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Earth Day Message: Double the Native Forest Cover

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderEarth Day began 45 years ago on April 22, 1970. The first Earth Day mobilized huge numbers of people to become active in efforts to curtail pollution and protect important ecosystems like forests. As we approach Earth Day this year, the founder of the Rainforest Action Network, Randy Hayes, and other visionary leaders are calling for a doubling of the native forest canopy on the earth. They are circulating a petition calling on all people to work together to achieve this goal. (See petition below.)

A powerful reforestation initiative will help achieve the objectives of a steady state, sustainable, true cost economy. Meaningful employment can be increased by planting native trees, restoring natural habitats, and removing unneeded roads. Restoring the natural balance of greenhouse gases can foster a healthy society.

Here is the big economic connection: forests help regulate or moderate the global temperature, which is essential to prevent enormous losses in grain yields–losses that could spawn food riots and wars. Plant ecologists estimate that at high temperatures, every increase of one degree Celsius causes a 10% drop in grain yields. An urgent global effort is underway to hold the increase below two degrees Celsius. This cannot be achieved unless changes are made to save and restore forest cover.

In addition to the threats to grain production from global temperature increases, the dramatic loss of native forest cover is causing devastating harm to the life support systems of our planet. For instance, forest destruction is a major cause of loss of plant and animal species, water loss, desiccation of the land, soil erosion, and sedimentation of fishery habitat. The loss of forests exacerbates climate destabilization, leading to more severe and costly weather disasters now amounting to several hundred billion dollars per year. The destruction of forests is leading humanity away from a sustainable civilization and a prospering true cost economy.

Here are a few facts about what has been happening to forests this century. The World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates 12% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and degradation of forests. About 30% of the world’s forests have been cleared and another 20% degraded. Only about 15% remain in relatively healthy native condition. Global deforestation rates are severe, with 13 million hectares having been lost each year from 2000-2010.

Reforestation - USFS Region 5

Photo Credit: USFS Region 5

Fortunately, there is hope because experts have identified a huge potential for restoring forest cover equivalent to an area twice the size of China (2 billion hectares). Even in severely degraded zones such as the Loess Plateau in China, some successful measures have curbed erosion and brought back a lush vegetative cover that has improved food security, biodiversity, and local income. Since Earth Day 1970, impressive efforts have been taken to set aside forest lands for parks, wilderness, wildlife, spiritual contemplation, and protection of water supplies. We can build on these.

Across the globe, there is hope because communities with legal rights to at least 513 million hectares of forest, making up one-eighth of the world’s forests, have succeeded in forest preservation. These community forests hold an estimated 38 billion tons of carbon. If these forests that act as carbon sinks were eliminated, there would be a huge increase of carbon released into the atmosphere. WRI calculates that this amounts to 29 times the annual carbon footprint of all passenger vehicles in the world.

One example of the success of forest communities can be seen in the Brazilian Amazon, the largest intact forest in the world. From 2000 to 2012, deforestation was 11 times lower in indigenous community forests that have strong legal recognition and government protection than in other parts of the Amazon.

We are at a crossroads. The courageous step called for in the petition below could help lead us to a future no longer driven by overconsumption of natural resources, technologies that needlessly damage the environment, overpopulation, and political economies that foster problematic consumption.

 

DECLARATION TO DOUBLE NATIVE FORESTS

To Everyone Seeking a Just and Ecologically Sustainable Society:
Doubling the Size of Native Forest Canopy Will Help Us Get There

To live in harmony with the planet and each other we need the courage to act on a shared vision of a better world. And we need to act NOW.

We, the undersigned, put forth these collective thoughts and invite others to share their visions.

  • We know forests are a fundamental expression of the natural world and are key to supporting all life on Earth.
  • We have witnessed how the destruction of the world’s forests degrades the quality of human life and undermines the prospects for productive and vibrant economies.
  • We know that carbon-rich natural habitats are critical to the restoration of natural climatic patterns.
  • We believe we must reverse the frightening concentration of greenhouse gases–now at 400 PPM–and get back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels of 280 PPM.

We believe that this dramatic mathematical U-turn is our only hope of preventing the blue sky from turning into a toxic furnace.

We, the undersigned, call for:

  • A halt to all deforestation.
  • A doubling of the native forest canopy in less than two decades.

