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America is the global leader of food waste, which has catastrophic environmental, financial and social fallout. With growing urgency to tackle these issues, how can this problem be solved? 

Food Waste in America

In the US, an estimated 30% to 40% of the total food supply ends up as waste. A large portion of this occurs at the consumer level, with 43% of food waste being generated in people’s homes. A further 40% of the waste comes from consumer-facing businesses such as supermarkets and restaurants, while the remaining waste occurs on farms (16%) and during processing (2%). 

This food waste accounts for between an estimated USD$161 billion and $218 billion wasted in America each year, with the bulk of this financial stress falling on consumers who pay higher prices than those at the sourcing or wholesale stages. Moreover, this food waste continues while, according to the US Department of Agriculture, nearly 12% of American households (about 15 million) “were food insecure at least sometime during the year in 2017, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” 

What’s more, the food wasted is often edible, healthy produce and the amount generated is more than enough to tackle a problem that has no place in a developed country. 

Food waste is the single largest component of US landfills, accounting for 22% of municipal solid waste (MSW). This takes up land but also breaks down to create significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that, for the first two decades after its release, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Additionally, food waste has serious environmental impacts long before it reaches a landfill, with around 21% of all freshwater in America going to the production of food that will be wasted, along with 19% of all fertiliser and 18% of all cropland. 

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What Causes Food Waste in America

At the production stage, waste before harvest in America can be caused by economic factors like a drop in demand for a certain product or a lack of labour. There are also natural causes such as weather, disease and pests. The largest cause for waste on farms post-harvest is culling, whereby produce is discarded based on quality and appearance, such as its size, colour, weight, blemishes and sugar content.

At retail stores, food waste in America is caused by overstocked displays of fresh produce for marketing purposes, the demand for perfection (which also leads to culling), oversized packs of produce and the need to have fresh goods (such as those from in-store bakeries) available until closing. Food outlets face similar issues, with the need to stock far more fresh produce than they can sell in order to offer an abundant menu for customers.

When it comes to consumer food waste, the largest source of waste, the main problem is a lack of information. First, about the amount that the average American household actually needs to buy. The “abundance” issue seen in stores and restaurants ripples into homes, where people buy more than they need and place a lower value on it. Second, there is significant confusion over sell-by, use-by and best-before labels that are frequently found on packaging. Not knowing what these mean, and relying on them rather than our senses and experience, leads American households to regularly waste perfectly good food.

What is Being Done to Tackle Food Waste in America 

America has begun to tackle the food waste problem, and the USDA and the US Environmental Protection Agency banded together in 2015 with the goal of cutting food waste in America in half by 2030. They set out to do this by creating and following their own Food Recovery Hierarchy, which outlines the most effective ways to address the problem of food waste.

This inverted pyramid follows the same structure as other waste management hierarchies, whereby the first and most effective option is prevention. With food waste, this can be achieved by shifting  attitudes to only purchase what is needed. For retailers and restaurants, this means not having an abundance of produce on display or a vast menu that requires excessive stock. For consumers, this means writing grocery lists and recognising how much a household actually consumes. 

If an excess of food is produced at any point along the supply chain, the next step in the hierarchy is to ensure that this is distributed to where it is needed, rather than wasted. This is currently being done in America by organisations that are teaming up with farmers to pick and distribute crops that would otherwise rot in the field, as well as at the retail stage through cooperation with food banks, soup kitchens and other distribution centres.

If food can’t be recovered, then there must be better food waste management. This means using food waste for animal feed, industrial processing and composting, which can then be directed to agriculture and back into the food supply chain. 

These steps are just the beginning of a journey to tackle food waste in America, but they are proof that something is being done. As individuals and companies continue to take action to limit their impact, the social, financial and environmental issues associated with food waste in America can finally be addressed. 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected in the coming days to lift controls on the release of methane that is emitted from leaks and flares in oil and gas wells, in what the Trump administration says is needed to free the oil and gas industry from ‘crippling regulations’. 

