21 March 2020
As many firefighters should be preparing for wildfire season, they are grappling with the fact that how they live and work could spread the coronavirus.
Experts warn refugees could number tens of millions in the next decade, and call for a new legal framework to protect the most vulnerable.
“Farmers are moving because there isn't enough money in agriculture," officials admit.
TERBOL, Lebanon — Ali Shehadeh, a seed hunter, opened the folders with the greatest of care. Inside each was a carefully dried and pressed seed pod: a sweet clover from Egypt, a wild wheat found only in northern Syria, an ancient variety of bread wheat. He had thousands of these folders stacked neatly in a windowless office, a precious herbarium, containing seeds foraged from across the hot, arid and increasingly inhospitable region known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of farming.
Mr. Shehadeh is a plant conservationist from Syria. He hunts for the genes contained in the seeds we plant today and what he calls their “wild relatives” from long ago. His goal is to safeguard those seeds that may be hardy enough to feed us in the future, when many more parts of the world could become as hot, arid and inhospitable as it is here. But searching for seeds that can endure the perils of a hotter planet has not been easy. It has thrown Mr. Shehadeh and his organization, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, or Icarda, squarely at a messy intersection of food, weather and war.
Icarda, though it received no state funding, was once known as a darling of the Syrian government. Based in Aleppo, its research had helped to make Syria enviably self-sufficient in wheat production. But a drive to produce thirsty crops also drained Syria’s underground water over the years, and it was followed by a crippling drought that helped to fuel the protests that erupted into armed revolt against the government in 2011.
Icarda, in turn, became a casualty of the war. By 2014, the fighting drew closer to its headquarters in Aleppo and its sprawling field station in nearby Tal Hadya. Icarda’s trucks were stolen. Generators vanished. Most of the fat-tailed Awassi sheep, bred to produce more milk and require less water, were looted and eaten. Mr. Shehadeh and the other scientists eventually sent out what they could — including a few of the sheep — and fled, joining half the country’s population in exile.
And Icarda’s most vital project — a seed bank containing 155,000 varieties of the region’s main crops, a sort of agricultural archive of the Fertile Crescent — faced extinction.
But the researchers at Icarda had a backup copy. Beginning in 2008, long before the war, Icarda had begun to send seed samples — “accessions” as they are called — to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the so-called doomsday vault, burrowed into the side of a mountain on a Norwegian island above the Arctic Circle. It was standard procedure, in case anything happened.
War happened. In 2015, as Aleppo disintegrated, Icarda’s scientists borrowed some of the seeds they had stored in Svalbard and began building anew. This time, they spread out, setting up one seed bank in Morocco and another just across Syria’s border with Lebanon in this vast valley of cypress and grapes known as the Bekaa.
“We are doing our best to recreate everything we had in Aleppo,” Mr. Shehadeh said.
The Aleppo headquarters still contains the largest collection of seeds from across the region — 141,000 varieties of wheat, barley, lentils, fava and the like — though neither Mr. Shehadeh nor his colleagues know what shape it’s in. They haven’t been able to return.
Seed banks have always served as important repositories of biodiversity. But they’re even more crucial, said Tim Benton, a food security expert at the University of Leeds, at a time when the world needs crops that can adapt to the rapid onset of climate change.
“We have to grow considerably different things in considerably different ways,” Mr. Benton said. “Certainly for our prime crops, like wheat, the wild relatives are thought to be really important because of the genes that can be crossed back into the wheat lines we have in order to build resilience and adaptation to climate change.”
Especially important, Mr. Benton said, because they could easily vanish without protection.
How much Syria’s agricultural crisis was to blame for the outbreak of war is debatable. There is little debate, though, about the impact of global warming on the region, which seems certain to make agriculture here extremely precarious.
Temperatures have climbed by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade across the Middle East from 1961 to 1990, and risen by close to 0.4 degrees Celsius in the period since then, according to Andrew Noble, who until recently was Icarda’s deputy director of research.
