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A Wandering Conservationist’s Quest to Protect the World’s Soil

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 08/08/2022 - 6:00pm in

On a blistering day in June, a lone motorcycle roared into the southern Indian city of Coimbatore. The rider, a 64-year-old man who goes only by the name Sadhguru, was greeted by cheering crowds. He had come all the way from London on a solo journey that spanned three months and 27 countries.

But it was no pleasure trip. Sadhguru’s epic journey was part of an increasingly desperate mission to save soil. 

Soil health around the world has been declining steadily over the last half century as a result of modern agricultural practices and climate change. Intensive tilling, the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, prolonged droughts and increased flooding all contribute to the destruction of organic matter in soil and, with it, soil’s productivity over time. Today, about a third of the world’s soil is now moderately to highly degraded, with the United Nations warning that the failure to reverse the resulting decrease in crop yields could cause 10 percent of the world’s population to go hungry by 2030. 

Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev arrives in IndiaSadhguru Jaggi Vasudev arrives in India, having met with dozens of world leaders en route to encourage them to adopt healthy soils policies. Credit: Conscious Planet.

“We are on the verge of soil extinction,” says Sadhguru, whose work on issues related to health, wellbeing and the environment has earned him several awards including the Padma Vibhushan, one of India’s top civilian honors. “This is the greatest crisis of our times.”

Sadghuru’s journey was an attempt to call attention to this crisis, with the ultimate aim of encouraging national governments to mandate a minimum of three to six percent organic content in their agricultural soils — the level that typically characterizes healthy, productive soil. During his trip, the charismatic activist and founder of the nonprofits Conscious Planet and the Isha Foundation met with thousands of government officials, scientists and supporters — including Dr. Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi — to achieve this.

“Organic matter is all the decomposing plant or animal matter that makes soil soil,” says soil microbiologist Elaine Ingham. Ingham is the founder of Dr. Elaine’s Soil Food Web School, a company that trains farmers on regenerative agricultural methods. The more organic content in soil the better, she says, but most experts agree that three percent is the minimum amount required to support healthy crops.

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Understanding why commercial agriculture could actually lead to less food in the future involves taking a brief trip back to the 1960s, the birth of what came to be called the “Green Revolution.” In this era, farmers began heavily applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides to their crops, which led to massive gains in agricultural yields — so much so that Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in preventing mass starvation. 

But the application of those chemical fertilizers slowly destroys organic content in soil, including beneficial microorganisms that help plants absorb nutrients. Over time, the soil becomes less productive, a process known as desertification. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification estimates that desertification directly affects a third of the Earth’s land surface, including more than 30 percent of land in the United States.

A tractor applies fertilizer to a fieldThe application of chemical fertilizers has contributed to the destruction of organic matter in soil, in turn contributing to global food insecurity. Credit: Meryll / Shutterstock.

“Under the chemical approach to growing plants, it’s 75 years max before you’ve destroyed the soil,” says Ingham. This could lead to forced migration as farmers seek more fertile lands. According to the UNCCD, 135 million people are at risk of displacement due to desertification. This is already apparent in Mexico, where every year between 700,000 and 900,000 people leave their rural drylands to seek agricultural work elsewhere. 

The massive industry behind inorganic fertilizers and the short-term gains they provide make them a powerful drug — for farmers as well as plants. Many farmers have been slow to adopt more sustainable agricultural methods, Ingham says. But now a powerful new incentive has materialized: the skyrocketing cost of fertilizer. 

Pandemic-related disruptions to the supply chain, the war in Ukraine, and the anti-competitive nature of the fertilizer industry are all factors driving the spike in prices to near-record levels. Seeking to bring relief to American farmers and reduce reliance on foreign imports, the Biden administration in March announced a grant program that aims to boost domestic fertilizer production. 

But Kathleen Merrigan, the former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, argues that merely producing more synthetic fertilizers misses a crucial opportunity to incentivize farmers to seek out more sustainable alternatives. 

“The US should also provide support for nature-based solutions, including farming practices that help farmers reduce or forgo synthetic fertilizers, and biological products that substitute for harsher chemical inputs,” she wrote for The Conversation. 

During his motorcycle journey, Sadhguru secured pledges from 74 countries to increase the organic content of their soils through more sustainable farming practices. These include composting, raising crops and livestock together, and tilling less. (With just one tilling event, says Ingham, “[you] slice and dice and crush and destroy 50 percent of beneficial content in soil,” and leave it more vulnerable to erosion by wind and rain.) All of these practices will help increase the levels of organic matter present in agricultural soils, reversing the process of desertification.

SadhguruSadhguru reaches Vienna. Credit: Conscious Planet.

“Enshrining long-term soil health and biodiversity in national policies is vital,” says Sadhguru. “If soil degradation does not stop, the planet will not be conducive for human beings to live on … The next 25 years are going to be crucial in terms of what kind of corrections we make.”

To maintain the momentum behind his Save Soil campaign, Sadhguru will travel to the US, South America and several Caribbean nations this year. There he will continue his awareness-raising efforts and push for government commitments to improving soil health.

“One day of shouting, sloganeering and crying will not do,” he says. “This needs relentless commitment.”

The post A Wandering Conservationist’s Quest to Protect the World’s Soil appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Why What’s Going on Right Now at the WTO Matters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 11/06/2022 - 12:30am in



Besides the crucial COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver, far more is at stake at this ministerial than is generally known.

After many postponements, the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will take place June 12–15, 2022, in Geneva.

Media coverage has focused almost exclusively on whether governments will agree to waive provisions of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. The WTO’s TRIPS rules, which provide maximalist protections to Big Pharma’s patents, trade secrets, copyrights, industrial designs, and other “intellectual property,” are preventing developing countries from being able to expand the manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests. This vaccine apartheid has likely led to the emergence of variants like Omicron, and thus led to the needless deaths of millions of people around the world, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and a myriad of others.

The majority of developing countries proposed temporarily waiving these rules during the pandemic to prioritize global public health over private monopoly profit. The European Union, Switzerland, the UK, and the US have remained opposed — with only the US even supporting a temporary waiver on patents on vaccines. At this time, just 13 percent of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated.

