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Agriculture is the major source of food supply for the global population. It also helps reduce poverty, raise incomes, create more and better jobs and support livelihoods, and improve food security for 80% of the world’s poor people who live in the rural areas of developing countries and rely largely on farming. Approximately 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture globally. With rapid human population growth, by 2050, farmers and food producers will need to feed about 9 billion people, which will require an estimated 50% increase in agricultural production and a 15% increase in water withdrawals. However, agricultural production is threatened in countries in the Middle East, which depend significantly on imported food commodities because of the constraints of land and water scarcity, along with climate change. A Norwegian company has found an innovative way to solve all these problems: transform poor-quality sandy soils into high-yield agricultural land with Liquid NanoClay.

Desertification resulting from decreasing water resources and vegetation is another factor challenging agricultural productivity. The combined impact of climate change, drought, overgrazing, unsustainable freshwater use and other human activities further accelerates the degradation of water-scarce regions in the world. Consequently, the soils in those regions become less fertile and less able to support crops, livestock and wildlife. In addition, drylands cover around 40% of the Earth’s land surface and are home to around 2 billion people. Thus, desertification will have a huge impact on our planet. A report, titled The Value of Land from the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative, presented that land degradation can cost the world up to US$ 10.6 trillion every year. There is also a concern for the communities in the desert regions that are dependent on other countries (imports) for agricultural resources due to poor-quality soils and lack of advanced agricultural systems. Taking into account the accelerating rate of food consumption and decaying soil quality, it is necessary to advance agricultural technologies. 

A Norwegian startup, Desert Control, has developed a new technology to combat desertification and transform sandy deserts into fertile farmland. This innovation, called Liquid NanoClay (LNC), is created when irrigation water and clay are mixed. The mixing is carried out on site and the LNC is spread onto sandy soil using traditional irrigation systems such as sprinklers or water wagons. The individual clay flakes bind to the surface of the sand particles with a Van der Waals binding, and the mix percolates the ground down to root depth (normally 30-60 cm). This significantly increases the ability of the soil to retain water and nutrients and host plant-boosting fungi, creating conditions for fertile land. (Moreover, LNC application only takes 7 hours to saturate into the land, whereas the natural process of regeneration from dry to arable land generally takes around 7 to 15 years). 

Kristian P. Olesen, the chief technical officer and founder of Desert Control, says, “Liquid NanoClay could be a game changer for farming in arid conditions.” He continues, “We can change any poor-quality sandy soils into high-yield agricultural land in just seven hours.” While the natural process of regeneration from dry to arable land generally takes around 7 to 15 years. The cost of LNC treatment also pays for itself over time, as one application can last for 5 years and reduce the quantity of water used by up to 65%. Additionally, the benefits of treating desert soil with LNC can be directly linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as Goal 2: Zero Hunger, Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Goal 13: Climate Action and Goal 15: Life on Land.

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The startup was established in 2017 with over 10 years of R&D. Field tests have been conducted in multiple locations, including Egypt, China, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. The field trials conducted in the UAE were particularly important, since the country currently imports around 90% of its food and growing crops in the desert has become a high priority for the UAE to increase food security. Yet despite the long development of the LNC technology, it has only been set on the path to commercial scaling after being independently tested by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai. 

Further, in March, another UAE trial was conducted by the team in a plot of desert in Dubai, where watermelon, zucchini and pearl millet were planted. 5 months after the start of the trial, the plot was filled with many rows of green leaves, punctuated with freshly grown fruits and vegetables, showing that this innovative solution can be deployed in what would typically be difficult terrain for agriculture. 

With desertification and a rapidly growing world population, the technology of Liquid NanoClay would be an effective solution for increasing food security of many countries in the future. Apart from agriculture and food production, LNC can be further applied in reforestation and projects to reclaim degraded and desertified land, climate impact projects and commercial greenery that require irrigation in areas with sandy soil.

The cost of treatment per hectare of land is high- varying from US$ 1 800- 9 500 depending on the size of the project- making it unattainable for most farmers, however should solutions such as this be scaled to a commercial level, costs will eventually dip to affordable levels, allowing most farmers to reap its benefits.

Featured image by: Flickr 

According to a new study, climate change and global food demand could cause a loss of up to 23% of all ranges of natural habitats by the end of the century. This habitat loss will bring about rapid extinctions of already-vulnerable species. 

The study, published in Nature Communications, finds that shrinking ranges for mammals, amphibians and birds already account for an 18% loss of previous natural ranges, with the jump expected to reach 23% by 2100. 

What Does This Mean?

Until around 50 years ago, most agricultural development was in Europe and North America. Since then, large areas of land have been converted for agriculture in the tropics: into oil palm plantations in South East Asia, and for pasture land in South America, for example.

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Dr. Robert Beyer of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, one of the authors of the study, says, “The tropics are biodiversity hotspots with lots of small-range species. If one hectare of tropical forest is converted to agricultural land, a lot more species lose larger proportions of their home than in places like Europe.” 

Additionally, global food demand is fuelling the agriculture sector to increase land use, extending into previously untouched habitats. This demand for land leads to deforestation, which increases carbon dioxide emissions. Globally, the agriculture sector contributes about 24% of total annual emissions.