The EPA Methane Rollback

The new EPA rule eliminates federal requirements that oil and gas companies must install technology to detect and fix methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage sites. 

Andrew Wheeler, the head of the EPA, made public a rollback draft of the methane rule, saying at the time that it ‘removes unnecessary and duplicative regulatory burdens from the oil and gas industry’.

The move comes at a time when companies are suffering from decreasing prices and falling demand driven by the COVID-19-related economic slowdown. However, this revised rule has been planned for more than a year. 

Environmentalists have condemned the move, calling it another blow by Trump to the planet, following dozens of reversals on rules meant to protect the planet from warming further, including the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. 

In April, the EPA weakened rules on the release of toxic chemicals from coal-fired power plants, loosened curbs on tailpipe pollution and chose not to strengthen a regulation on industrial soot emissions that have been linked to respiratory diseases. 

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In July, Trump weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, limiting public review of federal infrastructure projects to speed up the permitting process for freeways, power plants and pipelines. 

However, this and other regulatory changes put forth by the Trump administration in the latter half of 2020 could be undone in the first half of 2021 if Joe Biden wins the White House and Democrats take control of the Senate. This is because of a rule that gives lawmakers 60 legislative days to overturn major new regulations issued by federal agencies. In the early days of the Trump administration, the procedure was used to undo 14 Obama-era rules. 

Oil and gas companies have had mixed responses to the move. Some major companies have spoken out against the weakening of methane regulations, but smaller oil companies are expected to applaud the rule as a relief when many are struggling to survive. 

While methane stays in the atmosphere for a shorter period of time, it has 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years in the atmosphere. It currently makes up about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. A large portion of this comes from the oil and gas industry, although other sources include agriculture. 

In the latter part of 2016, Ethan Steinberg and two of his friends planned a driving tour across the U.S. to interview farmers. Their goal was to solve a riddle that had been bothering each of them for some time. Why was it, they wondered, that American agriculture basically ignored trees? Cultivating trees- or “agroforestry”- could help to mitigate the climate crisis- and make money.

This was no esoteric inquiry. According to a growing body of scientific research, incorporating trees into farmland benefits everything from soil health to crop production to the climate. Steinberg and his friends, Jeremy Kaufman and Harrison Greene, also suspected it might yield something else: money.

“We had noticed there was a lot of discussion and movement of capital into holistic grazing, no till, cover cropping,” Steinberg recalls, referencing some of the land- and climate-friendly agricultural practices that have been garnering environmental and business attention recently. “We thought, what about trees? That’s when a lightbulb went off.”

The trio created Propagate Ventures, a company that now offers farmers software-based economic analysis, on-the-ground project management, and investor financing to help add trees and tree crops to agricultural models to encourage agroforestry. One of Propagate’s key goals, Steinberg explained, was to get capital from interested investors to the farmers who need it — something he saw as a longtime barrier to this sort of tree-based agriculture.

Propagate quickly started attracting attention. Over the past two years, the group, based in New York and Colorado has expanded into eight states, primarily in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and is now working with 20 different farms. Last month, it announced that it had received $1.5 million in seed funding from Boston-based Neglected Climate Opportunities, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

“My hope is that they can help farmers diversify their production systems and sequester carbon,” says Eric Smith, investment officer for the trust. “In a perfect world, we’d have 10 to 20 percent of U.S. land production in agroforestry.”

For the past few years, private sector interest in “sustainable” and “climate-friendly” efforts has skyrocketed. Haim Israel, Bank of America’s head of thematic investment, suggested at the World Economic Forum earlier this year that the climate solutions market could double from $1 trillion today to $2 trillion by 2025. Flows to sustainable funds in the U.S. have been increasing dramatically, setting records even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the financial services firm Morningstar.

And while agriculture investment is only a small subset of these numbers, there are signs that investments in “regenerative agriculture,” practices that improve rather degrade than the earth, are also increasing rapidly. In a 2019 report, the Croatan Institute, a research institute based in Durham, North Carolina, found some $47.5 billion worth of investment assets in the U.S. with regenerative agriculture criteria.

