visit Trump in the White House, brushing off concerns in some European capitals about his unpredictability.
But she has repeatedly expressed concern about his decision to seek to renegotiate the Paris treaty, and a planned state visit to the UK has been indefinitely postponed, amid fears of public protests.
She delivered the speech just an hour before she was due to meet Trump for a bilateral meeting in a New York hotel. In his own speech to the UN general assembly on Tuesday, the US president described the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, as “rocket man”, and threatened to “totally destroy” Kim’s country if it did not rein in its nuclear ambitions.
May issued her own strongly worded condemnation of North Korea’s actions, but stopped short of threatening military action.
“Time after time he has shown contempt for the international community of law-abiding states,” she said of Kim Jong-un. “Contempt for his neighbours. And contempt for the institutions and rules that have preserved peace and security.
“On this challenge the UN has in recent weeks shown it can step up to the task, with last Monday’s security council resolution creating the biggest sanctions package of the 21st century. We have seen regional and global powers coming together and – as in its founding charter – putting aside limited self-interest to show leadership on behalf of the wider world.”
She also criticised Russia for using its veto on the UN security council to block tougher action against Syria for using chemical weapons on civilians.
“One country in particular has used its veto as many times in the last five years as in the whole of the second half of the cold war. And in so doing they have prevented action against a despicable regime that has murdered its own people with chemical weapons,” she said.
May was applauded when she recounted the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester earlier this year, and said: “The terrorists did not win, for we will never let anyone destroy our way of life.”
The prime minister’s trip to New York has been overshadowed by speculation about Boris Johnson’s future, after the foreign secretary wrote a 4,000-word article for the Daily Telegraph that appeared to set out a distinctive vision for Brexit.
But on Wednesday night her spokesman said Johnson had changed plans and would fly back to London alongside May on the prime minister’s RAF Voyager jet to attend a specially convened meeting of the cabinet, where she hopes her colleagues will back her on Brexit.
Her UN address, delivered as she prepares for a major speech on Brexit in Florence on Friday, was aimed at presenting Britain as a free-trading, outward-looking country that would continue to play its role in the world.
May also urged the UN to reform, and repeated a pledge by her international development secretary, Priti Patel, that Britain would withhold up to 30% of its £90m a year core funding to the UN, unless it could meet performance targets showing that it was delivering value for money.
“Throughout its history the UN has suffered from a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the nobility of its purposes and the effectiveness of its delivery,” May said.
“When the need for multilateral action has never been greater, the shortcomings of the UN and its institutions risk undermining the confidence of states as members and donors.
“Even more importantly, they risk the confidence and faith of those who rely upon the blue helmets; who rely upon that sign I stand in front of today coming to their aid in the darkest of hours.”
After delivering her speech, May went straight to the bilateral meeting with Trump, at the Lotte New York Palace hotel. Seated in front of US and UK flags, Trump said: “We will be doing a lot of trading with the UK and we look forward to it.”
May said: “We’ve had many discussions between our representatives and ourselves on a whole variety of issues – including trade, which is important for us, and some other policy issues – and our security and defence relationship, which of course is the closest we have.”
The prime minister used the meeting as an opportunity to lobby Trump over the importance of preserving jobs at aerospace giant Bombardier in Northern Ireland, and to press the president over the importance of the international nuclear deal with Iran, which he has threatened to tear up.
It’s the age old question (pun intended), and one that has given rise to an anti-ageing industry that is estimated to grow to $216.52 billion by 2021: how can we, mere mortals that we are, live longer?
According to recent studies, the answer could well lie in Japan. The Japanese top the global table for life expectancy: on average, they can expect to live for 83.7 years (the UK comes 20th, with an average of 81.2 years).
And this week, they hit another milestone, as it was revealed that the number of Japanese people aged 90 or over has hit the two million mark for the first time.
So, what is it that they’re putting in the water in Japan? Have they found a mainstream supply to the fountain of youth
More realistically, the Japanese seem to have their finger on the pulse when it comes to lifestyle. Their diet is lean and balanced, consisting mainly of fish, seafood, whole grains, vegetables and tofu. The processed Western foods that science is now linking to an array of health issues are largely absent from Japanese plates.
This healthy approach to eating reflects in the country’s rate of obesity, which is impressively low at just 3.5pc of the population (it looks even better when you compare it to the UK’s dismal 24.9pc). It hardly needs saying that obesity is now considered a killer, linked to everything from coronary heart disease to diabetes and cancer.
And, importantly, the Japanese start young. Schools in the country adhere to dietary guidelines that Jamie Oliver can only dream of, with lunch plans consisting of very little refined sugar. Naomi Moriyama, author of Secrets of the World's Healthiest Children: Why Japanese Children Have the Longest, Healthiest Lives — And How Yours Can Too told Today, “this way, believe me, children learn to like the healthy, delicious choices put in front of them.”
