The FAFDL Earth Day Reader

Biosphere Data Around the Gulf of Mexico - NASA

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In honor of Earth Day, I thought it would be a good opportunity to gather together some of our most salient pieces on the environment and the food system. The pieces are grouped into three main sections: agriculture, food waste, and oceans. – MB


The 4 Essentials of Sustainable Agriculture

There are certain requirements that agriculture must meet to produce food and to keep producing food. We should view them as a hierarchy, such that if the top requirement is not attained, the lower requirements do not mean much, but once the top requirement has been met, we can move to the next one, provided that how we do it does not threaten any of the requirements above it. Each component is required, but not sufficient; all of them are needed.

Focus on Pesticides is a Distraction from Major Eco Impacts

When you really dig into the research on the hierarchy of ecological impacts, pesticides represent a drop in the sustainability bucket when compared to land use, water use, pollution and greenhouse gases. In fact, it may seem counter-intuitive but, pesticides can play a substantial role in mitigating the damage associated with many of those other factors. Pesticides allow for us to grow more food on less land, limit the wasting of fuel and water, and help curb erosion and run-off. There is nothing sustainable about pouring inputs into growing food that is destroyed by pests.

No. Organic Yields Are Not Close to Conventional. Plus: Using Land is an Environmental Impact

The idea of organic farming is very appealing, and many people hope for evidence showing only small differences between organic yields and those of conventional farming might lead to wider adoption of organic. This hope seemed to gain some momentum in the coverage of a new paper. The problem is that the study’s conclusions don’t match its findings. This contributes to a continuing distortion in the public debate over what constitutes sustainable agriculture. Misleading research conclusions become a major distraction from meeting the very real challenge of increasing the sustainability of modern farming.

How the Great Phosphorus Shortage Could Leave Us All Hungry

You know that greenhouse gases are changing the climate. You probably know drinking water is becoming increasingly scarce, and that we’re living through a mass extinction.

But when did you last worry about phosphorus?

Don’t Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve It

Behind many efforts to make agriculture more sustainable is the idea that our farming systems need to be more like nature. in addition to being false, the whole idea of the “balance of nature” is misleading. From it has come the view that ecosystems are a highly complex, integrated system of interactions between species, complexity that is beyond our understanding. The evidence, however, points to different conclusions.

Ecosystems are Not Smart, We Are

If nature has not been optimized by any process that we know of, and therefore consists of mostly random mixes of species dictated primarily by natural disturbances, then there is no reason to “follow nature’s lead.” But if we don’t, what are we left with?

We are left with an agriculture based on human ingenuity.

From Flask to Field: How Tiny Microbes are Revolutionizing Big Agriculture

Microbes can unlock phosphorus and other micronutrients so that plants can use them. We developed a combination of four bacteria that are exceptionally good at making phosphorus available to plants, leading to bigger, healthier plants. They do this by releasing specialized molecules that break the bonds between phosphorus and soil particles. To get this technology into the hands of farmers who can use it, we launched a startup company called Growcentia and started selling our first product, which is called Mammoth P

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Biodiesel From Palm Oil: Finding the Sweet Spot Between Ecology and Economy

Eager to replace fossil fuels with greener alternatives, the European Union and others have earmarked palm oil as a source of biodiesel. Under the EU’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation policy, biodiesel must save 35% in emissions compared to fossil fuels. However, to supply large quantities of biodiesel would also mean intensifying by increasing the use of nitrogen fertilizer.

Carbon Farming for Fun and Profit. Good Policy Can Help.

With shifting political winds and poor commodity prices, farmers may now be willing to consider new ways of generating income by adopting environmentally friendly practices, such as planting cover crops, extending crop rotations or eliminating tillage. Many farmers are already using these practices on a small scale. To combat climate change and stabilize incomes, farmers should look to policy to tackle both in tandem.

There’s Good Reason to End the Agriculture Versus the Environment Fight

Suzy Friedman, Senior Director of Agricultural Sustainability for the Environmental Defense Fund lays some basic principles for bring farmers and environmentalists into partnership.

Why Wholesale Repeal of Environmental Protections is a Losing Business Strategy

Environmental Defense Fund’s David Festa lays out why a steady, consistent approach to environmental regulation is better for the economy and an expression of democratic values.

How Agriculture Can Help Drive a Low Carbon Economy

“Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization” outlines a 3-pronged strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent while accelerating job-creating innovation. Calling each strategy “critical,” CEQ first lists the familiar call to transition to renewable and low carbon forms of energy.

The second key strategy, however, is less often discussed: the potential of cropland and grassland soils, as well as forests, to store and sequester hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 annually. The report – informed by decades of scientific research – describes the opportunities to explore in this area.