“The capital landscape in the U.S. and globally is really shifting,” says David LeZaks, senior fellow at the Croatan Institute. “People are beginning to ask more questions about how their money is working for them as it relates to financial returns, or how it might be working against them in the creation of extractive economies, climate change or labor issues.”

Agroforestry, the ancient practice of incorporating trees into farming, is just one subset of regenerative agriculture, which itself is a subset of the much larger “ESG,” or Environmental, Social and Governance, investment world. But according to Smith and Steinberg, along with a small but growing number of financiers, entrepreneurs and company executives, it is one particularly ripe for investment.

Although relatively rare in the U.S., agroforestry is a widespread agricultural practice across the globe. Project Drawdown, a climate change mitigation think tank that ranks climate solutions, estimates that some 650 million hectares (1.6 billion acres) of land are currently in agroforestry systems; other groups put the number even higher. And the estimates for returns on those systems are also significant, according to proponents.

The Importance of Agroforestry

Ernst Götsch, a leader in the regenerative agriculture world, estimates that agroforestry systems can create eight times more profit than conventional agriculture. Harry Assenmacher, founder of the German company Forest Finance, which connects investors to sustainable forestry and agroforestry projects, said in a 2019 interview that he expects between 4% and 7% return on investments at least; his company had already paid out $7.5 million in gains to investors, with more income expected to be generated later.

This has led to a wide variety of for-profit interest in agroforestry. There are small startups, such as Propagate, and small farmers, such as Martin Anderton and Jono Neiger, who raise chickens alongside new chestnut trees on a swath of land in western Massachusetts. In Mexico, Ronnie Cummins, co-founder and international director of the Organic Consumers Association, is courting investors for funds to support a new agave agroforestry project. Small coffee companies, such as Dean’s Beans, are using the farming method, as are larger farms, such as former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s Caney Fork Farms. Some of the largest chocolate companies in the world are investing in agroforestry.

“We are indeed seeing a growing interest from the private sector,” says Dietmar Stoian, lead scientist for value chains, private sector engagement and investments with the research group World Agroforestry, also known by the acronym ICRAF. “And for some of them, the idea of agroforestry is quite new.”

Part of this, he and others say, is growing awareness about agroforestry’s climate benefits.

Gains For the Climate, Too

According to Project Drawdown, agroforestry practices are some of the best natural methods to pull carbon out of the air. The group ranked silvopasture, a method that incorporates trees and livestock together, as the ninth most impactful climate change solution in the world, above rooftop solar power, electric vehicles and geothermal energy.

If farmers increased silvopasture acreage from approximately 550 million hectares today to about 770 million hectares by 2050 (1.36 billion acres to 1.9 billion acres), Drawdown estimated carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced over those 30 years by up to 42 gigatons — more than enough to offset all of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans globally in 2015, according to NOAA — and could return $206 billion to $273 billion on investment.

Part of the reason that agroforestry practices are so climate friendly (systems without livestock, i.e. ‘normal’ agroforestry like shade grown coffee, for example, are also estimated by Drawdown to return well on investment, while sequestering 4.45 tons of carbon per hectare per year) is because of what they replace.

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agroforestry trees
Photo of silvopasture system in Georgia by Mack Evans. Image via U.S. National Agroforestry Center.

Traditional livestock farming, for instance, is carbon intensive. Trees are cut down for pasture, fossil fuels are used as fertilizer for feed, and that feed is transported across borders, and sometimes the world, using even more fossil fuels.

Livestock raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), produce more methane than cows that graze on grass. A silvopasture system, on the other hand, involves planting trees in pastures — or at least not cutting them down. Farmers rotate livestock from place to place, allowing soil to hold onto more carbon.

There are similar benefits to other types of agroforestry practices. Forest farming, for instance, involves growing a variety of crops under a forest canopy — a process that can improve biodiversity and soil quality, and also support the root systems and carbon sequestration potential of farms.