It’s not all about diet, however. The Japanese healthcare system is considered one of the world’s best, combining advanced medical knowledge and equipment with an accessible public/private hybrid model that sees the government pay at least 70pc of the cost of procedures (more if you’re on a low income). For a developed country, it’s an eye-catchingly cheap arrangement: Japan’s healthcare system sucks up around 9.5pc of GDP (compare that to America’s 16.4pc), even though it has an aging population.
The government has also taken preventative measures to care for its citizens. A recent focus on suicide prevention as seen impressive results: in 2012 in was reported that the number of suicides in Japan fell below 30,000 for the first time since 1998. “Initially we thought that this was just temporary, a blip,” Dr Tadashi Takeshima, Director of Japan’s Centre for Suicide Prevention at the National Institute of Mental Health, told the WHO. “But in 2013 we saw a further decline in the numbers.”
Access to good healthcare and a tendency towards fish certainly help the Japanese live longer – but there are some studies that suggest their longevity may simply be down to having good genes. Two very specific genes, in fact.
The first is DNA 5178, which helps individuals resist adult-onset diseases, such as myocardial infarction, cerebrovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes. The second, ND2-237Met genotype, may confer resistance to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular atherogenic diseases. Japanese people are more likely to have these genes, although, as ever with genes, it’s something of a lottery on an individual case. Some receive more ‘life extending’ genes than others.
Regardless, it’s fair to say the average Japanese person is likely to have been raised in an environment consistent with extended life. For example, in 2012 it was reported that the 98pc of Japanese children walk or cycle to school.
So, if you’re looking for a long and healthy life, hopping on a Boris bike might just get you that letter from the Queen.
Ted Genoways wants to challenge your thinking about the people growing your food. Counter to popular wisdom, not all farmers are either 1) selling organic tomatoes at your local farmers’ market or 2) running massive corporate operations.
In his new book, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm, Genoways chronicles the trials and tribulations of a third kind of farmer. Rick Hammond grows conventional corn and soy and raises cattle in Eastern Nebraska with his daughter and son-in-law. He’s not your typical 2017 farm hero, but, as Genoways artfully illustrates, Hammond is working hard to pass his farm on to the next generation against the odds. And the myriad challenges family farms like his face—from unstable prices to a diminishing water supply and increasingly erratic weather—are worth our attention.
As Genoways wrote recently in a reflection on the book, a “sea change in consumer habits” has arisen over the last two decades. But, he began to ask, “Is all of this really helping family farmers? How do they feel about a food movement that lionizes ideologically-driven operations like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, the pastoral curmudgeon made famous in Omnivore’s Dilemma, and vilifies generations-old operations in the middle of the country, where many farmers have no choice but to raise commodity grains—principally corn and soybeans—just to keep their families afloat?”
Civil Eats talked to Genoways recently about the Hammonds, the changing face of rural America, and the role that in-depth local reporting can play in holding agribusiness interests accountable to their communities.
Maybe we should start by talking about the term “family farm.” Can you talk about how you define that?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies something like 97 percent of American farms as “family farms.” And so in that context the term essentially means that the person who owns the farm has a family. And many large operations that I’ve dealt with over the years that started out family-owned have grown to the point where the families that own them may only rarely actually visit the land.
So, when I talk about family farmers, I really mean in the old-fashioned sense—a nuclear family that is living on a farm that they operate with little or no hired assistance. Typically, they are doing it on land that they have some sort of longstanding connection to. And everything is about protecting and sustaining the land at the center of that universe. That’s something that is—at this point in history, especially in the Midwest—quite unusual.
I was interested in how the real family farmers are hanging on. And in how they’re doing so at a point when, for almost a generation, there’s been an enormous amount of pressure to either go corporate or go do something else.
Can you say more about what “going corporate” looks like?
It has to do with the size of the operation. [It means] acquiring enough land that you start to have some economies of scale, but you also then require employees. I have reported on operations that describe themselves as “family farms,” but have operations that are spread across seven states. They have hundreds of employees and have operations that include row crops, feed mills, hog barns, and packing houses.
So closer to a vertical model?
That’s right. There is an attempt to vertically integrate and to diversify across regions to insulate [themselves] against weather and some of the vagaries of the local markets. And essentially you’re getting large enough that you have some protection. And that, to my mind, is where the corporation really comes from.
I understand that instinct. I’m not as knee jerk anti-industrialized agriculture as some people are. I certainly have many reservations about what tends to come along with it. But I don’t feel any particular romance for the difficulties or the risks that come from trying to operate a small farm. And that’s exactly why I wanted to focus on those kinds of farmers and in the context of what has happened with the food system itself for over a generation now—as everything is pushing toward that industrial model—but I also wanted to look at the kinds of pressures that have been exerted over the last decade by people like us who have some questions about that industrial model and some reservations about it. And I think many farmers [see those questions] as personal critiques and register them as yet another threat.