The WTO’s rules literally protect the invented “trade” rights of billionaires to become multi-billionaires over the human rights of the poor to have access to life-saving drugs. It is an indisputable testament to the WTO’s fundamental brokenness that these rules remained in force throughout the pandemic. It is also evidence that the global rules system is broken, that the protection of patent holder's rights prevailed over the protection of global health during a pandemic of such epic proportions.

The WTO Secretariat has done everything in its power to bully countries into accepting a deal, which would count as a “win” for the director-general (DG). However, experts who have spent decades in the trenches fighting for access to medicines believe that the current text, which is a counterproposal to the original waiver idea, will not result in the manufacture of one more vaccine or treatment, and thus must be dramatically overhauled. If opponents remain recalcitrant, it could actually be a step backward, and must be rejected.

As of this writing, it is not yet clear what the outcome will be. There are other proposals under the heading of the “WTO Response to the Pandemic,” which are more about expanding liberalization than saving lives. But developing countries are likely to reject any “response” that does not focus on removing the obstacles placed by the WTO itself to resolve the pandemic.

In addition, the US, the EU, the UK, and others can be expected to use the ministerial to boost criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is not clear how this issue will affect the negotiations, but it will no doubt dominate the media coverage.

But much else is at stake at the 12th Ministerial, including remedies for the current food crisis and ongoing food insecurity, fisheries subsidies, democracy, development, and other vitally important issues.

Big Focus on Russia-Induced Food Insecurity, Short Shrift to Ongoing Food Security Crisis

The shortage of staples like wheat and sunflower oil, global supply chain issues, and the resulting increased inflation in food prices globally have greatly impacted debates on agricultural trade at the WTO.

Developed countries are proposing a declaration on trade and food security, including banning export restrictions. However, provisions in this declaration appear to focus on increasing trade in food as the solution, rather than on allowing poor countries to increase their own production.

Developed countries, which generally have the upper hand in markets, portray their pro-trade position as supporting food security. But at the same time, they have blocked agreements at the WTO on developing countries’ primary food security proposals, which involve freeing their domestic markets from damaging and unreasonable WTO control.

Over 100 countries have a long-standing demand to remove WTO obstacles to their ability to support domestic production for domestic consumption through public stockholding (PSH) programs. Current grossly unfair subsidy rules restrict poor countries like India from providing even as little as $300 USD per farmer in subsidies — for food that doesn’t leave the country — while allowing rich countries like the United States to provide $40,000 USD per farmer, even when the food produced is exported, and distorts global markets. Developing countries have repeatedly reiterated their demand that the MC12 respond to the ongoing food crisis that is daily life; ministers had previously mandated that they find a permanent solution to this PSH issue by MC12.

But rich countries, with the DG as their ally, are aiming to punt on this top concern of developing countries — as well as on other long-standing mandates to conclude issues like unfair cotton subsidies. Instead, they want to use the global food price crisis as a pretext for expanding WTO restrictions without addressing fundamental market asymmetries.

The most likely outcome will be continued hunger and deprivation for millions of farmers and poor people worldwide, without substantially changing the underlying factors driving the ongoing, or acute, food crises, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

Fish Subsidies Pressure Increasing

It is widely acknowledged that global fish stocks are collapsing due to overcapacity and overfishing by some countries. Through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), world leaders mandated that WTO members agree to reduce subsidies and to do so in a way that recognizes Special and Differential Treatment (SDT), as many poor countries depend on small-scale fishers for sustenance and for livelihoods. SDT is an integral part of WTO architecture that acknowledges that those causing the greatest harm should take more responsibility.

Unfortunately, the current MC12 draft text fails to target those most responsible for historic overfishing, including large fleets that fish in distant waters.

At the same time, the text would harshly discipline small-scale fishers, including those in low-income or resource-poor countries by putting far too many restrictions on the use of SDT flexibilities. Rich countries that are responsible for the collapse in fish stocks are demanding that poor members would have to monitor and report on their fisheries management in ways that go beyond their capacity, in order to avail themselves of flexibilities. This is a typical maneuver in WTO negotiations that allows rich countries to pretend they are providing development flexibilities while actually preventing their utilization.

The proposal would also expand the WTO’s jurisdiction over fisheries management measures when the organization has no expertise in this arena. Negotiations have failed to consult small-scale fishers’ organizations, and have sidelined developing countries’ concerns.

This is why 84 global and national organizations of fisherfolk and development advocates recently sent a letter, stating:

We are calling on Ministers to make sure that any outcome on fisheries subsidies negotiations targets those who have the greatest historical responsibility for overfishing and stock depletion, excludes all small-scale fishers from any subsidy prohibitions, prevents the WTO from ruling on the validity of conservation and management measures of members, and upholds the sovereign rights of countries under UNCLOS [the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea].

WTO Crisis and “Reform” — in the Wrong Direction

The WTO has been in crisis for some time. Its dispute settlement function, once considered its crown jewel, has been paralyzed since the United States began blocking the appointment of new judges to its appellate body some years ago. But the institution has continued to govern world trade, even without the ability to enforce its own rules.

The graver crisis is that WTO rules have contributed to growing trends in inequality, food insecurity, and the climate crisis. Most countries that have experienced strong economic growth in the 27 years since the WTO’s inception have done so through integrating trade chains with China, not by integrating trade with the EU or the US, or by adhering to the WTO rule book.

Many citizens in developed and developing countries alike have grown tired of the model of corporate globalization embodied in the WTO, and are instead demanding more investments in national production and regulations for workers and the public's interests. Supply chain shocks have made global over-dependence on hyper-globalization even more untenable.

Since the inception of the WTO, developing countries realized that the rules were too onerous and not fit for their level of development. They advocated for changes, and 21 years ago, all members agreed to negotiate a development agenda. For more than two decades, rich countries have blocked its resolution and now refuse to even show up for meetings.