A Changing Debate

Etelle Higonnet, senior campaign director at campaign group Mighty Earth, says a growing number of chocolate companies have expressed interest in incorporating agroforestry practices — a marked shift from when she first started advocating for that approach.

“When we first started talking to chocolate companies and traders about agroforestry, pretty much everybody thought I was a nutter,” she says. “But fast forward three years on and pretty much every major chocolate company and cocoa trader is developing an agroforestry plan.”

What that means on the ground, though, can vary widely, she says. Most of the time it is a company’s sustainability department that is pushing for agroforestry investment, not the C-suite. Some companies have committed to sourcing 100% of their cacao from agroforestry systems. Others are content with 5% of their cacao coming from farms that use agroforestry.

What a company considers “agroforestry” can also be squishy, she points out — a situation that makes her and other climate advocates worry about companies using the term to “greenwash,” or essentially pretend to be environmentally friendly without making substantive change.

“What is agroforestry?” says Simon Konig, executive director of Climate Focus North America. “There is no clear definition. There’s an academic, philosophical definition, but there’s not a practical definition, nothing that says, ‘it includes this many species.’ Basically, agroforestry is anything you want it to be, and anything you want to write on your brochure.”

He says he has seen cases in South America where people have worked to transform degraded cattle ranches into cocoa plantations. They have planted banana trees alongside cocoa, which needs shade when young. But when the cocoa is five years old and requires more sun, the farmers take out the bananas.

“They say, ‘it’s agroforestry,’” Konig says. “So there are misunderstandings — there are different objectives and standards.”

He has been working to produce a practical agroforestry guide for cocoa and chocolate companies. One of the guide’s main takeaways, he says, is that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to agroforestry. It depends on climate, objectives, markets, and all sorts of other variables.

This is one of the reasons that agroforestry has been slow to gain investor attention, says LeZaks of the Croatan Institute.

“There really aren’t the technical resources — the infrastructure, the products — that work to support an agroforestry sector at the moment,” LeZaks says.

While agroforestry is seen as having significant potential for the carbon offset market, its variability makes it a more complicated agricultural investment. Another challenge to agroforestry investment is time.

Tree crops take years to produce nuts, berries or timber. This can be a barrier for farmers, who often do not have extra capital to tie up for years.

It can also turn off investors.

“People are bogged down by business as usual,” says Stoian from World Agroforestry. “They have to report to shareholders. Give regular reports. It’s almost contradictory to the long-term nature of agroforestry.”

This is where Steinberg and Propagate Ventures come in. The first part of the company’s work is to fully analyze a farmer’s operation, Steinberg says. It evaluates business goals, uses geographic information system (GIS) components to map out land, and determines the trees most appropriate for the particular agricultural system. With software analytics, Propagate predicts long-term cost-to-revenue and yields, key information for both farmers and possible private investors.

After the analysis phase, Propagate helps implement the agroforestry system. It also works to connect third-party investors with farmers, using a revenue-sharing model in which the investor takes a percentage of the profit from harvested tree crops and timber.

Additionally, Propagate works to arrange commercial contracts with buyers who are interested in adding agroforestry-sourced products to their supply chains.

“Here’s an opportunity to work with farmers to increase profitability by incorporating tree crops into their operations in a way that’s context specific,” Steinberg says. “And it also starts addressing the ecological challenge that we face in agriculture and beyond.”

Featured image by: Caney Fork Farms.

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Stephanie Hanes, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) has been ordered to shut down by August 5 so that an environmental impact assessment report can be undertaken. This is a rare occurrence for an operating pipeline, and marks a major accomplishment for environmental groups and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who have fought vigorously against its establishment. 

The Ruling 

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia terminated an easement that was granted by the US Army of Engineers that allowed Dakota Access to build a segment of the pipeline below Lake Oahe in North and South Dakota. This court previously determined that the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it allowed the easement because it failed to produce an Environmental Impact Statement. 

The court has now said that the DAPL must be shut down and emptied whilst the environmental impact report is prepared. The Corps says it will take 3 months to prepare the report. 