The study gives recommendations for policy measures that can be implemented that are aimed at limiting the global area of agricultural land, for example by sustainably intensifying food production, encouraging dietary shifts towards eating less meat and stabilising population growth.  

Andrea Manica, a professor at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and lead author of the study, says, “Whether these past trends in habitat range losses will reverse, continue or accelerate will depend on future global carbon emissions and societal choices in the coming years and decades.”

The use of agricultural pesticides is widespread. Countries all around the world utilise hundreds of different chemicals in their pest management plans and while pesticide use is sometimes necessary, especially in the case of large insect outbreaks like locusts, the effects on human health and safety have long been debated. Research is increasingly showing that many pesticides cause a wide array of health issues, including cancer and birth defects.

Regulation plays a key role in the issue of pesticide safety. The four largest agricultural producers are the United States, the European Union, Brazil and China. Each of these countries holds different standards of pesticide safety protocol and adheres to various regulations.

The US has some of the most lax restrictions in terms of pesticide safety regulations; in fact, several of the pesticides used in the US are banned in the EU. In Brazil, pesticide regulation is primarily managed by the federal government, making it difficult to affect change in response to safety concerns. The current administration in Brazil, under President Bolsonaro, has approved thousands of pesticides that are currently banned in other countries.

While there may certainly be a positive correlation between higher pesticide usage and agricultural exports, strict pesticide regulations do not equate to lower food exports. The EU, for example, which exports more agricultural products than China, Brazil and the US combined, has the most stringent pesticide laws.

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Researchers are just beginning to study the long-term effects of pesticide use. The climate crisis plays a significant role in the increased risk of pest pressure, especially in areas experiencing substantial temperature changes and shifts in weather patterns. Studies show that climate change is exacerbating pest occurrence in some regions, such as ticks in the northeast US due to milder winters and mosquito-borne disease in the southern hemisphere. The current crisis of desert locust swarms throughout parts of Africa and the Middle East are also theorised to be due in part to recent record levels of rainfall.

More pests is only one symptom of a changing climate that’s making many crops around the world vulnerable to disease. Increased pest pressure may cause crop failure, but pesticides are not necessarily the solution. For example, spraying pesticides to kill “bad” pests may be a short-term solution, but it also reduces the ecosystem’s capacity to be resilient to future threats of disease, by harming soil organisms, impacting on water quality and eradicating beneficial insects. 

Pesticide Use and the Climate Crisis

Pesticide use in agriculture has increased dramatically in the last few decades. Pesticides were invented in the 1930s and were used widely after World War II. Many synthetic chemicals, such as DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), were invented as weapons to mitigate insect-borne diseases during times of war, such as malaria. The discovery of the ill-effects of these chemicals on insects instigated deeper investigations into how insecticides could be applied in agriculture. DDT was first used in agricultural applications in 1945. 

The role of agricultural pesticides in exacerbating the climate crisis is controversial. Many growing practices that require the regular use of pesticides are likely to be ecologically detrimental since they require removing valuable nutrients from the soil for crops to thrive.  Synthetic chemicals remain in the environment, which can negatively impact the environment even after their use is banned. Some pesticides have shorter lifespans, but there is still ongoing research into how they impact the mycorrhizae within the soil, which keep soil healthy. 

The climate crisis has a two-fold effect on how farmers respond to pesticides. On one hand, increased severe weather and pest pressure push farmers to “control” conditions more stringently. On the other hand, many farmers are realising that pesticides have a negative effect on the resiliency of an ecosystem to respond to unprecedented conditions. For example, pesticide use may increase yield for a few years despite high temperatures or drought, but they also may cause irreparable damage to soil nutrients, beneficial insects, and irrigation sources. 

That said, the growing issue of climate change may lead to positive adjustments within the agricultural realm. For example, many farmers around the world are learning the impact of pesticides on their health, community and the environment. As more options become available, they seek out sustainable alternatives to synthetic chemicals.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural communities worldwide are feeling the vulnerability of food insecurity, lack of access to necessary supplies and changes in the global economy. Trade regulations and travel restrictions are impacting the import and export of pesticides. Timeline delays mean that farmers are not able to access chemicals when they need them. A lack of labour is also making it more difficult to spray at the correct time, forcing farmers to look for alternative methods.

Significant delays in the global pesticide market are inspiring many farmers to consider natural alternatives to control pests, such as beneficial insects. Additionally, with the global economy temporarily slowed down, many farmers are looking for localised crop technology to incorporate into their integrated pest management plans. Many farmers are familiarising themselves with more regional solutions that take into account local climate, soil type and other considerations that can increase yields. For example, more farmers are using cover crops and intercropping to cut down on weeds, reduce pest pressure and save water.

 Pesticides and Genetically Modified Seeds

Safety concerns regarding pesticide use extend far beyond spraying crop fields. Many seeds are now genetically modified to withstand potent chemicals, neutralizing  pesticide efficacy. RoundUp Ready corn, engineered by Monsanto, is specifically designed to be resistant to chemical sprays. Crops like soy, corn and rapeseed are the most common genetically modified crops on the market, and there is growing controversy over their safety.

The effects of genetically modified seeds on human health are still widely unknown, but the lack of regulation on their distribution raises concerns from environmentalists worldwide. In Chile, agricultural communities and environmentalists have come together to protect the expansion of a new seed production factory owned by Bayer-Monsanto. Monsanto has seen its fair share of criticism. Bayer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, purchased Monsanto, one of the largest agricultural companies in the world, in a $66 billion merger that was finalized in 2018.