But corporate boosters never let a crisis go to waste. They are proposing to launch new talks under the guise of “WTO reform” that would actually achieve the opposite. Their primary goal is abandoning multilateralism. They want to legitimize a new method of WTO negotiations on issues of interest to big business, without having to negotiate around pro-development concerns.

The most dangerous aspect of the “reform” agenda includes abolishing the fundamental multilateral mandate of the WTO, and instead legitimizing “plurilaterals” in which hyper-neoliberal governments can set new standards.

But so-called reform also includes creating new mechanisms to expand the direct influence of corporations at the WTO; permanently abandoning the mandated, long-unresolved issues of the development agenda; attacking developing countries’ ability to access flexibilities enshrined in the WTO, without which they never would have agreed to its existence; and expanding the WTO’s monitoring function in a way that would further constrain developing countries in using their development-centered policy space.

Like toxic blight that would not survive in the light of day, these talks are being convened in the shadows, under WTO-illegal “Green Room” processes from which the vast majority of WTO members have been excluded. But proponents spin wild claims that these may somehow renew the relevance of the WTO.

The “WTO reform” agenda will be portrayed as refocusing the WTO on emerging priorities like gender, environmental sustainability, and even labor rights. But developing country experts have warned that these are not the agenda’s goals, nor will they be its impact.

Trade unions and environmental groups in developed countries seeking those goals must start also campaigning for a resolution to development demands, or they will share the blame. For example, the new campaign for a “Peace Clause” regarding climate policies, must also demand green technology transfer so developing countries can also achieve climate-friendly industrialization.

Advocates of a more sustainable, fair, and democratic global economy should look toward the “Turnaround: New Multilateral Trade Rules for People-Centered Shared Prosperity and Sustainable Development” platform endorsed by over 200 national, regional, and global networks around the world. The document exposes the corporate-driven nature of the WTO and offers pathways for the fundamental transformation of the global trade system into one that would facilitate food security, jobs, access to medicines, and true sustainable development.

The WTO Could Become Even More Corporate-Driven

The WTO has always been driven by corporate interests; of all international agencies, it is the one that most marginalizes the voices of civil society representing communities affected by its decisions.

The MC12 represents the most dangerous play yet for expanded corporate influence over global economic rulemaking since the WTO’s founding nearly three decades ago. If rich country trade ministries, heavily influenced by big business lobbies, are successful in their efforts to launch “WTO reform,” it could legitimize new pathways for plurilateral agreements. These are already being undertaken through so-called Joint Statement Initiatives, or JSIs, which are incompatible with the multilateral rules of the WTO.

Pro-corporate governments launched the JSIs (among “coalitions of the willing”) after their agendas failed to secure agreement by the membership at the last WTO ministerial, in Buenos Aires in 2017. The three most important plurilaterals share a common underpinning of increased corporate control over the most important aspects of domestic economies and the global economy.

The plurilateral JSI on digital trade (pitched as “e-commerce for development”) would rig the rules of the global digital economy in favor of Big Tech (which came up with the idea of such an agreement). The Holy Grail for Big Tech is the guaranteed right to control the collection and manipulation of the world’s most valuable resource — data — for profit. It is racing to cement this control through binding international agreements before the world knows how valuable the data that they want to control is, with proposals aimed at securing rights to transfer and store data wherever in the world Big Tech wants. Communities and countries would be unable to access and use that data for the public good, or for digital industrialization strategies that may be the only way to ensure that shared prosperity results from technological progress.

The JSI on domestic regulation of services was announced in early December 2021. It would restrict how governments can regulate foreign services corporations operating in their countries. “The proposed rules will restrict how governments can perform their public responsibilities, seek to remove discretionary considerations, open national law-making to influence by foreign corporations and other governments, and impose costly and onerous compliance requirements with no guaranteed assistance, while limiting fees that governments can charge,” according to an analysis by University of Auckland professor of Law Jane Kelsey.

The JSI on investment facilitation would provide similar benefits to foreign firms wanting to invest in a given country as the domestic regulation agreement would give to services corporations, according to the Third World Network. It would also open a pathway for investing corporations to interfere in domestic policy-making processes, which is anathema to democracy.

While the plurilaterals on digital trade and investment facilitation are not yet concluded, countries are beginning to signal to the WTO that they will start implementing the JSI on domestic regulation. Most legislators, regulators, mayors, and community activists would be scandalized by the implications of these rules — giving foreign corporations rights akin to citizenship, to participate in deciding under which regulations they will operate — which is why they are happening at the WTO, the least transparent of the most powerful global institutions, under even more secrecy than usual.

Blame Game, Lopsided Concessions

Whatever the outcome, developed countries are already preparing a “blame game,” in which they present their efforts as reasonable compromises and developing countries as obstructionist. Rich countries that have blocked the TRIPS waiver will portray the current counterproposal text as a huge concession that means that developing countries should also “contribute” through permanent, extensive, harmful deals on agriculture, fisheries, and WTO reform. “Greenroom” meetings are already underway, with only select members invited, but with all members being pressured to accept the final outcome.

The MC12 will be a very high-stakes ministerial. For years, developed countries have delayed, obfuscated, and refused to even discuss developing countries’ mandated, key demands to reduce the WTO’s damaging control over their economies.

Nevertheless, rich countries and their allies in the secretariat are mounting an all-out pressure campaign to bully developing country negotiators to accept whatever is on the table and to acquiesce to expanding WTO dominance of the global economy. Any outcomes will be portrayed as “saving the WTO,” and will boost the DG’s reputation, but will likely only make the WTO even more pro-corporate and less flexible for development, and less fit to address the crises of inequality and climate change going forward.

The interests of all countries in a more sustainable and human-oriented, rather than corporate-rigged, global economy are at stake next week in Geneva. It will be a Herculean task for developing countries to resist the pressure, but civil society groups — from access-to-medicines experts, fisherfolk advocates, and trade unions, to development and public interest organizations — will be there to support their resistance and to call for a global economy that works for people and the planet.

