Before the Flood – review

This is a brilliant documentary from the National Geographic, narrated and led by Leonardo DiCaprio. It is a great piece on the devastation already being caused by climate change and an inspiring call to individuals, corporations and governments alike to take action and make a change in the small and narrowing window of time we have left.
 
I thought the small segment on agriculture was extraordinarily two-dimensional, focusing essentially on the (unarguably) negative impacts of industrial beef production. I think a huge opportunity has been missed to discuss different kinds of and approaches to farming, and the exponentially different effects they have on the environment. Considering the industrial agricultural system is such a huge part of global emissions (especially when deforestation and the production of pesticides and other indirect emissions are taken into account), and considering the fact that agriculture of some kind will be necessary if we all want to continue eating, it is disappointing that DiCaprio and the National Geographic Channel didn’t take the opportunity to even briefly look at how we could farm in a way that benefits the environment.
For instance, the single agricultural expert consulted advocated a switch to eating chicken as a good way for individuals to mitigate their impact on the climate. But this seemed to be based largely on the amount of methane produced by chickens as opposed to cattle, without any consideration of the wider context. If the choice was between industrially farmed chicken and sustainably-raised grass-fed beef, for example, a much more complex analysis would be required; the latter choice would be a better choice in terms of supporting a sustainable and environmentally beneficial agricultural system.
 
Nevertheless, it’s an enlightening documentary that has really re-galvanised me into doing everything in my power both as an individual and as a member of my community to try to avert catastrophe. Its only an hour and a half long and free to watch for another two days – what are you waiting for?

The Paris Agreement

Over the past couple of weeks I have been working on a submission to Parliament on the ratification of the Paris Agreement. Yesterday afternoon, I made my oral submission to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. It was terrifying, and I don’t think I stopped shaking for about an hour afterwards, but it was incredibly rewarding, and I’m so glad I did it. I’ve set my oral submission out below (or at least, what I meant to say – I may have gone off script a few times but I was so stressed out that I don’t really remember…)

If you’re interested in reading my full submission, you can read the full written submission on the Parliament website.

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Enough is enough

Another agricultural myth I’d like to talk about is that sustainable farming systems (that is agroecology, organics, agroforestry, holistic planned farming, etc., or any combination of the above) cannot produce enough food to feed the world.

The industrial agricultural system is based on the concept of growth. Chemical fertilisation, genetically modified crops, the Green Revolution – all have been based on the idea that yields must perpetually increase. Often, this growth-oriented mind-set is justified by the idea that we need to produce more food to feed the global population but, as I have discussed previously, this argument doesn’t hold water. Other times, however, no justification is needed; it’s simply a by-product of the growth-for-the-sake-of-growth economic system and accompanying ‘common sense’ that dominates most global thinking.

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A sad week for ‘environmental’ policy in New Zealand

The Ministry for the Environment this week has given advice to the government not to heed a petition to phase out or levy single use plastic shopping bags. Frankly, I’m appalled. Banning single-use plastic bags is a simple, effective way to massively reduce waste and plastic pollution and production.

The Ministry’s report says that the ban would be ‘impractical’ to introduce a levy.  An interesting perspective, considering it has been implemented in a number of other countries with great success. Just in case Ministry officials weren’t able to do the research themselves, I’ve set out a list below of just some of the countries and states which have successfully restricted the use of plastic bags with a ban or levy:

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Food, food everywhere; nor any bite to eat

Some of the most powerful, prevalent and insidious arguments against transitioning to a more holistic and sustainable agricultural system are based on the still-rapidly-growing global population, and related notions of sufficiency and efficiency. In future posts I’ll address more of these myths, such as the idea that industrial agriculture is more efficient and sustainable than organic-style systems, and that organic farming can’t possibly produce enough food to feed everyone. Today, I’ll focus on the idea that there is a need to increase food production in order to feed the world.