Monsanto has a long history of accusations against their purported “safe” pesticides and production of genetically modified seeds. The corporation is integral to global agriculture today, as the largest producer of pesticides and the inventor of genetically modified seeds. Thousands of lawsuits have been filed against them, claiming that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s best-selling pesticide, RoundUp, causes cancer. The latest lawsuit was settled in 2020, with Bayer-Monsanto settling to pay over $10 billion, only two years after the corporation paid $289 million to a school groundskeeper who got cancer after regularly spraying RoundUp on school grounds.

In addition to pesticide health concerns, there is also growing concern over the widespread use of genetically modified crops in Brazil, as there is little to no regulation of their standards in comparison to many other countries. Many small farmers who save their own seeds say that genetically modified crops are cross-pollinating and tainting their seed genetics. Because of the lack of protection for non-GM crops, many farmers fear that modified genes in corn and soy, specifically, can breed with heirloom varieties, ruining their own genetics. Monsanto controls the majority of the GMO market, and has set restrictive measures for farmers who have voiced concern over seed breeding.

Chile is the largest exporter of seeds in the southern hemisphere, and the distribution of genetically modified seeds threatens the sovereignty of regional farmers who have cultivated specific genetics for decades. The use of pesticides contributes to the contamination of local seeds, whose genetics are not protected.

Safety Use of Pesticides in Agriculture

Pesticide safety continues to be an issue around the world, especially as more companies incorporate genetically modified crops into their growing plans. The four largest agricultural exporters, China, the EU, Brazil and the United States, are responsible for the vast majority of agricultural pesticides.

With this responsibility comes an opportunity to improve regulations. When it comes to the United States, regulations are lax because of the high level of dependence of American farmers on genetically modified seeds and pesticides. The US agricultural exports are mostly non-human consumptive products, such as soy fodder for livestock or corn for ethanol production.

In the face of the climate crisis, finding sustainable alternatives to heavy pesticide use is vital. Research confirms that pesticides are dangerous for the environment and human health, but few safety regulations are in place mostly due to a lack of consumer awareness and lack of commitment from governments to change the status quo. The levels of pesticides in food are significant, but no labeling is necessary when consuming food items that are genetically modified or heavily sprayed with chemicals, depending on your country’s allowable pesticide residue regulations.

As concerns over carcinogenic chemicals and unregulated seed engineering grow among consumers, increasing awareness of potential health issues and consumer demand for stricter regulations is the only way to potentially change the future of pesticides in farming.

Sustainable cities are a puzzle of intelligent solutions in different areas: From urban planning, to the agriculture that feeds the city, to waste management and the mobility of its residents. In this article we show films from exactly these areas. Paths to a green and smart future for the world’s cities.

Examples of Green Cities

The Human Scale (2013)

The UN predicts that by 2050, 68% of the worlds population will live in cities. Most cities as they stand now were built around industry, cars and economy – not with sustainability in mind. Smart and green cities are designed for life quality, low environmental impact, city ecology and an efficient use of resources. Information and communication technologies can be used to improve traffic flow, water use and energy supply. Further considerations include public access to green spaces, air quality and sewage management.

“The Human Scale” is a great introduction to these concepts and the problems, solutions and potential for urban development. This film centres on the visionary work of Jan Gehl, a Danish architect and city planner. His work has transformed hostile urban environments full of congestion and pollution, into havens of pedestrian living for real human interactions over his impressive 40 year career. The film examines cities around the world, from the 30 million strong population of crowded Chongqing – to Copenhagen with the worlds longest pedestrianised street, and asks how we can improve the life quality for citizens of large, congested, lonely and fast paced cities through better urban planning.

Watch excerpts of the “The Human Scale” here

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10 Billion (2015)

In this century alone the world population will grow to 10 billion people. Where do we produce enough food from for everybody? How do we distribute food fairly? And how do we stop mankind from destroying the very foundation of its food source? In “10 billion” every level of the supply chain of the agro-industry is explored, and we are introduced to fascinating novel technologies concerning the future of food. An exciting and varied documentary covering everything from the organic movement, commercial scale slaughterhouses, artificial meat producers, and even those that advocate insects as the staple food source of the future.

Concerns over food security, food production and food quality are the some of the most pressing of our time as human populations continue to boom and suffer the effects of malnutrition. Related to this are all the wider implications of the environmental effects of toxic pesticides, loss of wild spaces to agricultural land, concerns over genetically modified organisms, and run off from intensive agriculture into water systems.

When it comes to food, we are all capable of making a direct difference: Vote for the future every-time you go to the store or the local farmers market by choosing the right things to eat.

Stream “10 billion” on Demand on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and many more

Racing to Zero (2014)

Imagine the amount you consume, and material you throw away daily, scaled to the level of 8 billion people. Of plastic alone every year another 8 million tons are dumped into the ocean, these plastics take thousands of years to break down – and when they do it is simply into smaller fragments that are likely to be ingested by animals. The current model of simply forgetting about our waste and sending to landfill is not the right path towards green cities – a complete rethink is inevitable.