American Indian tribes who reside near the DAPL have sought to prevent the pipeline from ever being built in the first place, and then have shut it down, for years. “Today they finally achieve that goal – at least for the time being,” Judge James Boasberg said at the ruling. 

Energy Transfer (ET), the developers of the DAPL, issued a statement saying the ruling was ‘ill-thought-out’ and is not supported by law or sound evidence related to the case. The company further stated that the Judge ‘exceeded his authority’. It added that shutting the pipeline would cause ‘increased environmental risks’ because crude oil would have to travel by rail instead. The company is planning to file a motion to stay the decision and potentially appeal to the Court of Appeals. 

ET further expressed that ‘shutting down this critical piece of infrastructure would throw our country’s crude supply system out of balance, negatively impact several significant industries, inflict more damage on an already struggling economy, and jeopardise our national security’. 

The court said in a 24-page order that ‘the seriousness of the Corps’ deficiencies outweighs the negative effects of halting the oil flow for the thirteen months’. 

Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 (NEPA), agencies are required to take the environmental consequences of their actions into account, in addition to permit approvals, before green-lighting projects. The court determined that there had not been sufficient consideration of the ‘impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights or environmental justice’. 

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What is the Dakota Access Pipeline?

The US$3.8 billion, 1 886 km-long pipeline stretches across four oil-rich states- North and South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois- and produces 570 000 barrels of crude oil a day. 

In December 2016, the Obama Administration ordered a full environmental review on the safety of the pipeline’s operations, the effect such operations have on the Standing Rock Sioux tribes’ livelihood, and on alternative routes that could potentially pose less of a risk to nearby communities. 

During Trump’s first week in office, the president signed an executive order to accelerate construction, which was later completed in June of 2017. 

Following this decision, many protesters boycotted the development with the aim of raising awareness on how the DAPL affects the integrity of spiritual camps set up near the Missouri river- namely, Sacred Stone, Oceti Sakowin, Red Warrior, and Rosebud Sicangu. 

Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe also criticised the government for approving the DAPL construction without directly consulting them- a requirement under US law. Environmental activists defended the members’ advocacy against the pipeline due to the way in which it perpetuates fossil fuel production– raising grave environmental concerns. 

As the pipeline crosses beneath the Missouri river, north of the Standing Rock reservation, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe stressed how the pipeline would greatly contaminate the drinking water of communities downstream. Furthermore, the potential adverse effects on burial and prayer sites was also greatly emphasised.

The pipeline leaked at least five times in 2017. Spills threaten the wildlife living in the area, as well as soil and water. 

What Now?

Should the environmental impact assessment pass, the pipeline will continue to threaten the environment and cultural livelihoods of those who depend on the region. It is likely though, that the future fate of the pipeline depends on the results of the November elections in the US. 

Featured image by: Tony Webster

On a cold and snowy day in 1926, the two remaining grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park were killed by park rangers. This singular moment of man-on-wolf violence marked the end of a decades-long extermination campaign against Yellowstone’s apex predator, and the howl of the American grey wolf was silenced for generations. Fortunately, thanks to a wave of environmental campaigns in the 70’s and 80’s, the wolf achieved a miraculous return to Yellowstone and has healed the ecosystem to an extent that no one could have imagined. 

The American Grey Wolf- Yellowstone’s Apex Predator

Standing nearly a metre at the shoulders and between 1.2- and 1.8m from nose to tip of the tail, grey wolves can weigh up to 58kgs and sprint at paces of up to 56km/h. These massive canines are the largest members of the dog family and possess intensely acute senses of smell and night vision. The eyes of wolves are piercing – they are striking blue as pups and transition to shades of light yellow, brown, and gold upon adulthood. 

Grey wolves are extraordinarily social animals and live in packs with intricate familial dynamics. A pack typically consists of 6-10 wolves, with an alpha male and an alpha female leading their ‘subordinates’. Usually, the alpha male and alpha female are the only wolves in the pack to mate. Each wolf possesses unique personality traits and upholds its own allocated role within the pack. Wolf packs work together to collectively raise and care for pups, hunt down large prey, and defend their expansive territories. Wolves roam large distances with their packs and have been known to travel up to 19km in a single day. 