The human population is undoubtedly growing, and is predicted to peak at around 9-10 billion people. This National Geographic article says that if current trends of population growth and increased prosperity continue, we will need to produce double the crops we currently do to feed the world by 2050, partly in order to feed more livestock. The FAO’s estimate is even higher: a tremendous 70% increase. A live discussion hosted by the UK’s Guardian newspaper on the problem didn’t appear question the assumption that more food would need to be produced, rather focusing on how this increased production would be managed.

From an initial survey of the available information, you might be forgiven for thinking that there is an urgent need to produce dramatically more food to prevent mass famine and starvation in the near future. But then you notice that the live discussion was paid for by Unilever, and that the seven panellists include a Unilever employee, a DuPont employee, a Woolworths employee and the former president of the Chilean corn and soy association. And you realise that the discourse is still being controlled by those who have the most to gain from the perpetuation of the current system. If the industrial agricultural industry can convince everyone that it is not only justifiable, but morally righteous to continue this model of perpetual growth despite the increasingly apparent destruction it is causing to both environment and society, then anyone who criticises that model can be portrayed as cold, cruel and uncaring in the face of human suffering.

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To (m)eat or not to (m)eat?

Meat is BAD for the environment (right?)

If you’re trying to find information on the negative impacts of livestock agriculture, you don’t have to look very far. A simple Google search for “negative effects of livestock” brings up 22.6 million results, the first of which is a report on a 2007 Stanford University symposium which lists many of the key reasons frequently cited for the need to dramatically reduce livestock production. In my experience, these reasons are a primary driver behind the ever increasing number of people who are giving up meat and animal products in the name of the environment.

The Stanford report asserts that because grazing takes up 26% of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and because around one third of arable land is used for feed crop production, extensive (that is, grazing based) livestock production “plays a critical role in land degradation, climate change, water and biodiversity loss.” Other negative externalities alleged include deforestation (particularly in Latin America) and carbon emissions (although it is unclear whether this refers to intensive ‘factory-farmed’ systems or extensive systems). Other frequently cited effects of livestock production is the compaction and degradation of soils, destruction of vegetation, and excessive soil nitrogen as a result of highly concentrated urine and  manure and its subsequent run-off into, and pollution of, waterways. This last effect is of particular concern in New Zealand where our waterways are of central cultural and environmental significance.

Is it though?

I don’t doubt the validity of all of the arguments set out above…in certain situations; namely, the prevailing norm of large-scale, ‘intensified’ farms employing unsustainable practices in the name of efficiency. This applies to both intensive and extensive systems, but I think we can all agree that intensive systems are environmental nightmares, and I won’t be discussing them further in this article. However, I don’t agree that all livestock production systems are inherently environmentally unsustainable, and I find the increasing acceptance that meat and dairy production are inherently bad for the environment, and that the only solution is vegetarianism or veganism, to be deeply problematic.

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Why (or why not) organic?

I remember one of my first encounters with the term ‘organic’. I was at the Hill Street farmers’ market in Thorndon, innocently buying some vegetables. I bought a few things from a stall selling (presumably) non-organic produce; it was cheaper, I was a poor student, and I had no idea why anyone would pay more for some fancy label. I was browsing at another stall, possibly selling bread or hand cream, when a stranger approached me.

“Are those leeks organic?” she asked.

“Excuse me?” I said, not sure whether she was talking to me.

“Are those leeks organic?” She gestured at the green stalks poking out from the top of my cloth bag. Definitely talking to me.

“Um…” I hesitated, “I don’t know.”

“Well, you should really be buying organic.” She said aggressively, before walking away. I felt mildly outraged that some strange old woman felt entitled to question and judge me on my choice of food. I recounted the story several times over the next few weeks as a joke, a demonstration of how crazy people can be, and then promptly forgot about it. In the intervening three years my perception of the concept of ‘organic’ has changed completely, several times over, but I know there are still a lot of people who feel the way I used to, so I thought it might be helpful to explain what it all means.

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