Let’s back up and talk about the larger urban-rural divide that has been made especially clear since the election. Do you hope This Blessed Earth can bridge any of that divide?
My interest is in trying to make sure that when we talk about how to reform the food system we’re not doing so in a vacuum or based on some sort of received wisdom about what’s happening on the farm.
I also think that Nebraska, where the book is set and where I live and have had family for generations, is an interesting example of what happens in many of these Great Plains and Midwestern states, which tended to be settled along the rivers. All of the population clusters on one side and then the rest of the state is left open for agriculture, which historically got brought in to those distribution centers along the rivers. But what that means is that every one of these states has major metropolitan areas on one side of the state and then vast areas that are lightly populated on the other. And, over the last 40 years, those rural areas have become less and less populated. And so within each state there ends up being two different states.
And I have certainly seen over my lifetime this intense and growing suspicion of the urban part of [Nebraska] from the people who are in the rural parts of the state. And I think some of that is exacerbated by the loss of small-town newspapers and the consolidation of schools—losing that individual identity and the sense of community and conversation that took place in those local venues. And it’s all been replaced by talk radio on the AM radio in the machine shop, or by Fox News, which is on TV at home and in the coffee shop.
I think many of these more isolated rural places have ended up feeling more connected to a national politics and a national rhetorical debate than they are connected to people who may only live a couple of hours away from them but in a [more urban] environment. I would also hope that [this book] encourages people in urban areas to recognize some of the work that they need to do to reach out to rural areas and include them in some of the progress that has occurred in cities and not leave rural areas behind.
As you mentioned, there has been a lot of critique of conventional farming and farmers who sell into the commodity market in recent years. And there are people in the Midwest now growing organic and non-GMO foods—either out or conviction or because of consumer demand—but it’s not anywhere near as simple as just deciding to change. Can you say a little bit about that challenge?
Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the real mistakes of the food movement has been to assume that we can reshape the food system simply by buying non-GMO corn chips or Animal Welfare Approved chicken. The reality is that if there’s not a mass movement among consumers, all that that really does is create niche markets. And niche markets may help some farmers who have the means, the know-how, and the ambition. But, right now, the premium that can be commanded for those things is not adequate to offset the risks and expenses.
For people who have an emotional connection to the farm, their first commitment is to their family and to their legacy. And from there whatever they can do to produce something that they feel good about being sent out to the consumer, they definitely want to do it.
But I think it’s important to recognize that when somebody says, “Why not go organic?” It is no different than any of us being asked: “Why don’t you do everything in your life and in your profession in a different way than you’ve always done it?”
And even when that may be good advice or good for us collectively, trying to make that change individually is hugely challenging. And the way you can get that to happen is not by [making different consumer choices]. The only way that that’s really going to happen is by changing the incentives at the macro level and that’s about government regulation, and the incentive we build in to government programs.
And so if people care enough to pay extra for non-GMO or organic food, then they should be looking into which candidates would actually push for those sorts of changes and put their support behind them. At a moment when the next farm bill is being crafted and the USDA is being staffed with people who have little to no expertise, it’s really critical to recognize that these things don’t take care of themselves.
Do you want to talk about the Keystone XL pipeline—and the role that it played in the year you spent on the Hammonds’ farm? At a time when many farmers in that part of the country seem to feel more competition that neighborliness, do you think the pipeline helped bring them together?
I saw places where were families and neighbors were divided based on their feelings about the pipeline. But I also saw this group of farmers and ranchers from up in the Sandhills who have banded together to be the wrench in the works for close to a decade now. And that is just remarkable to me. They’ve been holding out long enough that now TransCanada is saying, “Well we’re not sure that the numbers work out for building this pipeline in the way that we had originally proposed any more.” And with another project that they looked at as an alternative—the Energy East Pipeline, which would have gone across southern Canada—they’ve said that they fear that they would encounter the exact same resistance trying to build that project.
Rick Hammond really thought that there was no choice but to sign the initial easement agreement with Trans-Canada and instantly regretted it. And then Trans-Canada moved the route and said, “we’re no longer going to build the pipeline across this piece of land.” But Rick farms another piece of land that belongs to his family members. And they refused to sign, and they have held out on allowing any construction on that land. In fact, that’s the land where they erected a solar-powered barn that is directly in the path of the pipeline.
Rick Hammond has family in place—his daughter Meghan and her husband Kyle—to take over the operation. But that’s unusual these days. Will you talk about what you see the next few decades looking like in Middle America for farmers?