“Racing To Zero” is an inspiring and positive documentary that presents new solutions to the global problem of waste. The film advocates a complete rethink of what “garbage” is; although waste may create garbage, garbage is in itself a resource full of potential. The film follows the journey of San Francisco’s commitment to achieve zero-waste by 2020, with conversations with experts in composting and archaeology, government officials, and the very enthusiastic and proud citizens leading the country in already keeping 78% of their waste out of landfill.

Watch “Racing to Zero” as on demand

Revenge of the Electric Car (2012)

A sequel to the critically acclaimed “Who killed the electric car?”, which explored how the development and adoption of electric vehicles was originally slowed and discouraged in the United States; “Revenge of the Electric Car” follows entrepreneurs fighting to bring the electric car to market in the 21st century.

Director Chris Paine takes us behind the closed doors of Nissan, GM, and the then start-up Tesla Motors to document the story of the global resurgence of electric cars. Staying fully autonomous from any foreign oil, the documentary argues this new generation of car is the United States’ powerful and clean future. The race to develop clean electric cars is just beginning.

For motor and business enthusiasts the film is a must see, with access and unprecedented interviews with CEO and President of Renault and Nissan Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Tesla Motors Elon Musk, Former Vice Chairman of GM Bob Lutz and EV do-it-yourselfer Greg “Gadget” Abbott.

Stream “Revenge of the Electric Car”

Power to Change (2016)

Energy is arguably the most central question on the path to green cities and a sustainable planet. Over 90 percent of energy used today still originates from coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy. These conventional energy sources are not able to satisfy the world population’s energy demand without seriously threatening the planetary ecosystem. The production and consumption of these energy sources do not only increase the greenhouse gas emissions, fuelling global warming, but also lead to the destruction of natural landscapes, corruption, armed conflicts and radioactive contamination.

There are already numerous alternatives at hand and currently we are faced with the decision to radically revolutionise the means with which we power our societies. Wind, solar, biomass and water energy will lead to a more decentralised energy system, more energy democracy, better life quality and a more sustainable relationship to our environment. When it comes to managing a sustainable relationship to energy, we need changes to happen from the grassroots to a global scale, it It is argued that a future focused on environmental justice, will also bring with it a fairer social and political justice.

For an overview of these issues we recommend “Power to Change”, a German production available with subtitles in english. Germany is often quoted as the worlds first major renewable economy, with its share in gross electricity consumption growing from 3.4% in 1990 – to 36.2% by the end of 2017. Whats more, the renewable energy sector is providing germans with over 370,000 jobs (doubled since 2004). The film is fascinating, packed with information and accurate science, as well as captivating with personal stories from individual activists, entrepreneurs and critics who have taken personal responsibility for their energy supply in what they call an “energy revolution”.

More information, including on how to watch

Singapore: Biophilic City (2012)

A great introduction to how the future of our cities could look – this documentary follows Professors and Masters students of Urban design for a week learning about different projects underway in Singapore, one of the worlds most biophilic green cities. Greening of the city began over some 50 years ago now, under the concept of the former prime ministers vision for a “Garden City”.

We speak with architects, landscape designers, CEO’s and  teachers, who all testimony for the improvements to quality of life that come from schemes such as roof top gardens – which provide comfortable public spaces, reduce heat, reduce CO2, and even can provide local food.

Singapore won the Smart City Expo World Congress Award last year, and is top of the list for money spent on smart city technologies in initiatives of public heath and safety, smart transport, efficient energy and infrastructure. In fact Singapores outstanding reputation for such efforts has it recognised as the worlds first “Smart Nation”.

Watch “Singapore: Biophilic City” here.

Gaming the Real World (2016)

For a truly imaginative and innovative story – go watch “Gaming the Real World”. This beautiful and wacky film follows three gaming companies, “Minecraft”, “Cities: Skylines” and “Block’hood” as they take on the challenge of real life urban planning! The film touches on the idea of democratisation of city planning, as citizens voice their needs from their urban spaces, and discusses how cities can be better planned to cope with increased growth and energy demand.

Find out more here.

The Rise of Vertical Farming (2017)

The most obvious and immediate question concerning life in green cities would be of course how to provide food for its citizens. Increasingly our methods for food production are also being forced to adapt and become more intelligent under the great demand. Shipping food thousands of kilometres around the world is ineffective, often socially and politically damaging to those further down the supply chain, and has a hugely negative environmental impact.

Many cities are experimenting with alternatives, to provide locally grown food for its citizens from within the city itself. “The Rise of Vertical Farming” is a great documentary on this concept of smart urban agriculture. These techniques make efficient use of small space by placing the field into a third dimension, and growth chambers can control the exact temperature, lighting,  CO2, humidity, nutrients and water supply to plants to allow for a vast away of products to be produced in any location. The doc follows various companies as they navigate the market on a variety of scales as they try and reinvent the model of food production to cities. The film also stands for a great example of activism through entrepreneurship, as many of the companies come from grass roots initiatives of local people wanting to take greater control over the source of their food.

Watch “The Rise of Vertical Farming” here.