Furthermore, we call for this with the intent to:

  • Increase meaningful employment by planting native trees, restoring natural habitats, and removing unneeded roads.
  • Help return the natural balance of greenhouse gases and foster a healthy society.
  • Maintain natural functions to purify the air and water and support the web of life.

Finally, we call upon all people–our communities and our business and political leaders–to work together to achieve this goal.

Such a courageous step could help lead us to a future no longer driven by overconsumption of natural resources, technologies that needlessly damage the environment, overpopulation, and political economies that foster problematic consumption.

When heading for the edge of a cliff, the solution may be as simple as turning around and going in a different direction. Native forest protection and restoration is key to this sensible U-turn. A shift to a better world is within our grasp, but we must collectively envision and enact it.

This is the great U-turn we seek.

Signed:

Randy Hayes, Executive Director Foundation Earth
Eric Dinerstein, Director, Biodiversity & Wildlife Solutions RESOLVE
Don Weeden, Executive Director Weeden Foundation
Andy Kimbrell, Executive Director Center for Food Safety
Brent Blackwelder, President Emeritus Friends of the Earth

Add your signature here.

Fixing Food and Farming with a True-Cost Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderPending farm legislation in Congress could eliminate food stamps ($80 billion worth of support per year) for families in need, while increasing subsidies for very large farm operations. Programs to promote stewardship of the land through soil and water conservation could also face dramatic cuts.

You might have hoped that subsidies to super-sized farms would instead have been on the chopping block. You might also have hoped that stewardship of the land through soil conservation programs would have been boosted on food security grounds. Well, your hopes are in the process of being shredded in the halls of Congress.

But maybe there’s still room for hope. A paradigm shift is underway in our nation’s approach to food and agriculture. Movements are gaining steam that support organic food, local food, farmers markets, local food security, and food safety. On the food safety front, outrage is growing over the inability to inspect more than two percent of imported food, especially in the wake of food scandals abroad (e.g., melamine in pet food, pork treated with chemicals to taste like beef, deaths of children from school lunches prepared in used pesticide containers).

For these movements to work, they’ve got to influence policies at home and abroad. Economic and agricultural policies that favor financial profits over healthy food systems won’t work. U.S. farm programs are failing to address serious food supply issues. At the same time, many nations are ceding control over their best farmland to outside interests, as if the notion of local food security had no meaning. Such maneuvers could increase the risk of famine and starvation in the event of droughts, floods, or other disruptions in food supply.

Millions of acres of prime farmland around the world have already been bought up by countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, as well as by corporations. A large Chinese agribusiness pork producer has just put up over $4 billion to buy the Smithfield company located in Virginia. Tens of millions of acres of prime farmland in Africa are now owned by countries and corporations that have little interest in local people, many of whom are evicted from their ancestral lands.

Along with these land grabs, population growth is putting pressure on farms to produce even more, especially as the gains in yield from the Green Revolution wind down. At dinner tonight there will be 219,000 new mouths to feed. How is civilization going to meet the challenges posed by a growing global population when the planet’s productive soil is being lost and contaminated?

Authors like Lester Brown have called attention to the deterioration of productive farmland throughout the world. Although there are examples of land restoration efforts such as in part of China’s Loess Plateau, these do not offset ongoing declines. In the United States the annual erosion loss is 1.7 billion tons of topsoil.

Managing these weighty issues in the food system requires a complete economic overhaul. In a global, true-cost, steady state economy, the agriculture and food goals for each nation would be to rebuild foodsheds with greater local sustainability and secure resilient food systems.

Each nation would maintain an agricultural base sufficient to feed its people, including backup plans in case of crop failure or natural disasters. Such resilience is needed because climate destabilization has dramatically increased the number of weather disasters. From 1900 until 1970 the number of global disasters remained below 100 per year. Now the average is over 300 with several years spiking to over 500. These disasters pose serious threats to food production and stress the emergency response resources of governments.  In addition, the increased frequency of these disasters is making rescue operations and aid from other nations less common.

A pioneering farm bill for a true-cost economy would begin redesigning the food system, based on principles of ecology, justice, and health. Such a system would be fair sustainable, and humane. The federal government would be encouraging, not impeding, local and community agriculture that would employ many more people on ecologically sound farms.

Abusive soil practices would become a thing of the past as the connections between soil fertility and food security become more obvious. Degradation of soil would be seen as a direct threat to long-term national security and well-being.