These Farms Are Living a Double Life

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/06/2022 - 6:00pm in

The organic farm community of Heggelbach in the rural alpine upland of Germany’s Baden-Wuerttemberg state is like something out of a fairy tale. Hens cluck in front of the quaint yellow farmhouse, majestic Braunvieh cattle graze among spring daisies in the meadows, and wheels of Camembert ripen in the recently built cheesery. But 20 feet above the crops is something altogether more modern: Steel columns holding 720 gleaming panels comprising 27,000 square feet of state-of-the-art solar technology.

Heggelbach, which adheres to the strict biodynamic rules of the Demeter Federation, is engaged in a radical experiment. Under the guidance of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) and the University Hohenheim, the farming community built Germany’s biggest solar installation under which crops can grow, a method known as agrophotovoltaics (APV). In winter, the panels ward off the snow; in the summer heat, they afford much-needed shade. And they are high enough for farmer Florian Reyer to navigate his tractor through the rows of potatoes, celery, trefoil grass and wheat seedlings underneath. The researchers chose these four varieties for a reason. “They wanted to test a vegetable, a grain, grass, and potatoes as a typical German staple food,” Reyer explains. 

farmerCan crops and solar panels coexist? Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

In the summer of 2016, the researchers installed the pilot panels at a cost of 660,000 euros ($700,000 USD). They then spent three years analyzing temperatures, harvest and water saturation to answer a question for struggling farmers worldwide: Could the pairing of innovative solar technology and regenerative farming allow farmers to harvest an abundance of vegetables and electricity?

Farming food and sun

Squeezed by rising energy prices and declining crop returns, farmers from Asia to the United States are looking for ways to reap multiple streams of revenue from their land. At the same time, many countries are looking for more places to install renewable energy projects. In places where electricity brings in more money than crops, they’re eyeing vast tracts of farmland. Researchers at Oregon State University calculated that if nearly one percent of agricultural areas worldwide could be converted into solar farms, global energy needs could be satisfied. 

But “only” one percent is actually a lot. In most countries, every acre of farmland is badly needed. Worldwide, the ratio of farmland to person sank by 50 percent in the last 50 years. Meanwhile, the world will need to grow 50 percent more food by 2050 to keep pace with population growth, even as food crops are cleared to make space for more roads, buildings and biofuel crops. In Germany, for instance, 250 million acres of farmland have been planted with monocultures such as corn and grains that are not grown for consumption, but for conversion into so-called biodiesel. Our hunger for energy leads to actual hunger. 

solar farmThe agrovoltaics model that could provide a path forward for both struggling farmers and energy-hungry societies. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

This is why passionate farmers like Reyer demand that farms not be given over to solar arrays. “Solar parks are not sustainable and not ethical,” he says with a surprising sharpness. “I view the trend to build solar parks on agricultural grounds very skeptically.”

Yet Reyer’s fears are being realized. Solar farms currently cover more than 25,000 acres of agricultural areas in Germany, funneling up to 5,000 euros per hectare in leasing fees to the farmers who own the land. “I could lounge on my couch, sit back and earn more by giving my acres to a solar park investor than by using my manpower to grow wheat or potatoes,” Reyer says, shaking his head. “No way!”

But what if it wasn’t a choice between one or the other? Can crops and solar panels coexist? Some farmers let livestock graze beneath solar panels, but livestock require far more arable land than crops. “Sure, I could install solar panels and let some sheep graze underneath,” Reyer says. “But this is not sustainable long-term. We won’t be able to feed the population this way.” What he and his fellow farmers at Heggelbach are attempting is far more complex. If they can pull it off, it’s a model that could provide a path forward for both struggling farmers and energy-hungry societies.

solar farmSolar farms currently cover more than 25,000 acres of agricultural areas in Germany. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

Pioneering a solar-powered community

The Fraunhofer Institute recently published findings that detailed the advantages of Heggelbach’s novel system of perching solar panels high above its crops. The study found that the panels produced significantly more electricity than predicted, and maintenance was easier than farmer Reyer had feared. “We thought we would have to clean the panels much more frequently,” he says. “Even in winter, the snow simply glides or melts off.”

The farming community rents the panels from Fraunhofer and uses the electricity produced to run the farm, the cheesery and the milking machines. The panels are bifacial, meaning both the front and the back transform sunlight into electricity, making them extremely efficient. Any surplus is fed back into the grid, especially in the summer, when it exceeds the community’s needs. 

The Heggelbach community was an early adopter of innovative energy generation. In 2006, the pioneering farmers installed solar panels on their roofs. In 2008, they built the first wood gasifier, which heats their homes, the cheesery and the hay dryer. The next year, they received the German Solar Award for their sustainable energy production. 

Like most in the community, Reyer is deeply passionate about sustainable farming. “I’m a farmer with an affinity for technology, not a technician,” he says. His parents co-founded this community and raised him here. Now he lives here with his wife, their three kids and four other families. Not to be mistaken for a country bumpkin, he follows developments in agrophotovoltaic technology closely. The governments of South Korea, Japan and China, for instance, are subsidizing hundreds of thousands of AVPs, and testing new modules with flexible panels that follow the sun or filter radiation harmful to plants. “South Korea deliberately invests in AVPs because they don’t have enough farmers, similar to us,” says Reyer. “The AVPs finance pension funds, and the young farmers can work underneath the panels without making giant investments.” 

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In Lower Saxony, a company called Agrosolar Europe will soon build a giant new AVP with state subsidies. Its goal is to harvest 30 tons of chives and herbs per year. Then-state secretary Jochen Flasbarth lauded the project at its groundbreaking in June 2021 as “a win-win for the climate, agriculture and food production.

It’s not as easy as some make it sound. “The solar panels reduce our harvest by 10 to 15 percent,” Reyer says. And Reyer needs more time and manpower to maneuver his tractor around the panels’ steel scaffolding. “Financially, we make up the loss of harvest with the gain in electricity,” he says. Some farmers have tried vertical AVPs, an option the Heggelbach community briefly considered but found too expensive and cumbersome.

The weather can also be make or break. “We had severe drought in 2018 and extreme rain and cold in 2019,” Reyer remembers. “During a drought, the plants benefit from the panels’ shade, but when it rains a lot, the main issue is that the water gets distributed very unevenly because of the panels.” Some plants don’t get enough water, while others drown. 