This summer, in already hot, dry countries like Iraq, temperatures shot up well past 50 degrees Celsius, about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, on some days. Droughts are more intense and more frequent. Where farmers rely entirely on the rains, as they do in most parts of the Middle East, the future of agriculture, Mr. Noble said bluntly, “is pretty bleak.”
This, Mr. Shehadeh says, is why he is obsessed with the wild relatives of the seeds that most farmers plant today. He eschews genetically modified seeds. He wants instead to tap the riches of those wild ancestors, which are often hardy and better adapted to harsh climates. “They’re the good stock,” he said.
He hunts for the genetic traits that he says will be most useful in the future: resistance to pests or blistering winds, or the ability to endure in intensely hot summers. He tries to select for those traits and breeds them into the next generation of seeds — in the very soil and air where they have always been grown.
Wheat is a staple of the Middle Eastern diet, and the Middle East is what Laura Wellesley, a researcher at the London think tank Chatham House, calls the “greatest wheat importing region in the world.” Syria was once the exception, but war has made wheat a potent weapon, and it, too, now imports wheat to feed its citizens who remain.
As summer draws to a close, Mr. Shehadeh’s greenhouses are nearly empty. In one, there are wild barley seeds, normally found in highland pastures, held together in small canvas pouches. In another, there are small pots of clover.
The seeds will soon be taken indoors, dried, bagged, and labeled. Some are for the collection here, contained in a series of walk-in cold storage rooms. Some are for farmers to try out in the fields. One full set of seeds is for Svalbard: Icarda is gradually putting back into the seed bank what it withdrew. In early September, Mr. Shehadeh carried 31 boxes of seeds in the latest shipment to Norway.
Icarda’s entire collection houses seeds that have sustained the people of the Middle East for centuries, including some 14,700 varieties of bread wheat, 32,000 varieties of barley, and nearly 16,000 varieties of chickpea, the key component of falafel. The Lebanon seed bank houses about 39,000 accessions, and Morocco, another 32,000. Most of it is backed up in Svalbard.
In Sudan, Icarda has introduced a wheat variety it hopes will be more resistant to drought and heat. It is breeding a fava bean variety that can withstand a parasitic weed and lentils that can mature in a short growing season.
That’s useful not just for the Middle East, Mr. Noble said. The hot, dry summers that are common to the Middle East may well become familiar to many other parts of the world. “The climates of the future will be similar to the climates we are experiencing,” he said.
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A country in economic crisis faces a new challenge
The Economist explains
Oct 12th 2017by J.R.A.
MOST Latin American countries have impressive records when it comes to tackling malaria. Cases detected in the region fell by a third between 2010 and 2015, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), thanks in part to increases in spending on health. At the same time, mortality rates for those who have contracted malaria dropped by 37%. Yet there is one obvious outlier: Venezuela. In 2015 the country had 30% of all the cases of malaria reported in the Americas—more than Brazil, which has over six times as many people. According to the Venezuelan government 240,000 cases of the disease were reported in 2016, a rise of 76% on the previous year. José Félix Oletta, a doctor and former health minister, estimates that more than half a million Venezuelans will contract malaria in 2017. What explains the country’s terrible record?
Venezuela has long been plagued by mosquitoes. The country’s savannahs and coastal plains—its malarial zone—provide ideal breeding grounds for the insects, whose name derives from the Spanish word for “little fly”. In the early 20th century the disease was considered endemic to two-thirds of the country. At that time Venezuela had the highest number of malaria cases in Latin America, with 164 of every 100,000 inhabitants dying from the disease each year. But a team of Venezuelan scientists, led by Arnoldo Gabaldón, a malariologist, fought back. In 1945 his team began spraying DDT, then a relatively unknown insecticide, in homes across the country. The sticky substance coated the walls, killing mosquitoes on contact. The programme was a success. By the end of the decade, the mortality rate for malaria had fallen to nine per 100,000. In 1961 the WHO declared that malaria had been eradicated in two-thirds of the malarial zone.
regress owes much to its ailing economy. Import controls and the scarcity of foreign exchange have led to a shortage of the medicines needed to treat the disease. As many as 50,000 Venezuelans have responded to the country’s economic crisis by taking up illegal mining and moving to rural areas where mosquitoes thrive. The holes they dig collect water, providing the insects with an ideal breeding ground. Malaria is rife in these areas—in 2013, 60% of all malaria cases in Venezuela occurred in Sifontes, a mining municipality bordering Guyana. The workers, many of whom travel from across Venezuela, are the perfect incubators for the disease. They move frequently from region to region and are often unable to afford treatment. When they return to cities the virus can spread quickly.