Interest in genetically engineered food and organisms would wane as attempts by Monsanto and other food/chemical giants to control the world’s food supply are beaten back by the power of expanding local and community food organizations.

For more information on how U.S. farm legislation could be changed, check out the great work being done by the National Farm Family Coalition. For descriptions of many exciting and challenging food initiatives, read Philip Ackerman-Leist’s book Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems.

Food and Agriculture in a Steady State Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

The annual book festival of the Library of Congress just featured Jonathan Safran Foer who spoke about his book Eating Animals. He writes about his grandmother who survived World War II on the run from the Germans, scavenging from garbage cans and always on the verge of starvation. However, she refused to eat a piece of pork given her by a kindly farmer because “if nothing matters, nothing is worth saving.”

This fall (what better time than harvest season?), I will focus my Daly News essays on the ethics and policies that would characterize food production in a steady state economy. These essays will offer answers to questions such as: What would people eat and how would it be grown? Would almost everyone be a vegetarian or vegan? Would genetically engineered food play a big role? What about farm subsidies and the role of biofuels? How many of the current agricultural practices in the United States would even continue as part of a steady state economy?

Since sustainable scale is the most important feature of a steady state economy (i.e., the economy must fit within the capacity of the ecosystems that contain it), the first issue to investigate is how environmental systems are responding to agricultural practices – in particular, the effects of agricultural practices on climate. There is growing evidence that animal agriculture is the number one cause of global climate destabilization, contributing more than all global transport put together. Former World Bank ecologist Robert Goodland has produced an analysis showing that at least half of the human-caused greenhouse gases come from the production of domesticated animals. Livestock and their byproducts account for over 32.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, or roughly 51% of annual worldwide greenhouse gases (see Worldwatch Nov./Dec. 2009).

Here is the unsettling irony: factory-farm dominated agriculture, as a major climate destabilizer, is creating long-term weather changes that compromise the ability of the earth to produce food.

Plant ecologists estimate that for every 1 degree Celsius temperature increase, grain yields drop 10%. Climate disruption has led to serious melting of snowpacks and glaciers in most places. In the Western U.S. where snowpacks store about 75% of the water supply, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports that climate change could reduce this to 40% by 2060. Similar concerns exist for the great Asian rivers like the Ganges and the Mekong that originate in the Tibetan plateau.

These impacts are not being imposed on a planet whose soils and grasslands are in wonderful condition and whose groundwater has been safeguarded and not pumped beyond recharge. These impacts are not being imposed on a planet whose human population has stabilized but rather is likely to reach 9-11 billion by 2050.

In contrast to this grim picture of the agricultural capacity of the planet, many encouraging trends in food production are emerging. Examples include growth of organic food consumption, expansion of farmers markets, the local food movement, the slow food movement, the food-miles movement, and initiatives to get healthy food into schools – all of which are heading in promising directions.

A steady state economy would bolster these trends. It would move away from control of food by transnational corporations and toward an increased number and diversity of small and medium-sized farms, and healthy rural communities. Revamped agricultural systems would provide many varieties of food in ways that conserve soil and water and maintain long-term fertility of the land.

These promising developments are taking place not because of, but in spite of, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has for the most part been a giant promoter of animal slum operations and presider over the demise of the family farm.

Over 10 million animals are slaughtered for food each year in the U.S. in factory slum operations that produce over 95% of the nation’s meat. It is abundantly clear that meat-dominated megafarm agriculture is not sustainable (even from the climate/energy standpoint alone), and it could not be part of the food system in a steady state economy.

A steady state economy would not feature perverse subsidies as a cornerstone of the economy. Yet in the U.S. a curious mathematical formula governs the dispensing of subsidies: the more environmentally damaging and harmful to public health the practice or project, the larger the state and federal handouts.

Thus, industrial agriculture enjoys all sorts of subsidies from the Farm Bill. Its extensive use of energy-intensive pesticides and fertilizers is supported by the numerous subsidies the fossil fuel industry receives. Gigantic animal factory slums not only get subsidized, but they externalize their environmental and health costs onto their neighbors and the public. Time magazine documented the competition among states to see who could dole out the most tax money to lure one of these animal slum operations into their state. In contrast, the encouraging trends in agriculture that I cited receive very little governmental support.

Note:  CASSE also has a briefing paper on the topic of agriculture in a steady state economy.