It’s a really bleak outlook in terms of that very issue. Succession is the thing that you hear all the ag groups worrying about the most, because they have the perspective to see that the farmers are advancing in age and at the same time land values, overhead costs, and equipment costs are going up.… So the only people who can really get into farming as young people these days are those who are inheriting land, homes, and equipment. And I have a hard time understanding the young farmers who commit to staying on the land. Because even a small operation is now worth millions of dollars in land and equipment and everything that goes with it. To be presented as a young person with the choice of, “you can sell this off for millions of dollars and go do whatever you want with your life….”
Or you can make $25,000 a year if you’re lucky.
Right. And you’ll be working 12-15 hours a day. And [the ag landscape] is going to be constantly changing. The technology is going to be new. The climate is going to be new. It’s going to be a daily struggle. And the people who are inheriting operations for the most part have parents and even grandparents who are right on top of them—sometimes on the same property.
And they have strong opinions.
Yes, they do. And they don’t keep them to themselves very often.
To make the choice to stay and do all that work for all of that risk and to have all of that family pressure? I’m not sure that I could counsel anyone that that’s the wise choice.
But this is where that notion of the family farm comes in. Meghan is the sixth generation on the Hammond’s farm. And they’ve been there since the 1870s. And now Meghan and Kyle have had a baby; the seventh generation has been born on the land. The reasons for staying very often are not wise financial decisions. They are about being part of something that is long and historic and meaningful to the family.
And the thing is all this contraction really started in the 1960s—after 50 years, the farmers who are left are the die-hards. That makes it even harder for the rising generation to let [the land] go because it has been fought for their whole lives. And it’s a fairly common thing these days that you have siblings who have equal shares in a farm, but don’t have equal labor being put into it. And naturally that creates friction.
Before writing this book, I knew that there were people who specialize in farm succession planning. But I learned that there are also psychologists dedicated to it as their practice.
Do you want to talk about the precision involved in soy and corn farming these days? In many ways it has become a high-tech job.
Yes, it has become an incredibly technical job at every stage of the operation—from selecting seed to deciding the seed density (where the seed is planted and how close together) to deciding about how much water to apply to a field and where and when. It’s also a matter of collecting harvest data and entering it into a system that is then returning information about how everything performed. And you’re often looking at data sets that are a decade-long and making predictions for the next year.
Most farmers don’t have just one type of crop on their fields, but even if you were just talking about soybeans, most farmers are planting different varieties in order to spread out the risk. And making those kinds of decisions and then keeping track of what you’ve decided in any given place and then of course all of the financial calculations if there’s hail damage, drought damage, or loss to insects … and no, I don’t think the average consumer has any idea about any of that.
At the same time it is a lot less labor.
No question. A lot of the physical labor has been mechanized out, which means that there are fewer people involved in the operation. But I think that this has also made farming much less of a social activity than it used to be. There are far fewer people involved in operations and that’s also contributed to the dwindling size of rural communities.
The psychological pressures and the mental and emotional pressures of farming have really soared. You’re not out there hand-husking corn and tossing it into the back of a horse drawn cart. But, to me, there is something almost more stressful about sitting in the cab of your John Deere harvester watching the color of the swath change as it’s telling you whether you’ve lost or made money for that particular row.
And the farmer suicide rates remain high in the Midwest as well, right?
Yes. And here in Nebraska, there’s been mounting evidence to suggest that those suicide rates may also be linked to some of the neuro-disruptors that have been used in pesticides. Just south of us, where the Hammonds farm, there’s a cluster of neurological disorders that is being actively studied. They’re trying to figure out why there’s a hot spot for Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders in this particular place.
Do you want to say anything more about solutions?
I really feel that the only way that the current system will be reformed is if top-down pressures change the sorts of incentives that exist for the businesses that largely control the industry—and the farmers who are under their sway.
And that means trying to reform the politics of many of these middle states. The progressives in these states—who have been essentially abandoned by national parties—need to have support. Because if we allow the state politics of the middle of the country to be controlled by agribusiness, then we’re never going to get elected leaders who are looking to regulate and reform agribusiness.
But that’s a tall order, especially with Iowa being at the center or national politics in the way it is.
Yes, but what’s fascinating is the fact that is the corruption that exists by way of pressure from big agricultural interests in Iowa is so out in the open it’s kind of jaw-dropping. And, again, this is where the decline of newspapers comes in. If there were people being paid to go out and be daily watchdogs on these sorts of things, I think that would it would be much harder for people to do.
If you really want to reform politics in the middle of the country, you’ve got to find the people who are doing the right work and give them money and then go home. But that is an awfully tall order, and I would just hope that the awareness-raising and the transformation of thinking [about food and farming] that has come into being in the last 10 years doesn’t turn into a kind of panacea.
It’s not enough to say, “I’m not contributing to these industrial practices, or I’m not contributing to climate change.” If what you’re doing has too little impact to be meaningful, I’m not sure it gets you off the hook.
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