This article was originally published on Films For the Earth, written by Kai Pulfer, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

Imagine starting out the year having to pay your property taxes, your car taxes or any other taxes. Imagine getting to the supermarket and receiving a 40% discount on shampoo and 30% on tomato sauce. Imagine being able to take out a bank loan with interest well below that of the market. This is more or less what companies that manufacture and sell pesticides operate in Brazil, protected by a package of benefits that, counting just tax exemptions and reductions, add up to nearly R$10 billion (US$ 2.2 billion) every year, according to an unprecedented study carried out by ABRASCO, the Brazilian Association of Collective Health, executed by researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz foundation and the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro.

The amount that the Brazilian government fails to collect because of tax exemptions on pesticides is nearly four times as much as the Ministry of the Environment’s total budget this year (R$2.7 billion, or US$ 600 milllion) and more than double what the nation’s national health system [SUS] spent to treat cancer patients in 2017 (R$4.7 billion, or US$ 1 billion).

“Our study clearly showed that it’s time for society to begin to reflect on subsidies for pesticides. First, because we are in the middle of a fiscal crisis in which many sectors are re-evaluating subsidies. But mostly because of the high amount the State is unable to levy,” affirms study coauthor, Wagner Soares, economist and graduate level professor in the Sustainable Development Practices program at UFRRJ.

The “pesticide grant” even includes public funding in the millions for transnational giants in the sector. The study carried out by Repórter Brasil and Agência Pública shows that over the last 14 years the BNDES (Brazilian National Development Bank) granted loans of R$ 358.3 million (US$ 80 million) to companies in the sector (interest was also subsidized by the government). They also found that FINEP (the Ministry of Science and Technology’s Funding Authority for Studies and Projects) transferred R$ 390 million (US$ 86 million) to large pesticide manufacturers for research and development.

The investments and maintenance of the exemptions contradict promises made by Minister of the Economy Paulo Guedes that fiscal incentives would be reviewed  in order to reduce the deficit on government balance sheets. During the 2018 presidential campaign (when President Jair Bolsonaro was elected), Guedes proposed up to 20% cuts in exemptions. The proposed scenarios include reintroducing taxation on food given out in the cesta básica [basket of basics] federal food distribution program. When asked if it intends to review the tax waivers, the Ministry of the Economy did not respond.

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Brazil pesticides
A worker spraying pesticides on crops (Source: Pixabay).

Supreme Court Queries

The exemptions and other benefits granted the pesticides sector are a point of question among those who keep a watch on the Brazilian public budget. “It is as if you lived in a condominium and your neighbor didn’t have to pay the condominium fees. And that they got the pool dirty, and the shared gym space, generating costs for everyone else. These benefits give large agribusiness companies a break while throwing the cost back on society,” explains Marcelo Novaes, São Paulo State public defender, who has investigated the issue for years.

The fiscal waivers are upheld by laws implemented decades ago that consider pesticides as fundamental for Brazil’s development and that for this reason, need stimulus—as is provided for the cesta básica [basket of basics] federal food distribution program.

But this scenario of benefits for pesticide manufacturers could change starting February 19, when the Federal Supreme Court (STF) decides on a Direct Action of Unconstitutionality (ADI 5553) questioning the logic of considering pesticides fundamental for the nation’s development. The Action compares pesticides with products like cigarettes, considered harmful to health and which generate costs that are paid by the entire population—and for which reason are subject to extra taxes instead of tax breaks.

The comparison with cigarettes—where up to 80% of the price is composed of taxes—is precise according to Professor Andrei Cechin from the Economics department at the Universidade de Brasília (UnB). “Cigars are bad for those who smoke them, and smokers will rely on SUS [public health system] to treat them for resulting illnesses. This cost comes back on society, because the population pays for SUS. So high taxes on cigarettes are justifiable,” explains the professor.

The same logic holds for pesticides, says Cechin, because the costs of treatments for contamination cases are also paid by SUS, justifying extra taxation for the sector: “But instead, we give them exemptions and even foment farming with pesticides.” The Ministry of the Economy has already endorsed extra taxation for cigarettes and alcohol, called “the sin tax”. However, no such word has come out about pesticides.

In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office emitted a statement about the Direct Action of Unconstitutionality in which then-Attorney General Raquel Dodge defends the unconstitutionality of granting tax benefits and exemptions for pesticides, as the “international constitutional order shows concern with the use of agrochemicals, imposing severe restrictions on production, registration, marketing and handling, with a view to protecting the environment, health and, above all, workers.”

In addition to whether or not they fall under the legislation, economist Cechin also warns that, as with cigarettes, more money is spent on treating pesticide poisonings than on purchasing the product itself. A study published in Saúde Pública magazine reveals that for every US$ 1 spent on the purchase of pesticides in the state of Paraná, US$ 1.28 is spent on the SUS public health program for the treatment of acute intoxications poisonings—those that occur immediately after application. The calculation left out spending on chronic diseases, those that appear over time due to constant exposure to pesticides, such as cancer.

2.2 Billion Dollars a Year

Even in the face of pesticides’ impact on the  health of the population and the environment, companies ceased to pay nearly R$ 10 billion (US$ 2 billion) in federal and state taxes in 2017—and the ones that most failed to collect were the states, according to the study “ “Tax incentive policy for pesticides in Brazil is unjustifiable and unsustainable” by ABRASCO, the Brazilian Association of Collective Health.

Renouncement of only the ICMS (VAT on goods and services) waiver in the state of Rio Grande do Sul would be generate enough to cover over half of the state budget in 2017. In the state of Mato Grosso, the amount would represent 66% of the entire state health budget.