Wolves howl to facilitate intra-pack communication, defend their territories from invading packs, coordinate social activities, and sometimes, like dogs, simply because they hear the howling of others. These piercing calls can be heard for 11km in forested areas and for 16 km in open areas. 

Despite their large statures, fierce pack ties and status as top predators, wolves tend to live short and tumultuous lives. Interaction between packs is typically aggressive and often fatal, with 65% of collared wolves ultimately being killed by wolves in rival packs. The lifespan of a grey wolf is generally around 4-5 years within the protection of Yellowstone National Park and just 2-3 years outside of the park’s borders. 

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A Turbulent History – Elimination, Reintroduction, and Ecological Change

Grey wolves once roamed freely across an enormous range from the Arctic tundra to Mexico. However, once settlers began expanding westward in the late 19th century, much of the wolves’ natural prey and habitat was eliminated due to the spread of agriculture and ranching. Naturally, wolves began to prey on domestic livestock, which threatened the livelihoods of Western ranchers. Big-game hunters viewed wolves as hunting competition, and many humans harboured a general fear of these massive canines. 

Coordinated grey wolf extirpation programs quickly ensued, with the practice of bounty hunting supported by both state and federal agencies. The two remaining wolves in Yellowstone, still pups at the time, were killed by park rangers in 1926. By the mid 1900’s, wolves were almost entirely eliminated from the lower 48 states. 

With the region’s apex predator forcefully eliminated, the ecological systems of Yellowstone and the surrounding areas became severely imbalanced. The elk population exploded, which led to overgrazing of vital willow and aspen plants, which beavers depend upon for food and shelter. With fewer beavers and dams, water temperatures rose too high to support cold-water fish. Songbird populations diminished, coyote populations surged and riverbanks began to erode. 

When the Endangered Species Act came into effect in 1973, grey wolves were one of the first species to be added to the list of endangered species. But because of the deep controversy surrounding the grey wolf, true conservation efforts did not take place until the 1990’s. 

January of 1995 kicked off one of the most successful conservation endeavours in history. 14 grey wolves were captured in Canada, transported to Yellowstone, and following a 10-week environmental acclimation program, were released into the wilderness of the park. 17 more wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1996. 

The ecological restoration that followed was stunning. The beavers returned, elk populations stabilised, songbirds rebounded, and cold-water fish, willows and aspen flourished once again. Doug Smith, senior wildlife biologist from the Yellowstone Wolf Project, compared these magnificent ecological changes to ‘kicking a pebble down a mountain slope where conditions were just right that a falling pebble could trigger an avalanche of change’. 

Looking Forward  

As of 2020, which marks the 25th anniversary of the reintroduction of the grey wolf, there are at least 94 wolves and 8 separate packs living within the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park. 

Although their populations are stable, grey wolves are still threatened by fear and misinformation. Despite ongoing narratives that they present dangers to humans and livestock, wolves almost never attack humans, and they kill only 0.2% – 0.3% of available livestock. Grey wolves are also threatened by laws in Montana and Wyoming, which allow them to be hunted outside of national park borders. 

In the words of Jamie Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, “It’s not finished…We still have a lot of conflict, and concerns.” However, regardless of the challenges ahead, the grey wolf has undeniably become a glimmering icon of hope amidst a multitude of endangered species and ecosystems in need of saving. 

The howl of the wolf is here to stay. It is now time to answer the calls of all other struggling species, so that they too can maintain their places within the symphony of the wild. Doing so will not only allow individual species to flourish, but will also help to preserve ecosystems all over the world.

Rising sea levels and increased frequency of flooding are now common occurrences under the climate crisis. In the United States, Bangladesh and Hong Kong, there are a growing number of projects that have been incorporating natural strategies of flood defence in the wake of destruction brought on by the climate crisis. One of these strategies involves oysters.