On the other side of the planet, in Colorado, farmer Byron Kominek has had similar experiences. “I plant the squash in the dry spots and the green leaves where it’s wet,” he says. Near Boulder, Colorado, Kominek has built the largest commercially active agrovoltaics system in the U.S. A former diplomat with USAID, he moved back to Colorado in 2019 and installed a multimillion-dollar AVP with 3,200 solar panels to create a 1.2-megawatt community solar garden on his late grandfather’s farm. Now he is experimenting with 40 different crops, from squash to raspberries, to find the best AVP-harvest that can secure the future of the 24-acre farm, which barely makes enough hay to cover its costs. An engineer by training, Kominek primarily works as a solar power consultant for companies and other farms, using his farm as an experimental test plot. He also partners with the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Center to demonstrate to graduate students from Colorado State University, as well as the public, the possibilities of AVP.

Similar to Reyer, he struggles with unpredictable weather events. Drought dust sometimes covers the panels, and a storm blows trash cans past his window while we speak on Zoom. But he is producing enough energy to sell it to about 300 nearby homes, a cannabis farm, a bank, and the City and County of Boulder. “They all pay a premium to support us,” he says.

Because our climate is warming, Kominek, Reyer, and experts such as Max Trommsdorff, head of the agrovoltaics group at the Fraunhofer Institutes, see AVPs are a solution for the future, especially in hot, arid regions such as Arizona, where the harvest of chili and tomatoes improved under the panels. 

solar farmsA solar farm planted in the organic farm community of Heggelbach. Credit: Hofgemeinschaft Heggelbach

But as a regenerative farmer in Germany, Reyer has to balance multiple factors and goals such as soil quality, biodiversity, crop rotation, harvest and manpower. He pleads for more research — for instance, about how the problematic water distribution issue could be solved. As a pioneer, he answers calls nearly every day from other farmers who are keen to try AVPs. “In reality, we need another four or five years of detailed research to meaningfully investigate how different crops respond to different weather events under the panels long term,” he says. “However, the grant money for the research has run out. It’s extremely difficult.”

His vision is to make the community farm entirely independent by generating enough energy and heat to harvest in harmony with the principles of regenerative farming. “But in terms of money, our society is willing to pay more for electricity than for agricultural products,” he says. “I see this as the biggest discrepancy: We value electricity more because our plates are full.”

To sum up, the solar farmers can solve one problem. But to solve the bigger issue — namely, that our society is more eager to grow watts than wheat — is too big for them to solve alone.

The post These Farms Are Living a Double Life appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Steering Away from a Car-Centric Society

by Mai Nguyen

Two lanes of car traffic in a city street.

Our car-centric society is in a jam. (CC BY 2.0, Oran Viriyincy)

Learning to drive scared me as a teenager. There was something terrifying about controlling a two-ton hunk of metal, and my drivers’ education teacher didn’t help by showing a graphic slideshow of injuries we could expect from a brutal car accident. This didn’t bother me much once I moved to the city; with buses, the metro, and bike or scooter shares, there are plenty of other ways to get around. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find these same options outside the city.

Cars are ubiquitous in the USA, with 286.9 million registered vehicles on the streets in 2020. That’s almost 300 million gas tanks to fill. The EPA reported that the transportation sector accounted for 29 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Now, coming out (we hope) of the COVID pandemic, we’re seeing more traffic again with attendant emissions.

Some people are eagerly replacing their gas-powered cars with new, “green” electric vehicles. The intentions are a good sign, but we can’t “get sustainable” simply by exchanging some of the energy we consume.

How Bad Are Cars?

Cars are massive machines that require heaps of resources, from building the vehicles to fueling them for the road. The average vehicle requires 900kg of steel and 39 different plastics and polymers. A single tire requires about seven gallons of oil for its production. The aluminum content per vehicle is also steadily increasing, projected to reach 505 lbs in 2025.

Manufacturing is also immensely energy-intensive and complex. Stages of car manufacturing include extracting ores, transporting raw materials and components from around the world, and assembling the vehicle. Though each of these steps emit plenty of CO2, it can be difficult to put an exact figure on car-production emissions. Carbon footprint researcher Mike Berners-Lee breaks it down in How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, finding that the carbon footprint of manufacturing a car ranges from 6–35 metric tons.

And the environmental cost doesn’t stop there. It’s no secret that fuel consumption contributes to air pollution, but a 2018 study found that, globally, passenger road travel accounted for 45.1 percent of global CO2 emissions, or nearly six times as much as passenger air travel (8.1 percent). Americans used a grand total of 123 billion gallons of motor gasoline in 2020, corresponding with 56 percent of transportation sector emissions.

It’s Electric!

The ubiquity of gas-guzzling personal vehicles can’t be a part of a sustainable future. For some, the solution seems obvious: electrify vehicles to remove the problems that come from gas-power. Tesla kicked off its precedent-setting electric vehicle (EV) line in 2008, and today car companies like General Motors and Honda are edging into the competition. (Ironically, GM could’ve led the EV revolution as early as the 90s with their wildly popular EV1 if they hadn’t killed the model for profiting less than their gas-guzzling counterparts.)

Image of a fancy electric vehicle parked in a spot that reads "Electric Vehicles Only."

Are EVs driving us to a sustainable future, or are they another guise for green growth? (CC BY 2.0, marcoverch)

EV innovations do, in fact, look promising. Though not exactly carbon-neutral, EVs emit significantly less emissions than gas-powered cars, and they can handle just as much daily travel. EVs don’t run on empty, though. Depending on how your local power is generated, charging EVs can produce carbon emissions, and a worldwide shift to EVs would only exacerbate the global power demand. While it is generally accepted that emissions over the lifetime of an EV may be lower than a gas-powered car, the construction of EVs emits substantially more than the construction of traditional internal combustion vehicles. Specifically, a 2017 study found that the manufacturing of parts and assembly of EVs resulted in approximately 37 percent more emissions per vehicle than that of combustion vehicles.