State ICMS tax exemptions, which were introduced in 1997, account for the largest slice of the exoneration pie, with 63% of the total; it is followed by the IPI (tax on Industrialized Products) with 16.5%; the PIS/PASEP and COFINS (Federal Unemployment and Social Security funding contributions) with 15.6% and, lastly, the II Importation Tax with 4.8%, according to the ABRASCO study, also signed by Marcelo Firpo, FIOCRUZ National School of Public Health researcher and by environmental scientist Lucas Neves da Cunha.

According to the authors, the thesis that reducing the value of pesticides is necessary to maintain the price of food doesn’t hold up. “It would be more reasonable to subsidize not the use of pesticides, but directly the consumption of food,” concludes the study, which considered pesticide-related expenses reported by rural producers in the 2017 2017 Agricultural Census.

Buddy Loans

Although direct federal investment to the sector amounts to considerably less than the tax exemptions, it is noteworthy that the giant pesticide producers benefit the most. Between 2005 and 2019, the federal government invested R$ 749 million (US$ 165 million) through BNDES and FINEP in 18 pesticide manufacturers, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Ourofino and Dow Agrosciences (today Corteva).

Of the resources invested in research in the entire pharmaceutical industry since 2005, pesticide manufacturer Ourofino was the third most benefited, behind only Hypera Pharma and Aché, which produce medicines for human health. Manufacturer of more than 30 pesticide products including glyphosate and fipronil, the company received R$ 334.6 million (US$ 74 million) in public resources for their pesticides and agricultural research divisions. Ourofino had not responded to inquiries for comment when this article was concluded.

FINEP, on the other hand, recognizes direct financing in pesticides, but also says it selects projects that seek to replace pesticides with biological products and supports “innovative projects with the premise of increasing their efficiency.” See FINEP’s full response here. The BNDES (Development Bank) did not comment.

More Expensive Food?

Entities representing the pesticide industry argue that suspending tax exemptions for the sector would lead to higher food prices and lead to inflation.

“The end of the benefit will impact the prices of inputs and, consequently, increase the cost of the cesta básica. The exemption, therefore, is much more beneficial to society than to industries,” says Christian Lohbauer, president of CropLife Brasil, an association that represents pesticide-producing companies such as BASF, Bayer, Corteva, FMC and Syngenta.

According to APROSOJA (Brazilian Soy Producers’ Association), the end of tax benefits would increase production costs. “Part of the Brazilian production of grains, fruits, fibers and vegetables would be rendered unfeasible, because when computing the tax increase in the costs of agricultural pesticides, added to the cost of transportation logistics, climatic risks and other taxes and contributions from the sector, many inland regions would no longer be viable,” was the written statement.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply informed that it will wait for the decision of the STF to manifest itself. The National Agriculture Confederation (CNA) declined to comment. Meanwhile the National Association of the Vegetal Defense Products Industry (SINDIVEG) stated that “taxation would increase food costs and reduce the competitiveness of Brazilian products on the international market.” See the full statements of the Association, of Croplife and of APROSOJA.

For economist Cechi from UnB, it is difficult to affirm that reducing pesticide industry benefits would be felt at Brazilian tables, as a large part is used for commodities like soybean and not food items.

“Pesticides are used mainly in non-food crops, that is, commodities whose prices are set by the international market. It is not the producers who choose the price. If the benefits are lost, producers will have to spend more on pesticides, meaning a lower profit margin. The impact [of the reduction in benefits] would be for agribusiness companies.”

Soybean plantations were the destination for 52% of all agrochemical sales in Brazil in 2015. Corn and sugar cane ranked second, with 10% each, followed by cotton, with 7%. These four agricultural commodities alone represented 79% of the pesticide used in the country, according to data from SINDIVEG.

The “pesticide grant” is more controversial if one considers that Brazil is the world’s largest consumer of pesticides in terms of value, and that the sector grew 190% between 2000 and 2010, while on the global market this number was 93%. In addition, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government approved a  record number of these products in 2019, benefiting mainly multinationals.

All this within the context where there is a market concentration that, in the view of public defender Marcelo Novaes, harms public coffers, since without competition, companies can manipulate prices and increase their profits. “We are dominated by five large multinationals—Syngenta, Bayer-Monsanto, BASF, Corteva (ex-Dow) and DuPont—who rule over everything because they own 80% of the sector,” says Novaes, who denounced what he considers to be an oligopoly at the Administrative Council for Economic Defense (CADE).

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Mariana Della Barba, Diego Junqueira and Pedro Grigori, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

 

A common misconception about the climate crisis is that warmer temperatures result in plants growing larger and for longer periods. While rising temperatures are causing the shifting of seasons, prompting plants to sprout and turn green sooner than usual, the reality is that the climate crisis is causing plants to become less nutritious, signalling a nutrient collapse and threatening food security. 

Impact of Climate Change on Food Security

The climate crisis poses a significant threat to agriculture as changes in temperature and precipitation affect crop yield and shift agricultural zones. The impact of rising CO2 levels on the quantity of crops grown has been carefully researched, but the outcome of the climate crisis on crop quality is harder to predict and remains less studied.  