Nicolás Maduro, the country’s bungling president, has exacerbated the crisis. In May he sacked the health minister, Antonieta Caporale, after she published statistics on reported cases of malaria and other illnesses for the first time in two years. None have been published since. Mr Maduro blames medicine shortages on an “economic war” and has called for the UN to provide support. In August UNICEF announced that it was donating 95,000 anti-malarial drugs to the government for the treatment of children. But there is so far little sign that the disease is being contained. Venezuela’s neighbours are growing concerned. Brazil, with whom Venezuela shares a porous frontier, is particularly at risk thanks to illegal mines operating on its side of the border. Mr Maduro’s incompetence is costing lives and undoing decades of hard work.
Women, girls and ethnic minorities are most at risk of hunger
ROME, Oct 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Global hunger has fallen more than a quarter since 2000, but conflict and climate shocks are beginning to reverse these gains, an annual global hunger index said on Thursday.
Nearly half of the 119 countries surveyed had "serious", "alarming" or "extremely alarming" hunger levels between 2012 and 2016, with war-torn Central African Republic worst affected, followed by Chad, Sierra Leone, Madagascar and Zambia.
"Conflict and climate-related shocks are at the heart of this problem," said Dominic MacSorley, chief executive of Concern, which compiled the report along with the International Food Policy Research Institute and Welthungerhilfe.
About half of the populations in the hungriest countries were short of food, it said.
South Sudan and Somalia, which are at risk of renewed famine, were among 13 countries excluded from the index due to lack of data.
The United Nations said last month that global hunger levels have risen for the first time in more than a decade, now affecting 11 percent of the world's population - or 815 million people.
Famine struck parts of South Sudan earlier this year, and there is a high risk that it could return there - and develop in other countries hit by conflict: northeast Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, the U.N. said.
Yemen came sixth in the index as its hunger crisis has spiked since 2015 when civil war erupted and the data covers the period 2012 to 2016.
Although most of Nigeria is relatively food secure, the eight-year Islamist Boko Haram insurgency has left millions in the northeast at risk of starvation.
"We must build the resilience of communities on the ground, but we must also bolster public and political solidarity internationally," MacSorley said in a statement.
The survey found that 14 countries – including Senegal, Azerbaijan, Peru, Panama, Brazil and China – have made significant improvements since 2000.
The index is based on levels of hunger in the general population, and rates of wasting, stunting and deaths among children under five years old.
Women, girls and ethnic minorities are most at risk of hunger, which causes nearly half of deaths in under fives, it said.
"The world needs to act as one community with the shared goal of ensuring not a single child goes to bed hungry each night and no-one is left behind," MacSorley said.
Climate change did not cause Syrian war
October 11, 2017, by Tim Radford
Starvation is ravaging Syria, but climate change is not directly to blame.
Image: Tasnim News Agency
Drought brought on by climate change is not responsible for the Syrian war, scientists say, but it has helped to make conflict likelier.
LONDON, 11 October, 2017 – Climate change in the form of sustained drought is not to blame for the bloody and prolonged conflict in Syria, according to a new study.
But drought nevertheless plays a contributing role in creating the conditions for conflict – and a database of 1,800 riots over a cycle of 21 years delivers the evidence to support that hypothesis, according to a second study.
The idea that climate change, with consequential drought and famine in its wake, can drive conflict and topple kingdoms, empires and civilisations is not a new one: climate change has been identified as a factor in the fall of the ancient Assyrian empire and the fall of the Mayan civilisation, and the recent drought in the eastern Mediterranean has been identified as the worst in 900 years.