‘Meating’ in the Middle on the ‘Meat vs Vegetarian’ Climate Change Diet Debate

The contribution of animal-source foods to global warming cannot be ignored. But encouraging everyone to become vegetarian or even vegan isn’t the silver bullet solution envisioned by some. The direction we need to move in is different in the developed world than it is in the developing world.

Food Waste

If Everybody Hates Wasting Food, Why Do We Do It (and how can we stop)?

“There’s good news and bad news,” says Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It) and perhaps one of the world’s top accumulators of wasted-food facts. “The bad news is that we are pretty wasteful as individuals and families. The good news is we can be a major part of the change with food waste.”

Capitalizing on that concept, government agencies, environmental organizations and other nonprofits around the world have been developing and deploying a spectrum of strategies to help consumers reduce the amount of food we waste, from simple awareness-building social media campaigns to gala events in which celebrity chefs demo innovative approaches to turning leftovers, stale bread, forlorn fruits and the like into culinary creations. In the process, they have learned much about what works — and doesn’t — when it comes to reducing consumer food waste.

Re-routing supermarket waste to low income citizens, French and American style

The French model of dealing with food waste has the great advantage of a government mandate, it will scale quickly, out of necessity – having a major impact in a short period of time.

However, the French model is not suited to American’s approach to government. We feel much more comfortable telling businesses what they can’t do, than what they have to do. The upside of that, is that we don’t end up setting up perverse incentives in forcing business to do things they don’t want to do.

Here’s What We Can Do About the Huge Greenhouse Gas Problems of Landfills and Food Waste

We take out our trash and feel lighter and cleaner. But at the landfill, the food and yard waste that trash contains is decomposing and releasing methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Landfill gas also contributes to smog, worsening health problems like asthma.

Globally, trash released nearly 800 million metric tons (882 million tons) of CO2 equivalent in 2010 — about 11 percent of all methane generated by humans.


We’ve Changed a Life-Giving Nutrient into a Deadly Pollutant. How Can We Change it Back?

Coastal dead zones, global warming, excess algae blooms, acid rain, ocean acidification, smog, impaired drinking water quality, an expanding ozone hole and biodiversity loss. Seemingly diverse problems, but a common thread connects them: human disruption of how a single chemical element, nitrogen, interacts with the environment.

Nitrogen is absolutely crucial to life — an indispensable ingredient of DNA, proteins and essentially all living tissue — yet it also can choke the life out of aquatic ecosystems, destroy trees and sicken people when it shows up in excess at the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong form. And over the past century, people have released so much of this type of nitrogen — known as reactive nitrogen — that scientists say we’ve passed the limit of what the planet can safely handle.

In the Fishing Industry, Gear Recycling is Finally Catching On

Some 705,000 tons of fishing gear are lost or discarded in the ocean every year, and each year this gear captures and kills, among other things, an estimated 136,000 seals, sea lions and whales. A few companies and harbor masters are taking steps to address that.

Here’s Why the World Should Invest in a Sustainable Fishing Future

Investing in the ocean is essential to ensuring life thrives on our planet. Three billion people depend on seafood for their survival, and hundreds of millions depend on the oceans for their livelihood. With climate impacts threatening this critical resource, now is the time to bring investment capital to accelerating the transition to sustainable fishing.

How Coastal Communities with Shellfisheries Can Prepare for Ocean Acidification

Oceans are gradually becoming warmer and more acidic as more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere — two shifts that are altering the economic foundations of many coastal regions.

In a new study published in Nature Climate Change, we and our colleagues set out to identify hotspots around the United States for ocean acidification.

We found the impact is most likely to be substantial in coastal communities that depend heavily on shellfish harvests and where resources and knowledge to guard against harvest losses are low.

New US Seafood Rule Shows Global Trade and Conservation Can Work Together

On Jan. 1 the United States started enforcing a new import rule, which requires fisheries exporting seafood to the United States to protect marine mammals at standards comparable to those required for U.S. fisheries. This rule aims to leverage American market power to reduce marine mammal bycatch worldwide. It also aims to level the playing field for U.S. fishermen, who currently face monitoring costs and fishing restrictions to reduce marine mammal bycatch – unlike some of their foreign competitors.

The Future of Oceans

Oceans cover more than two thirds of Earth’s surface. They are home to millions of species, provide a key source of protein to people on every continent, and play an enormous role in regulating our planet’s climate, water cycle and more. They also are facing tremendous disruption from human action, from altered temperature and circulation to overfishing to acidification to plastic pollution.

What kind of oceans will we pass along to future generations of humans and other living things? The answer to that question starts with two others: What kind of oceans would we like to pass along? And what would it take to do so?

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