Even though EV sales are picking up fast, we can’t bank on them and other “green” alternatives to solve limits to growth without a plan to fully transition away from fossil fuels and reduce consumption. Take the trendy plant-based alternatives filling shelves at grocery stores, for instance. Despite its massive carbon footprint, the U.S. meat market still dominates its plant-based competitors by almost $160 billion, and we’re simply “gifted” with more choices when we shop. The development of eBooks was similarly predicted to overhaul the publishing industry, but print books still outsell eBooks four-to-one.

Even if we all switched to EVs, we’d be exploiting yet another fuel source: lithium, the rechargeable battery’s key material. In 2021, global extraction of lithium was about 100,000 metric tons, about a 20 percent jump from 2020 levels. A worldwide switch to EVs would entail a 500-fold expansion of EV-battery manufacturing capacity. With the new mining boom, lithium and precious metal mining will simply replace (some) oil extraction.

The environment around South American deposits would be hit especially hard, bringing perils like wind drift of toxic chemical residue from the mines. This not only endangers the ecosystems along the Andes mountains—where the continent’s largest deposit is located—but threatens the livelihoods of farmers.

Chasing Us off the Streets

The problem with cars extends beyond their immediate environmental impact. We must examine why we find it so difficult to rid ourselves of them. Today’s suburban sprawl and congested highways didn’t come as a result of innovation for the masses; it’s more like the aftermath of an auto-industry takeover. Roads were once public spaces made for the people. Pedestrians freely crossed roadways without designated walkways and children played in the open space, while streetcars and railways catered to commuters and travelers.

Robert S. Kretshmar, Executive Secretary of AAA's Massachusetts Division; Commissioner Thomas F. Carty, Boston Traffic Department; and Mayor John F. Collins celebrate jaywalking legislation by Boston City Archives

Robert S. Kretshmar (Executive Secretary of AAA’s Massachusetts Division), Commissioner Thomas F. Carty (Boston Traffic Department), and Mayor John F. Collins celebrate jaywalking legislation. (CC BY 2.0, Boston City Archives)

It all changed with the mass production of cars in the 1910s. Over the next two decades the public was outraged at the rise of car-related fatalities, most of which involved children. A battle for the roads ensued between the masses and the auto industry. Unfortunately for the masses, car companies held sway.

A 1923 Cincinnati ordinance was proposed to limit auto speeds to 25 mph, but car companies killed the proposal—despite the 42,000 petitioners backing the plan—with a racist ad campaign mocking the city and rousing car owners. Other methods to overpower pedestrians included a slew of anti-pedestrian laws, indoctrinating children to stay out of the streets, and shaming jaywalkers.

The campaign for cars cuffed another rival, too: urban railways. Public transit has always been a key connector between low-income communities and thriving cities. It remains a major aspect of social mobility. But in the 1920s, car drivers were allowed over streetcar tracks, disrupting routes and making it nearly impossible for efficient streetcar operations. This drove transit passengers to purchase personal vehicles, further crowding the roads.

GM and other auto and fossil fuel companies bought up railways spanning 46 transit networks, only to dismantle them immediately. And while this isn’t the only reason why trolleys have fallen from grace in the USA, trolley companies were convicted of monopoly in 1949.

With the road cleared of obstacles, the auto industry set out to sell more cars. With the help of designer Norman Bel Geddes, GM debuted Futurama, a diorama portraying a car-centric future dreamed up by the company, at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and introduced millions of visitors to something closely resembling today’s America. GM proposed a future centered around the convenience of the personal vehicle, complete with a massive interstate freeway system, suburban sprawl, and the extinction of public transportation.

The masses were sold on a car-centric America, and in 1956 President Eisenhower, with the help of Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson (who also happened to be GM’s president), leveled entire city neighborhoods to make room for highways. Minorities and low-income families comprised an overwhelming cohort of these communities, and they’ve been hit hardest by the environmental effects of “urban renewal” and the widened divide from their wealthy suburban counterparts.

Our Future Without a Map

Transportation in a car-centric society is far from sustainable or equitable. Gas-powered cars have a history of ravaging communities, and the growth of EVs won’t take us the distance. But we still need to get around, so what can we do?

Auto and fossil fuel industries fought hard in the past for political influence, but we can still take back our future. We are not fated to bumper-to-bumper traffic for the rest of our lives, and we can recenter our cities and towns around the people.

Image of several bikers riding through carless streets, with three women standing nearby a store as they pass.

In a steady state economy, communities are walkable, bikeable, and personable. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, UrbanGrammar)

One thing we can do is improve public transit. Access to public transportation is the key to an equitable future, but the system is in constant danger of underfunding. U.S. rail systems are far behind places like Japan, where trains are so convenient that car ownership is on the decline. Japan’s car ownership hit a low of 0.96 vehicles per household this year, while U.S. numbers have been creeping past three per household.

Fortunately, U.S. cities like Los Angeles and Indianapolis are upgrading their public transportation. Los Angeles has spent five years and $80 million on infrastructural changes to put the first electric metro bus line on the road. Meanwhile, Indianapolis is being transformed by the expansive Red Line electric bus system. These cities have shown us that commuters will jump at the chance to use public transit over personal vehicles.

Not only do our communities need access to better public transportation, but we need to foster pedestrian and cyclist lifestyles. Since 2016, Barcelona saw a 25 percent drop in pollution around the Sant Antoni market after experimenting with “superblocks,” nine-block grids of cyclist and pedestrian-first zones. Children there have room to play now, and walking and biking has increased.

In the Horta neighborhood superblock, 60 percent of survey respondents said they had become more comfortable walking on the streets and that accessibility had improved. People within the Poblenou superblock reported that the reduction in noise pollution resulted in more tranquility, improved sleep, increased social interaction, and overall improved mental wellbeing. One study estimated that widespread execution of superblocks could prevent almost 700 deaths annually.

Taking the roads back from auto and fossil fuel industries will be difficult. We‘ll have to re-envision the world around us; a world without the destructive congestion of cars. Our spaces need to be just that, our spaces, instead of streets and parking lots, dealerships, gas stations, auto parts stores, and repair shops. These profound structural and sociological changes will occur not by incentivizing the “greener” electric alternative, but by disincentivizing car culture altogether.