But, scientists in the UK argue in the journal Political Geography, there is no evidence to support climate change as a factor in the Syrian civil war.
This is an argument not likely to be settled by any one study. Researchers in the last three years have repeatedly warned that climate is likely to be a contributing factor to civil conflict or violence in some cases simply because hot weather and short tempers seemed statistically linked, in others because prolonged drought turns farmers and herdsmen into climate refugees.
And the flight from the land has been linked with the beginning of civil unrest in Syrian cities. This argument has been invoked by, among others, former US President Obama, Prince Charles of Great Britain, the World Bank and Friends of the Earth.
Not so, say the scholars in Political Geography. They argue that though the drought was severe, it was not necessarily caused by man-made climate change driven by profligate combustion of fossil fuels, and that although drought contributed to migration to the cities, this would have involved not 1.5 million people but no more than 60,000 families. Economic liberalisation in any case may have been the more important factor, they say.
“Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning”
“Our paper finds that there is no sound evidence that global climate change was a factor in sparking the Syrian civil war. Indeed, it is extraordinary that this claim has become so widely accepted when the scientific evidence for it is so thin,” said Jan Selby, who directs the Centre for Conflict and Security Research at Sussex University in the UK.
“Global climate change is a very real challenge, and will undoubtedly have significant conflict and security consequences, but there is no good evidence that this is what was going on in this case.
“It is vital that experts, commentators and policymakers resist the temptation to make exaggerated claims about the conflict implications of climate change. Overblown claims not based on rigorous science only risk fuelling climate scepticism.”
But the link between climate and violence remains. European researchers report in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that they studied the pattern of rioting recorded in sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2011, and found a systematic link between sudden depletion of water resources and the outbreak of unrest.
They used statistical reasoning to find that droughts raised the risk of rioting from 10% to 50% in a given month in any region. There were other factors: density of population, the presence of lakes and rivers and the local ethnic mix could all contribute to the probabilities of conflict. That did not mean that droughts “cause” conflict.
“In order of importance, it is political, economic or social causes that create tension,” said Jérémy Lucchetti, a professor in the University of Geneva’s economics and management faculty, who led the study.
“Droughts are a factor that add fuel to flames that are already burning.” – Climate News Network
by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 9 October 2017 12:48 GMT
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About 165,000 children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition across Mali next year
By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, Oct 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of children in Mali are prey to life-threatening malnutrition as violence and displacement fuel a deepening nutrition crisis in the West African nation, the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) said on Monday.
About 165,000 children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition across Mali next year - up from an estimated total of 142,000 during this year - according to UNICEF.
Those who suffer from the severe form of acute malnutrition see their muscles waste away, have very low weight for their height, and are nine times more likely to die in case of disease - such as diarrhea or malaria - due to a weakened immune system.
The rates of global acute malnutrition, the less threatening form, among children in the conflict-hit northern areas of Gao and Timbuktu have risen this year to above 15 percent, exceeding the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organisation.
At least a tenth of children across Mali are suffering from global acute malnutrition, according to new government data.
"Behind these figures are the lives of the most vulnerable and forgotten girls and boys in Mali," UNICEF representative Lucia Elmi said in a statement after the data was published.
"We must provide life-saving treatment and ensure each and every one of these children can fully recover," Elmi added.
Violence in northern Mali has uprooted tens of thousands of people, disrupted health services and hindered access to water and sanitation, leaving even more children at risk, UNICEF said.
French troops and U.N. peacekeepers have been battling to stabilise Mali, a former French colony, ever since France intervened in 2013 to push back jihadists and allied Tuareg rebels who took over the country's desert north in 2012.
"Efforts need to be intensified to build the resilience of families through improved food security, prevention and treatment of severe acute malnutrition, access to water and sanitation," said Noël Zagré, a nutrition advisor with UNICEF.
Children must be closely monitored during their first three years of life - with families ensuring they are exclusively breastfed for the first six months and handwashing with clean water and soap - to prevent malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
Mass marine extinction may be inevitable. If humans go on burning fossil fuels under the notorious “business as usual” scenario, then by 2100 they will have added so much carbon to the world’s oceans that a sixth mass extinction of marine species will follow, inexorably.