Mostly regarded as a culinary delicacy, the oyster offers a multitude of functions that make it a beneficial asset in ecosystem services, reducing risks for areas that are or will be affected by shoreline erosion, flooding, and storms. To mitigate floods, oysters create friction between waves and the sea floor, serving as a natural breakwater. Breakwaters are built to protect a coast from the force of waves and are traditionally constructed with large rocks. Rebuilding oyster reefs provides benefits such as ecosystem enhancement and an increase in marine biodiversity because oyster reefs offer shelter for marine creatures. 

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New York: Flood Defence and a Return to the Past

New York was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was after this storm that New York began applying disaster mitigation processes to redevelop the affected areas. Through a design competition launched by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Staten Island Living Breakwaters Project won funding to develop their project on the South Shore of Staten Island, creating a ‘living’ breakwater system, which helps protect coasts while also providing habitats through constructed reefs for finfish, shellfish and lobsters

The living breakwaters are constructed as 3 200 linear feet of nearshore breakwaters using construction materials that also provide habitat enhancements. In addition to the breakwater construction, the plan includes an active oyster restoration by New York’s Billion Oyster Project, installing oysters on the breakwaters themselves as well as cultivating oysters in hatcheries and other remote settings.  

While oysters have the ecological capability to filter nitrogen, provide habitat for smaller creatures, and act as a natural storm barrier, they are also aiding the return of New York’s historical ecology; the city was once a site brimming with oysters in the brackish waters, but due to pollution and overharvesting, the populations declined. The re-implementation of oysters in this environment bridges a connection between the past and the future- mitigating the effects of the climate crisis as well as restoring a historical marine ecosystem.  

Bangladesh: Strengthening Livelihoods  

One-third of Bangladesh’s population resides on the coastline. The coastal shoreline provides residents with resources such as fish, shrimp, crab and sea salt for extraction. However, like New York, the coastline is under threat from increased natural disasters and coastal erosion. These disasters are not only a threat to the ecology of the coastline, but also to the livelihoods of the people who rely on these coastliness. 

Oysters offer a solution to these threats in Bangladesh, acting as ecosystem engineers and working as a natural solution for coastal defence by protecting erosion-prone areas. Conventional barrier techniques in Bangladesh have proven to be too expensive to sustain, and seemingly only provide short-term solutions. With future projections of increased sea-level rise, monsoons and cyclone frequency, people are in need of long-term and cost-effective solutions. While not yet implemented, researchers argue for the exploration of oysters as a solution. By creating artificial oyster reefs as living shorelines, the coastlines of Bangladesh can be protected in a self-sustaining manner, continuing to provide for the population. 

In a study conducted by the University of Chittagong, IMARES Wageningen University, the Agricultural Economics Research Institute, and Royal Haskoning, an engineering consultancy firm, the concept of living shorelines with oyster reefs were examined. Anticipated benefits included climate-proof coastal and flood defence and an improvement of livelihood through practices such as oyster aquaculture and enhanced tourism and recreation. 

Hong Kong: Protecting Coastlines and Preserving Tradition

Oyster habitats have been depleted in Hong Kong due to increased dredging, land reclamation and overharvesting. The Nature Conservancy in Hong Kong is focusing on how oysters can be restored as a means of both global warming mitigation and preservation of a tradition.

Hong Kong has a history of oyster farming that has lasted over 700 years. This tradition is at risk due to impending natural disasters. While oyster farmers are continuing to operate, their livelihoods are at risk, as is the aquaculture-based heritage of Hong Kong. With the reintroduction of millions of oysters by the Nature Conservancy, reef development has been accelerated alongside the improvement of biodiversity and the construction of a natural storm surge barrier.

Oyster Restoration: A Solution

Oysters are a return to the past and a return to the natural. What can be seen here is not only an ecological and climate-crisis related movement, but also a movement of social resilience. Oysters serve as a means of flood defence and biodiversity restoration, but they also allow societies to reflect on their ecological histories as well as foster communities with a focus on the natural landscape through economic development, natural design research and traditional practice. 

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