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How our food choices cut into forests and put us closer to viruses

How our food choices cut into forests and put us closer to viruses

As the global population has doubled to 7.8 billion in about 50 years, industrial agriculture has increased the output from fields and farms to feed humanity. One of the negative outcomes of this transformation has been the extreme simplification of ecological systems, with complex multi-functional landscapes converted to vast swaths of monocultures.

From cattle farming to oil palm plantations, industrial agriculture remains the greatest driver of deforestation, particularly in the tropics. And as agricultural activities expand and intensify, ecosystems lose plants, wildlife and other biodiversity.

The permanent transformation of forested landscapes for commodity crops currently drives more than a quarter of all global deforestation. This includes soy, palm oil, beef cattle, coffee, cocoa, sugar and other key ingredients of our increasingly simplified and highly processed diets.

The erosion of the forest frontier has also increased our exposure to infectious diseases, such as Ebolamalaria and other zoonotic diseases. Spillover incidents would be far less prevalent without human encroachment into the forest.

We need to examine our global food system: Is it doing its job, or is it contributing to forest destruction and biodiversity loss — and putting human life at risk?

What are we eating?

The food most associated with biodiversity loss also tends to also be connected to unhealthy diets across the globe. Fifty years after the Green Revolution — the transition to intensive, high yielding food production reliant on a limited number of crop and livestock species — nearly 800 million people still go to bed hungry; one in three is malnourished; and up to two billion people suffer some sort of micronutrient deficiency and associated health impacts, such as stunting or wasting.

Forest cut down for an agricultural field
A large soy field cuts into the forest in Brazil. (Shutterstock)

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Scientists Warn World Facing Major Famine, Could “Lead To Severe Shocks To Global Food System”

Researchers from Washington State University have published a new report of the Great Drought, the most destructive known drought of the past 800 years – and how it sparked the Global Famine that claimed the lives of 50 million people. The scientists warn that the Earth’s current warming climate could spark a similar drought, but even worse.

One of the lead researchers, Deepti Singh, a professor in WSU’s School of the Environment, used rainfall records and climate reconstruction models to characterize the environmental conditions leading up to the Great Drought, a period in the mid-1870s known for widespread crop failures across Asia, Brazil, and Africa. The drought was connected to the most extreme manifestation of the El Nino supercycle ever recorded.

“Climate conditions that caused the Great Drought and Global Famine arose from natural variability. And their recurrence — with hydrological impacts intensified by global warming — could again potentially undermine global food safety,” lead author Singh and her colleagues wrote in the Journal of Climate, published online Oct. 04.

The release of the study came days before the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that global warming could cause intense droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

WSU says Global Famine was among the worst humanitarian disasters in modern time, comparable to the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, World War I and World War II. As an environmental disaster, it was the worst.

“In a very real sense, the El Nino and climate events of 1876-78 helped create the global inequalities that would later be characterized as ‘first’ and ‘third worlds’,” writes Singh, who was influenced by “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World,” which detailed the social impact of the Great Drought and additional droughts in 1896-1897 and 1899-1902.

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Time for politicians to get real about the anthropocene

Time for politicians to get real about the anthropocene

Hurricane Maria wreaks havoc in Puerto Rico.

We are currently living through an era of global environmental collapse. Resources are being consumed at around 1.5 times the Earth’s ability to regenerate them. The continued reliance on carbon to power our economies means that we are highly unlikely to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, increasing the chance of severe climate disruption. Meanwhile, the global food system has destroyed a third of all arable land and, at current rates, global top soil degradation means that there may only be 60 global harvests left. Ours is the age of the sixth mass extinction – the last being the dinosaurs – with nearly two-thirds of all vertebral life having died since the 1970s.

In all, human activity has pushed environmental systems into ‘unsafe’ operating spaces, threatening the conditions upon which life can occur and societies flourish. This has led scientist to suggest we live in a new age, the ‘Anthropocence’, in which humans are the decisive, destructive influence on the natural world. We have irrevocably changed our planet, ultimately threatening its ability to support life as we know it. This is the context in which MPs voted to approve Heathrow’s third runway. It seems that the short lived cycles of electoral politics means that politicians chase short-term goals, rather than tackling problems such as climate change which require long-term, global thinking. The test of a capable politician in 2018 is whether they take a stand against cavalier resource extraction.

Most obviously, a third runway places our climate change obligations under severe threat. Every nation on earth has an obligation to avert planetary crisis by reducing carbon emissions, a responsibility enshrined in the Paris Agreement.

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Extreme Weather and Food Resilience, for Home Growers

Extreme Weather and Food Resilience, for Home Growers

mounded-beds-in-februaryA joint task force of experts from the UK and US have recently released recommendations for Extreme Weather and Resilience of the Global Food System. The report uses current climate and weather science coupled with food supply history to make predictions and recommendations to help governments mitigate the societal consequences of food price shocks.

The release of this report is almost ominous in relevance. As drought-stricken Californians and Australians brace for what is shaping up to be one of the most severe El Nino weather weather events in recent history, Section 1 of the report states “[i]n 2007/8, a small weather-related production shock, coupled with historically low stock-to-use levels, led to rapid food price inflation…”. The source of the small weather-related production shock was El Nino conditions in 2007 that caused severe drought in Australia, reduced Australian wheat production by more than half, and exploded wheat prices around the globe.


As we prepare for more El Nino related extreme weather events, the report confirms that we are still at risk for “shocks” to our food supply and prices. In fact, they may be more common and more detrimental in the future. Additionally, the report suggests that if corrective action is not taken, the consequences could cause more civil unrest like the “Arab Spring” of 2010.

While policy makers are still trying to understand the issues, home growers intuitively know that extreme weather events impact food production. We’re not dealing in abstract ‘what-if’ scenarios and distant financial markets, we’re facing the realities of planning and planting our gardens in uncertain and extreme weather conditions right now. Like governments at the global level, home growers also need to meet the challenges through positive action rather than unprepared reaction. Surprisingly, the advice offered in this report also provides good guidelines for us. Let’s take a closer look at the recommendations and see how they can be applied to our home gardens.


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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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