And even if the 197 nations that agreed in Paris in 2015 to take steps to limit global warming in fact do so, then by 2100 humans will have added 300 billion tons of carbon to the seas. And a US scientist has calculated that the critical threshold for mass extinction stands at 310 billion tons.
So in either case, the world will be condemned to, or at imminent risk of, a “great dying” of the kind that characterised the end of the geological period called the Permian, in which 95% of marine species vanished, or the Cretaceous era that witnessed the last of the dinosaurs.
Daniel Rothman, a geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reports in the journal Science Advances that he worked through hundreds of scientific studies to identify 31 occasions of significant change in 542 million years in the planet’s carbon cycle – in which plants draw down carbon from the atmosphere and cycle it through the animal community and back into the atmosphere.
For each event, including the five great mass extinctions in the geological record, he estimated the record of carbon preserved in the rocks, to find a predictable threshold at which catastrophe might be an outcome. Four of the five great extinction events lay beyond this threshold. He then considered the timescales of such extinction events to arrive at his modern-day danger zone figure of 310 billion tons.
And by 2100, unconstrained fossil fuel combustion may have tipped the planet into “unknown territory,” he says.
“This is not saying that disaster occurs the next day. It’s saying that, if left unchecked, the carbon cycle would move into a realm which would no longer be stable, and would behave in a way that would be difficult to predict. In the geologic past, this type of behaviour is associated with mass extinction.”
In effect, Professor Rothman has used a mathematical technique to predict an event many biologists believe is already happening. Pollution, the clearing of the wilderness and the disruption of habitat have already placed many species at risk. Global warming as a consequence of the combustion of fossil fuels will, they have repeatedly said, make a bad situation worse.
“Our activities as humans are pushing species to the brink so fast that it’s impossible for conservationists to assess the declines in real time. Even those species that we thought were abundant and safe now face an imminent threat of extinction”
Researchers have already begun to record local extinctions – the disappearance of once-familiar creatures from local landscapes – and climate change that will follow global warming could heighten the hazard for animals and plants already under stress.
And Professor Rothman’s warning came hard on the heels of several studies that indicate the dangerous impact of climate change.
Scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle warn that as the world’s waters warm, fish will have to migrate to survive, and those that cannot – the ones in lakes and river systems – could be at risk.
They report in the journal Nature Climate Change that they looked at available physiological data and climate predictions to see how 3,000 species in oceans and rivers would respond to warmer waters and to judge what the “breaking point” temperatures for any species would be.
“Nowhere on Earth are fish spared from having to cope with climate change”, said senior author Julian Olden, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. “Fish have unique challenges – they either have to make rapid movements to track their temperature requirements, or they will be forced to adapt quickly.”
But other creatures in the most extreme environments are affected too. British Antarctic Survey scientists report in Nature Climate Change that they used computer models to test a warming scenario for 900 species of marine invertebrates that live in the south polar seas.
Even a small warming of 0.4°C will cause unique local animals to change their distribution, and although some will fare well, overall there will be more losers than winners.
“While a few species might thrive at least during the early decades of warming, the future for a whole range of invertebrates from starfish to corals is bleak, and there’s nowhere to swim to, nowhere to hide when you’re sitting on the bottom of the world’s coldest and most southerly ocean and it’s getting warmer by the decade”, said Huw Griffiths, the Survey scientist who led the research.
Africa in jeopardy
As if to hammer home the message, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has just issued its latest warnings on imminent extinction. This international body has now rated 25,062 species as in danger of extinction out of a list of more than 87,000.
The latest list includes five of the six species of ash tree native to North America, some of them threatened by an invasive beetle infestation, helped by global warming, and five species of African antelope.
“Our activities as humans are pushing species to the brink so fast that it’s impossible for conservationists to assess the declines in real time,” says Inger Andersen, director general of the IUCN.
“Even those species that we thought were abundant and safe – such as antelopes in Africa or ash trees in the US – now face an imminent threat of extinction.”
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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“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.
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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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