In 1998, Irakli Loladze, then pursuing a mathematics PhD at Arizona State University, started to explore the relationship between increasing CO2 levels and plant nutrition. His interest was piqued when colleagues in the biology department demonstrated that algae grows faster when exposed to more light, but the zooplankton that feed on that algae become malnourished.  

Loladze further investigated the problem and discovered that although increased light produces more algae, the algae has fewer nutrients, resulting in the zooplankton’s malnourishment. “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said

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Expanding his research to human nutrition inspired Loladze to consider the relationship between CO2 and nutrient density. Studies have found that some agricultural crop yields are increased when exposed to higher rates of CO2, which is essential for plant growth. But similar to the algae, faster agricultural growth rates may be resulting in fewer nutrients. 

“Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history- an injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply,” he adds.

The Department of Environmental Health at Harvard conducted a meta-analysis to investigate the nutritional density of crops grown in CO2 levels that the world is expected to experience by 2050 (550ppm). The research team found that this significantly reduced crops’ zinc content; by 9.1% for wheat, 13.6% for barley and 3.1% for rice. The planet is currently experiencing CO2 levels of 415 ppm

17% of the global population already suffers from zinc deficiency and these findings suggest that crops’ changing nutritional value will threaten a further 138 million people in the coming decades. This does not account for population growth.

Zinc deficiency is associated with compromised immune function resulting in over 100 000 deaths among children under the age of five annually, according to the team from Harvard. Zinc deficiencies have also been linked to depression and a number of other mental disorders that have been on the rise for the past two decades. 

The density of other nutrients in plant-based food sources is also expected to decline. A study by the US Departure of Agriculture found that ‘43 foods show apparent, statistically reliable decline’ for protein, calcium, potassium, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid. Further research found that globally, protein intake from plant sources is expected to decrease by over 7% by 2050 as CO2 levels rise. 

climate crisis food security
Crops’ changing nutritional value caused by the climate crisis will threaten the food security of a further 138 million people in the coming decades (Source: Luke Milliron). 

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that wheat and rice, which are highly sensitive to changes in CO2,  are the main source of protein for 71% of the world’s population. A paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives predicts that given this dependence on plant-based proteins, more than 15% of the global population will be protein deficient, resulting in 90.9 million days lost to illness and 2 million deaths annually by 2050. 

When asked by POLITICO, a media company focusing on politics and policy in the US and beyond, about how changing carbohydrate ratios could affect public health, Robin Foroutan, an integrative medicine nutritionist, commented on the lack of research. “We don’t know what a minor shift in the carbohydrate ratio in the diet is ultimately going to do,” she said, pointing out that increased carbohydrates are also correlated with increases in obesity and diabetes. “To what degree would a shift in the food system contribute to that? We can’t really say.”

One way to manage the decline in nutrients is to fortify staple food crops with nutrients such as zinc, iron and calcium. Fortified foods have historically been used to treat vitamin deficiencies in wider populations. For example, Vitamin D is commonly added to orange juice to deliver this nutrient to children who cannot drink milk. 

It’s clear from Loladze’s findings, and the work conducted by teams around the world, that increasing CO2 levels and the climate crisis are changing the nutritional content of our food and threatening food security. Research indicates that this will result in mineral deficiencies and their associated health risks. What isn’t understood is the impact of increased plant-based carbohydrates on the human diet. It is imperative that more research be done on this to establish the risks that it poses, which will allow countries more time to adapt their agricultural practices to keep up with this decline in food nutrition.

Globally, abandoned agricultural land has become a pervasive phenomenon after years of unsustainable cultivation methods; among other factors, the use of chemical fertilisers has left land depleted to the point of no return. Initiatives to restore these lands to use as tools in the fight against the climate crisis are underway.

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In some instances however, abandoned agricultural land is still arable and perhaps never fully cultivated but it is found in marginal locations where the prospects of a quality life as a farmer are poor. One of the main reasons for the abandonment is urbanisation. As a result, currently more agricultural land is being abandoned than being converted to it, particularly in North America and Western Europe. The global footprint of agriculture has been decreasing while the production output has been increasing, made possible by intensification of cultivation methods.             

In light of the world’s climate crisis it has become clear that fossil fuels are not the only resources threatening the planet’s sustainability. Water, clean air and arable land to grow food for an ever-growing world population are becoming increasingly scarce, and if ‘business as usual’ outputs continue, the challenges will soon become insurmountable. 

The world’s population has grown from 2.6 billion in 1950 to nearly 8 billion today, and is predicted to hit 9.7 billion by 2050. Human use affects over 70% of all ice- free land and about 25% of this land is subject to human-induced degradation, which is also exacerbated by climate change. 

Therefore, it is intuitive that the solution is also to be found in man’s hands.

As Richard Conniff summarises in an article for Yale360, between 1997 and 2018 the US has lost 98 000 square miles of farmland. China reportedly loses 7 700 square miles of precious agricultural land each year. By 2040, abandoned land in the EU could amount to 82 000 square miles- 11% of the land actively farmed at the beginning of the century. 

By planting trees in those areas, 25% of anthropogenic CO2 could be sequestered from the atmosphere while retaining water and bringing fertility and community back to the land. According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) currently ‘one quarter to one third of land’s potential net primary production for food, feed, fibre, timber and energy’ is being used.