Widely-adopted free public transportation would be a huge step in connecting communities and promoting social mobility. We need to demand of our governments sustainable transportation for the people; that is, the expansion of our electric public transportation webs. Cars should be increasingly marginalized.

A carless society is one that is walkable, bikeable, and accessible for people with disabilities. Urban planners should prioritize the safety and mobility of the people, not cater to the automotive and oil industries. They should help us achieve a kinder, carless culture.

Mai Nguyen, editorial intern for Spring 2022 at CASSE.Mai Nguyen is the spring 2022 editorial intern at CASSE, and a junior at George Washington University.

The post Steering Away from a Car-Centric Society appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Ukraine: Putin’s Lebensraum

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 26/02/2022 - 3:48am in
by Brian Czech

People tend to think of Russia as a wide-open country with plenty of space for economic growth. While it may take days to ride the trans-Siberian railway, any notion of an empty Russia is as antiquated as Dr. Zhivago. European Russia, especially, has been cultivated, harvested, logged, mined, fished, and “developed” to the gills with roads, bridges, railways, power lines, pipelines, grids, towers, cables, dams, and canals connecting every industry under the sun to thousands of towns and cities plus tens of thousands of villages. Pollution problems abound. Such overdevelopment is due in no small part to the Cold War aspirations of the Soviet Union, which tried to defeat the USA on the scoreboard of GDP.

Scenes of Russia's environmental degradation.

Moscow (upper left) and some of its ecological toeprints. (Clockwise from upper left: CC BY-SA 4.0, Axelspace Corporation; CC BY 3.0, Senin Roman; CC BY-SA 3.0, Loranchet; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0, Jean-Daniel Paris)

Given the overdevelopment of Russia, the practical motives of Putin vis-à-vis Ukraine surely include the rich soils (“chernozem”) and grain-belt climate of the steppes comprising Russia’s western doorstep. With the breadbasket landscape of Ukraine and a capitalist mode of production, Russia would become a bona fide superpower on the order of the Soviet Union; Putin’s dream come true.

Those forementioned villages, however, are dying out as fast as small farms in the American Midwest, and for the same basic reason. They’re being pushed out, literally and economically, by industrial agricultural operations, as Russia’s grain exports have exploded to a level approximately twenty times over the past two decades. The agricultural community knows this and intelligence agencies know it, but the general public (especially in the USA) remains oblivious to it, because the mainstream media consistently overlooks it.

This is not to imply that Ukrainian agricultural potential is the #1 reason Putin wants Ukraine, whether in whole or under control. NATO geopolitics gets the most attention, as it probably should, along with Putin’s documented desire for a return to Soviet-era Russian control in Eastern Europe. Yet it would be naïve to think Ukraine’s world-class agricultural productivity and potential is of no concern to Putin, regardless of how much agriculture is already on Russian soil. That would be to overlook history and the role of agriculture in the geopolitical affairs of Europe.

Lebensraum: The Underused World War II Metaphor

Usually when an autocrat rears his ugly head, the overused metaphor of Hitler is trotted out, often as a fallacious reductio ad Hitlerum. Vladimir Putin gets his share of comparison. However legitimate the personal parallels may be between Putin and Hitler (especially a searing sense of national humiliation), the focus here is on the most overlooked geopolitical parallel: that between Nazi Germany and today’s Russia.

A bread line in Germany, early 1900s

Germans in bread lines, circa 1920.

By the late 1930s, the Third Reich was running out of space for the economic growth it needed not only for World War I reparations, but for building a modern war machine. It wasn’t space for military industrial activity that was in short supply; rather, it was space for the civilian population to live and prosper in. What the Fatherland needed was more room for the children: more living room for Germans, more “lebensraum.” And the type of lebensraum it especially needed—for the sake of prospering economically and socially—was agricultural lebensraum.

History students learn about the hyperinflation that fanned the flames of Hitler’s rhetoric and doomed the Weimar Republic. Monetary and fiscal policies played a role—and certainly bank failures—but those iconic images of Germans waiting in lines for single loaves of bread reflect the supply side, too. Bread was scarce because grain (other than rye) was scarce; grain was scarce because, per capita, agricultural lebensraum was scarce. As Elizabeth Collingham stated in an interview for the Herald, “Food and agricultural concerns played a fundamental role not only in the origins of World War II but in the ongoing strategies and tactics of the German Reich.”

If you’re wondering who Elizabeth Collingham is, it will be my pleasure to introduce her.

The Road to War Starts with Appetite

A particular take on limits to growth, along the lines of Jared Diamond’s, for example, will lead you to interpret world affairs in terms of the waxing and waning of agricultural surplus. In 2014, I roughly interpreted the doctrine of Lebensraum through such a lens, including with a tenuous connection to Putin and Ukraine. The unfolding events in Ukraine lead to a renewed interest in this connection, and bring us naturally to the history writings of “Lizzie” Collingham.

The cover of The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham.

The Taste of War: A history book with growing relevance. (Penguin Random House)

Collingham’s scholarship has been overlooked, most notably The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. Not that I’m the authority on what is and what’s not overlooked; after all, Taste of War was a New York Times “notable book.” Yet if it wasn’t overlooked, it must have been “underlooked,” because we see next to nothing in the mainstream media about Ukraine’s agricultural productivity as a motive for Putin invading far further than the “smart” money bet (that is, no further than Donbas and Crimea).

Evidently the media reflects the limitations of geopolitical think tanks such as The Atlantic Council, who could benefit from a little less neoclassical economics and a little more steady-state economics, plus a reading of Collingham. Steady-state economics provides the theoretical background on limits to growth and the need for a steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to growth. The key implication for national security and international stability is that the aggressive pursuit of economic growth inevitably leads to war.