Abandoned Farmland Restoration

Many initiatives have been proposed and some put into practice successfully. There are examples of both large scale international projects, as well ‘grassroots’ approaches. One such global project- the Bonn Challenge– is a global effort to restore 350 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2030. The challenge also aims ‘to restore ecological integrity at the same time as improving human well-being through multifunctional landscapes’. It has been estimated that reaching the 2030 goal would generate USD 170 billion per year in net benefits from ‘watershed protection, improved crop yields and forest products, and could sequester up to 1.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent annually’.

A ‘grassroots’ example of these projects put into practice is the work of Dr Willie Smits in the forests of Kalimantan and Sulawesi, an island near Borneo. What Dr Smits has come to realise and articulate in his TED talk is that environmental degradation and environmental restoration differ only in the type and extent of human involvement in any projects which are beneficial to them, and affect the environment as a consequence.

This is the case particularly in developing countries where people are often willing to agree to environmental trade-offs for money (from selling land to foreign investors) or secure jobs (such as on oil palm plantations). 

Dr Smits and his team from the Masarang Foundation developed an approach to restoration of degraded land into forests which the local community participates in and benefits from at all stages from planning to execution. The approach uses an integrated design wherein trees of valuable yield, such as the sugar palm, nitrogen-fixing plants, such as fodder, and other root and tree crops are planted in a grid sequence for maximum efficiency. This approach, focused on biodiversity, encourages the return of beneficial soil microbes and improves soil texture and the retention of nutrients and water. 

Not all land is suitable for reforestation and the data available  is largely confined to remote satellite sensing. This means that obtaining the larger picture does not distinguish between publicly and privately owned land, making the theory more complicated in practice. Additionally, initiatives are often poorly planned. For example, about 10% of countries participating in the Bonn Project have committed to reforest more land than they actually have available. Bearing in mind its limitations, this idea holds great potential for the future.

For successful restoration to take place, the end goal doesn’t always necessarily have to be a forest. A study published in Nature shows that in some cases grassland or savanna ecosystems are more optimal for carbon sequestration and storage because they are able to hold more carbon underground. These environments are also less prone to drought and fires.  

Abandoned land is able to naturally revert back to its original state on its own accord, as extensively described in Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us. However, it can take hundreds of years for the land to regain its initial biodiversity and productivity. With the climate crisis pending and no more luxury of time, strategies for speeding up the process of regeneration are in demand. 

A new UN report has warned that climate change could trigger a global food crisis. The report outlines possible solutions including sustainable land management and increasing food productivity.

How will climate change affect food production?

The United Nations climate report warns that the world might face a food crisis due to climate change and overexploitation of land and water resources. A steady increase in global temperatures will make things worse, as floods, drought, storms, and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt the global food supply. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, prepared by more than 100 experts from 52 countries and released in Geneva last week, reveals that humans affect more than 70% of ice-free land and a quarter is already degraded. Rapid agricultural expansion has led to destruction of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other ecosystems. Soil erosion from agricultural fields is 10 to 100 times higher than the soil formation rate. Such rapid land degradation has created spinoff effects.

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“When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon,” says the report. “This exacerbates climate change, while climate change in turn exacerbates land degradation.”

The report also reveals that an estimated 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions that significantly warm the planet are caused by agriculture, cattle rearing, and deforestation. 

A warming atmosphere intensifies the world’s droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other weather patterns, and it is further speeding up the rate of soil loss, land degradation, and desertification. “Since the pre-industrial period, the land surface air temperature has risen nearly twice as much as the global average temperature,” the report says “climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions.”

Possible solutions 

Warning that the window to address threats of climate change, food security, and land degradation is closing rapidly, the report offers a variety of solutions to address the challenges. 

Tactics like improving food productivity and increasing the carbon content of soil can simultaneously mitigate climate change, help regions adapt to warming, stop desertification, reverse land degradation, and enhance food security.

“The options with medium to large benefits for all challenges are increased food productivity, improved cropland management, improved grazing land management, improved livestock management, agroforestry, improved forest management, increased soil organic carbon content, fire management, and reduced post-harvest losses,” the report says.

Enhancing food productivity means using less land for agriculture, which could help preserve forest land retaining a natural carbon intake system. Those forests move moisture through the biome and help regulate temperature, reducing the impacts of warming. Trees in the preserved forest anchor the soil, slowing erosion and preventing desertification. That stabilising effect in turn helps reduce volatility in crop yields, enhancing food security.

Sustainable land management is an effective solution. “Land management can prevent and reduce land degradation, maintain land productivity, and sometimes reverse the adverse impacts of climate change on land degradation. It can also contribute to mitigation and adaptation,” says the report. “Reducing and reversing land degradation, at scales from individual farms to entire watersheds, can provide cost-effective, immediate, and long-term benefits to communities and support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with co-benefits for adaptation and mitigation.” 

Reducing food waste is another important solution. The report estimates that over 30% of food is lost or wasted, which has environmental costs as food waste accounts for upward of 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the world were to drastically limit food waste, farmers would need less land, less fuel, less water, and less fertiliser, all of which would translate to a smaller environmental footprint. “Technical options such as improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail, and education can reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain,” the report states. “By 2050, reduced food loss and waste can free millions of square kilometers of land.”

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