In Taste of War, Collingham builds upon that theoretical background (not intentionally, but effectively) with compelling empirical evidence for the primacy of agricultural surplus in economic welfare, as extended to national security concerns. She details the nexus between food and strategy in domestic policy and in military operations. For the Nazis, starving hundreds of thousands of “useless eaters” in Europe—not just in concentration camps but out on the lebensraum—was a conscious decision pursuant to a detailed strategy, the ominously named “Hungerplan.” The Hunger Plan, overseen by Herbert Backe, the Nazi’s Minister of Food, was designed especially to starve enemy forces while feeding their own along the front.

When I asked Collingham what she thought of the parallels to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, she was unequivocal. “People of the West are amazingly unaware of the importance of Ukraine to Russia,” she opined, “not only as a strategic location on the map of Europe but as the main competitor and potential contributor to Russian grain production.” I’m guessing that applies especially to Americans, not only because they’re the furthest west, but because their economic education is most dominated by neoclassical economics, which seems blind to limits to growth and the primacy of agricultural production in maintaining national and global economies.

Collingham didn’t go so far as to label Putin’s invasion the second coming of Lebensraum doctrine, yet perhaps the biggest difference is the cardinal direction. It’s a type of lebensraum doctrine alright, coming from the east instead of the west. While Russia may not have a Nazi-style Hungerplan, Russia does have its own legacy of starving Ukrainians, when they were part of the Soviet Union no less.

You Can’t Eat Gas

The conventional assumption that Putin cares little about Ukraine grain stems in part from the stranglehold he has on the European energy sector. The notion seems to be, “Why would Putin care about farm commodities when he holds the keys to the gas pumps?” Unfortunately, this ignores Putin’s documented concern about food production.

Furthermore, from a theoretical and strategic standpoint, Putin the Practical must have a sense that the energy sector is a bit like the information sector: it’s worthless unto itself. To put this point most profoundly, “You can’t eat gas.” If the gas and oil isn’t fueling the other economic sectors—starting with the agricultural sector—what’s it good for? Lubricating horse-drawn carts?

Portrait of Herbert Backe.

Overlooked evil: Herbert Backe, overseer of der Hungerplan. (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Nor is it good for fueling heavy manufacturing, light manufacturing, or a power grid for the service sectors, unless the agricultural sector is fueled first. No food, no activity; little food, little activity. In fact, it takes a lot of food to free up enough labor into a full-fledged, well-developed economy. It takes, in other words, a well-oiled (so to speak) agricultural sector.

Agricultural surplus allows for the other sectors to develop and “authorizes” the exchanging of money. In that very real sense, agricultural surplus generates all the money in the world. That’s the trophic theory of money in a nutshell. It helps us understand Lenin’s statement that “grain is the currency of currencies.” It also helps us understand why the obsession of Hitler with Russian oil fields in the Caucasus wasn’t all about fueling tanks for the Wehrmacht and planes for the Luftwaffe.

As Collingham describes in Taste of War, the Nazis needed fuel for farm tractors and for trucks to transport grain. The Hunger Plan was on a fast track, with German civilians and soldiers taking over the Polish and Ukrainian farms and fields. Backe and his fellow bureaucrats had calculated that this was the only way the Wehrmacht could prevail in Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of the Soviet Union). Not only would the Nazis have to feed themselves, they’d have to choke off the Red Army’s grain supplies.

Evidently the proportion of Caucasus petroleum going to Nazi agriculture was slated to be roughly 30-40 percent. While the Wehrmacht captured some Caucasus areas and oilfields, it was under constant attack by Red Army forces. It never secured them sufficiently to follow through with transporting oil back to the front further north, much less farms to the northwest. The Soviet pushback in the Caucasus was as pivotal a point as any other in World War II.

Does anyone think Putin, as calculating as he is, doesn’t understand the durable, double-barreled power of oil and agriculture? Does anyone still think Putin, as ruthless as he is, won’t take as much of Ukraine as he can capture? His infamous spite may extend even further back than the collapse of the Soviet Union; he could harbor a defensive if not vindictive attitude over the catastrophic Russian losses from Operation Barbarossa.

Putin’s motives aside, one thing is especially relevant for the intelligence community, statesmen, and diplomats: At this point in history, war is inevitable as long as nations are determined to grow their economies. Economic growth starts at the trophic base; that is, with agricultural surplus. In other words, a bigger economy requires more lebensraum.

What does that make peace, then, in economic terms?

Brian Czech, Executive Director of CASSEBrian Czech is CASSE’s executive director.

The post Ukraine: Putin’s Lebensraum appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

People's Landscapes: Future Landscapes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 23/07/2019 - 6:37pm in

A roundtable discussion consider future landscapes in the context of food, farming and conservation. People's Landscapes: Beyond the Green and Pleasant Land is a lecture series convened by the University of Oxford's National Trust Partnership, which brings together experts and commentators from a range of institutions, professions and academic disciplines to explore people's engagement with and impact upon land and landscape in the past, present and future. The National Trust cares for 248,000 hectares of open space across England, Wales and Northern Ireland; landscapes which hold the voices and heritage of millions of people and track the dramatic social changes that occurred across our nations' past. In the year when Manchester remembers the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, the National Trust's 2019 People’s Landscapes programme is drawing out the stories of the places where people joined to challenge the social order and where they demonstrated the power of a group of people standing together in a shared place. Throughout this year the National Trust is asking people to look again, to see beyond the green and pleasant land, and to find the radical histories that lie, often hidden, beneath their feet. At the fourth and final event in the series, Future Landscapes, panellists consider future landscapes in the context of food, farming and conservation, with panellists considering what we may want vs. what we will need from our landscapes in a post-Brexit Britain and beyond.

Alice Purkiss | National Trust Partnership Lead | University of Oxford (Welcome)

Helen Antrobus | National Public Programme Curator | National Trust (Introduction)

Dr Anita Weatherby | Research Programme Manager | National Trust (Chair)

Sue Cornwell | Head of Public Benefit and Nature | National Trust

Professor E.J. Milner-Gulland | Director, Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science | University of Oxford

Phil Jarvis | Environment Forum Chair | National Farmers' Union

Dr Prue Addison | Conservation Strategy Director | Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxford Wildlife Trust

For more information about the People’s Landscapes Lecture Series and the National Trust Partnership at the University of Oxford please visit: