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Opinion: The global food system is failing small-scale farmers — here’s how to fix it

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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

I held her as she wept into my shirt while my lab mate ran across the coffee field to get tissues. We were standing on a coffee farm 7,500 feet above sea level in the middle of the Jamaican Blue Mountains. Before she broke down, the woman was telling us about her life as a farmer. Weeping was commonplace throughout my interviews in Jamaica. Farmers told me how fertilizer prices skyrocketed because Russia is the world’s top fertilizer exporter and the Russian invasion of Ukraine made it nearly impossible for them to afford the increased costs. I also heard stories of how unattended rural roads make it impossible to maintain vehicles. However, during this interview this woman was one of a few who told us about a more local economic issue: farmers have no control over the value of their crops because local corporations control the market. She explained how for farmers to produce enough to make a living, they need fertilizer and pesticides, which are expensive. Agrochemical companies spend billions of dollars to ensure that industrial farms can maintain a crop year-round —so that Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans get from a farmer’s bush in Portland Parish of Jamaica and into your hands at your local grocery store, even in the middle of February. But the labor of small-scale farmers is not calculated into these companies’ profit margins, leaving the people who grow those coffee beans crying on the shoulder of anyone who would listen. The global food system is broken. We have seen the latest examples wreak havoc across the world this past year: wheat production in Russia declined with the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Hawai’i’s governor wants to grow more food on-island because recent studies have shown that if they were to be hit by a natural disaster, they would only have three days’ worth of food as they rely on imports for survival. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture emits one-third of the world’s climate-warming gases. But the biggest example of how broken the system is: small-scale farmers, which produce more than 70% of the food we eat, are often the populations with the most malnourished individuals living in absolute poverty.This essay is also available in SpanishIf humans want to withstand upcoming and ongoing climate disasters, our food system needs to change. It is time to shift away from industrial agriculture. We need to produce our food in ways that give back power to those who produce, distribute and consume food so they can change and design the mechanisms and policies that govern food production and distribution. You have the power to change what happens to your food before it's on your plate or in your cup by integrating a relationship with farmers and the land around you into your daily lifestyle.How has agriculture changed throughout history? The Jamaican woman I interviewed at the Blue Mountains reminded me of my history with agriculture. My grandparents were sharecroppers in the deep South during the Jim Crow era. Throughout my life, they explained they were forced to produce crops that white landowners wanted to sell in markets, and, as a result, my family had little to no control over what they ate or how much money they made. Millions of African-Americans were cogs in the machine of what we in academia know as the industrial agriculture food regime. A food regime is, in simple terms, how food is produced in a certain society during a specific period. For example, between 1870-1914, tropical fruits, vegetables and crops like sugar were shipped from colonies to Europe, where a new industrial class was growing. That era was called the colonial food regime. But as we approached 1945, industrialized countries, also known as the Global North, pushed former colonies (the Global South) toward industrialization, injecting into their fields with crops like wheat, corn, or soy –and the pesticides needed to help them grow to industrialized standards – and the use of agricultural technology, such as tractors. This led us to today’s food regime: agriculture is characterized by the overuse of fertilizers, large extensions of single crops known as monocultures, and, most importantly, pesticides. It’s the era of the corporate food regime. Jamaica is a prime example. The third-largest island of the Greater Antilles, there are 14 parishes in Jamaica, of which 13 produce coffee. The high mountains crossing the landscape of the Caribbean archipelago nation infuse a uniquely earthy and herbaceous flavor to Jamaican coffee beans. Due to this limited production and high demand, this coffee is also significantly more costly and sold internationally by large-scale companies. In Jamaica and elsewhere, this food regime is taking an enormous toll on the environment, from polluting waterways to endangering public health through disease outbreaks and pesticide exposure, to exacerbating climate change. Industrial crops require fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and other intensive materials to kill all other organisms that might touch our food. Cattle production requires clearing large swaths of land, and all plant life that would have been sucking CO2 from the surrounding atmosphere is gone and replaced with livestock. As a result, one-third of the world’s carbon emissions come from agriculture.What do the farmers think about industrial agriculture? After the weeping subsided, the woman I interviewed had a lot to say about the Jamaican food system. She wasn’t the only one. When I sat down with farmers of all ages across the Jamaican Blue Mountains to understand the choices they had made and where they saw themselves in the grand scheme of the global food system, I realized many of them had family ties to agriculture that reached back generations. They told me how they prefer small, local business owners to buy their crops because they treat them better than larger corporations. Mr. Brown, a coffee farmer with 40 years of experience, said of the small business owner he works with?, “He’s a small farmer like us, and he knows the benefit of it, so he pays us more than the other people that come in to buy would buy for, you know?”Agents of Change in Environmental Justice · Alexa White on supporting small-scale farmers Walking with them through their farms, I saw that the crops growing alongside the coffee were not foods that they would take home to eat but rather foods that they needed to sell for export. Yet that diversity did not bring in enough additional money. Most of the companies, mostly led by non-Jamaican men, that buy their crops are only interested in coffee production. Even when these companies would buy other crops, they would pay them a minuscule amount compared to what they would make from the coffee on the international market. If you compare the prices of the fertilizers, manure, and other inputs needed to produce enough coffee to satisfy these companies with their rising costs, they would probably not be able to last until next year, farmers told me. Mrs. Crew, a third-generation farmer, explained, “It’s giving us a hard time, so I say maybe that is what is going to push small farmers out of the business.” Small-scale farmers are stuck in limbo, as they need to produce enough food to sell to the companies that control the market, which forces them to use expensive inputs that make it possible to get the crop yields the buying companies require. Profit margins are small –and farmers struggle to put enough food on their table. As a result of this unjust arrangement, half of the world’s undernourished population (about 407 million people), 75% of Africa’s malnourished children, and most people living in absolute poverty live on small farms. That means that those living on the nearly 500 million small farms on this planet do not seem to benefit from their contributions to the world’s food security.What can be done to help small farmers and tackle hunger?For years now, sustainable development circles have debated changing the agricultural system as an urgent task if humanity is to have a livable future. A lot of attention has been given to pushing small-scale farms to increase production to “feed the world’s growing population.” And yet, small-scale farms already produce enough food to feed the world. Therefore, international initiatives to address world hunger should include small-scale farmers’ perspectives and participation.But that won’t be enough. To drive ourselves away from industrial agriculture we have to embrace the ideals of the food sovereignty movement –a movement that advocates for a food system in which the people who produce, distribute and consume food also control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. It stands in contrast to the present corporate food regime, in which corporations and market institutions control the global food system. Food sovereignty requires us to rethink our relationship with food. It invites us to recognize, for example, how unnatural it is to expect to drink a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee on a cold February morning. A good way to start developing a more intimate relationship with food can be by consuming food from nearby food cooperatives or Community Supported Agriculture systems, which you can find using websites like Local Harvest or the Co-op Directory. Buying your food from Black, Indigenous, or POC-owned farms helps to re-distribute wealth to small-scale farmers.Food is an environmental issue that we encounter every single day, yet as an international society, we chose to ignore the people who help to get food to our table and do nothing to end the oppressive systems impoverishing them. There must be a major shift in how our food systems operate. This can begin with you. This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.

I held her as she wept into my shirt while my lab mate ran across the coffee field to get tissues. We were standing on a coffee farm 7,500 feet above sea level in the middle of the Jamaican Blue Mountains. Before she broke down, the woman was telling us about her life as a farmer. Weeping was commonplace throughout my interviews in Jamaica. Farmers told me how fertilizer prices skyrocketed because Russia is the world’s top fertilizer exporter and the Russian invasion of Ukraine made it nearly impossible for them to afford the increased costs. I also heard stories of how unattended rural roads make it impossible to maintain vehicles. However, during this interview this woman was one of a few who told us about a more local economic issue: farmers have no control over the value of their crops because local corporations control the market. She explained how for farmers to produce enough to make a living, they need fertilizer and pesticides, which are expensive. Agrochemical companies spend billions of dollars to ensure that industrial farms can maintain a crop year-round —so that Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans get from a farmer’s bush in Portland Parish of Jamaica and into your hands at your local grocery store, even in the middle of February. But the labor of small-scale farmers is not calculated into these companies’ profit margins, leaving the people who grow those coffee beans crying on the shoulder of anyone who would listen. The global food system is broken. We have seen the latest examples wreak havoc across the world this past year: wheat production in Russia declined with the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Hawai’i’s governor wants to grow more food on-island because recent studies have shown that if they were to be hit by a natural disaster, they would only have three days’ worth of food as they rely on imports for survival. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture emits one-third of the world’s climate-warming gases. But the biggest example of how broken the system is: small-scale farmers, which produce more than 70% of the food we eat, are often the populations with the most malnourished individuals living in absolute poverty.This essay is also available in SpanishIf humans want to withstand upcoming and ongoing climate disasters, our food system needs to change. It is time to shift away from industrial agriculture. We need to produce our food in ways that give back power to those who produce, distribute and consume food so they can change and design the mechanisms and policies that govern food production and distribution. You have the power to change what happens to your food before it's on your plate or in your cup by integrating a relationship with farmers and the land around you into your daily lifestyle.How has agriculture changed throughout history? The Jamaican woman I interviewed at the Blue Mountains reminded me of my history with agriculture. My grandparents were sharecroppers in the deep South during the Jim Crow era. Throughout my life, they explained they were forced to produce crops that white landowners wanted to sell in markets, and, as a result, my family had little to no control over what they ate or how much money they made. Millions of African-Americans were cogs in the machine of what we in academia know as the industrial agriculture food regime. A food regime is, in simple terms, how food is produced in a certain society during a specific period. For example, between 1870-1914, tropical fruits, vegetables and crops like sugar were shipped from colonies to Europe, where a new industrial class was growing. That era was called the colonial food regime. But as we approached 1945, industrialized countries, also known as the Global North, pushed former colonies (the Global South) toward industrialization, injecting into their fields with crops like wheat, corn, or soy –and the pesticides needed to help them grow to industrialized standards – and the use of agricultural technology, such as tractors. This led us to today’s food regime: agriculture is characterized by the overuse of fertilizers, large extensions of single crops known as monocultures, and, most importantly, pesticides. It’s the era of the corporate food regime. Jamaica is a prime example. The third-largest island of the Greater Antilles, there are 14 parishes in Jamaica, of which 13 produce coffee. The high mountains crossing the landscape of the Caribbean archipelago nation infuse a uniquely earthy and herbaceous flavor to Jamaican coffee beans. Due to this limited production and high demand, this coffee is also significantly more costly and sold internationally by large-scale companies. In Jamaica and elsewhere, this food regime is taking an enormous toll on the environment, from polluting waterways to endangering public health through disease outbreaks and pesticide exposure, to exacerbating climate change. Industrial crops require fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and other intensive materials to kill all other organisms that might touch our food. Cattle production requires clearing large swaths of land, and all plant life that would have been sucking CO2 from the surrounding atmosphere is gone and replaced with livestock. As a result, one-third of the world’s carbon emissions come from agriculture.What do the farmers think about industrial agriculture? After the weeping subsided, the woman I interviewed had a lot to say about the Jamaican food system. She wasn’t the only one. When I sat down with farmers of all ages across the Jamaican Blue Mountains to understand the choices they had made and where they saw themselves in the grand scheme of the global food system, I realized many of them had family ties to agriculture that reached back generations. They told me how they prefer small, local business owners to buy their crops because they treat them better than larger corporations. Mr. Brown, a coffee farmer with 40 years of experience, said of the small business owner he works with?, “He’s a small farmer like us, and he knows the benefit of it, so he pays us more than the other people that come in to buy would buy for, you know?”Agents of Change in Environmental Justice · Alexa White on supporting small-scale farmers Walking with them through their farms, I saw that the crops growing alongside the coffee were not foods that they would take home to eat but rather foods that they needed to sell for export. Yet that diversity did not bring in enough additional money. Most of the companies, mostly led by non-Jamaican men, that buy their crops are only interested in coffee production. Even when these companies would buy other crops, they would pay them a minuscule amount compared to what they would make from the coffee on the international market. If you compare the prices of the fertilizers, manure, and other inputs needed to produce enough coffee to satisfy these companies with their rising costs, they would probably not be able to last until next year, farmers told me. Mrs. Crew, a third-generation farmer, explained, “It’s giving us a hard time, so I say maybe that is what is going to push small farmers out of the business.” Small-scale farmers are stuck in limbo, as they need to produce enough food to sell to the companies that control the market, which forces them to use expensive inputs that make it possible to get the crop yields the buying companies require. Profit margins are small –and farmers struggle to put enough food on their table. As a result of this unjust arrangement, half of the world’s undernourished population (about 407 million people), 75% of Africa’s malnourished children, and most people living in absolute poverty live on small farms. That means that those living on the nearly 500 million small farms on this planet do not seem to benefit from their contributions to the world’s food security.What can be done to help small farmers and tackle hunger?For years now, sustainable development circles have debated changing the agricultural system as an urgent task if humanity is to have a livable future. A lot of attention has been given to pushing small-scale farms to increase production to “feed the world’s growing population.” And yet, small-scale farms already produce enough food to feed the world. Therefore, international initiatives to address world hunger should include small-scale farmers’ perspectives and participation.But that won’t be enough. To drive ourselves away from industrial agriculture we have to embrace the ideals of the food sovereignty movement –a movement that advocates for a food system in which the people who produce, distribute and consume food also control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. It stands in contrast to the present corporate food regime, in which corporations and market institutions control the global food system. Food sovereignty requires us to rethink our relationship with food. It invites us to recognize, for example, how unnatural it is to expect to drink a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee on a cold February morning. A good way to start developing a more intimate relationship with food can be by consuming food from nearby food cooperatives or Community Supported Agriculture systems, which you can find using websites like Local Harvest or the Co-op Directory. Buying your food from Black, Indigenous, or POC-owned farms helps to re-distribute wealth to small-scale farmers.Food is an environmental issue that we encounter every single day, yet as an international society, we chose to ignore the people who help to get food to our table and do nothing to end the oppressive systems impoverishing them. There must be a major shift in how our food systems operate. This can begin with you. This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.



I held her as she wept into my shirt while my lab mate ran across the coffee field to get tissues.


We were standing on a coffee farm 7,500 feet above sea level in the middle of the Jamaican Blue Mountains. Before she broke down, the woman was telling us about her life as a farmer. Weeping was commonplace throughout my interviews in Jamaica. Farmers told me how fertilizer prices skyrocketed because Russia is the world’s top fertilizer exporter and the Russian invasion of Ukraine made it nearly impossible for them to afford the increased costs. I also heard stories of how unattended rural roads make it impossible to maintain vehicles. However, during this interview this woman was one of a few who told us about a more local economic issue: farmers have no control over the value of their crops because local corporations control the market. She explained how for farmers to produce enough to make a living, they need fertilizer and pesticides, which are expensive.

Agrochemical companies spend billions of dollars to ensure that industrial farms can maintain a crop year-round —so that Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans get from a farmer’s bush in Portland Parish of Jamaica and into your hands at your local grocery store, even in the middle of February. But the labor of small-scale farmers is not calculated into these companies’ profit margins, leaving the people who grow those coffee beans crying on the shoulder of anyone who would listen.

The global food system is broken. We have seen the latest examples wreak havoc across the world this past year: wheat production in Russia declined with the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; Hawai’i’s governor wants to grow more food on-island because recent studies have shown that if they were to be hit by a natural disaster, they would only have three days’ worth of food as they rely on imports for survival. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture emits one-third of the world’s climate-warming gases. But the biggest example of how broken the system is: small-scale farmers, which produce more than 70% of the food we eat, are often the populations with the most malnourished individuals living in absolute poverty.

This essay is also available in Spanish

If humans want to withstand upcoming and ongoing climate disasters, our food system needs to change. It is time to shift away from industrial agriculture. We need to produce our food in ways that give back power to those who produce, distribute and consume food so they can change and design the mechanisms and policies that govern food production and distribution.

You have the power to change what happens to your food before it's on your plate or in your cup by integrating a relationship with farmers and the land around you into your daily lifestyle.

How has agriculture changed throughout history?


The Jamaican woman I interviewed at the Blue Mountains reminded me of my history with agriculture. My grandparents were sharecroppers in the deep South during the Jim Crow era. Throughout my life, they explained they were forced to produce crops that white landowners wanted to sell in markets, and, as a result, my family had little to no control over what they ate or how much money they made. Millions of African-Americans were cogs in the machine of what we in academia know as the industrial agriculture food regime.

A food regime is, in simple terms, how food is produced in a certain society during a specific period. For example, between 1870-1914, tropical fruits, vegetables and crops like sugar were shipped from colonies to Europe, where a new industrial class was growing. That era was called the colonial food regime. But as we approached 1945, industrialized countries, also known as the Global North, pushed former colonies (the Global South) toward industrialization, injecting into their fields with crops like wheat, corn, or soy –and the pesticides needed to help them grow to industrialized standards – and the use of agricultural technology, such as tractors. This led us to today’s food regime: agriculture is characterized by the overuse of fertilizers, large extensions of single crops known as monocultures, and, most importantly, pesticides. It’s the era of the corporate food regime.

Jamaica is a prime example. The third-largest island of the Greater Antilles, there are 14 parishes in Jamaica, of which 13 produce coffee. The high mountains crossing the landscape of the Caribbean archipelago nation infuse a uniquely earthy and herbaceous flavor to Jamaican coffee beans. Due to this limited production and high demand, this coffee is also significantly more costly and sold internationally by large-scale companies.

In Jamaica and elsewhere, this food regime is taking an enormous toll on the environment, from polluting waterways to endangering public health through disease outbreaks and pesticide exposure, to exacerbating climate change. Industrial crops require fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides, and other intensive materials to kill all other organisms that might touch our food. Cattle production requires clearing large swaths of land, and all plant life that would have been sucking CO2 from the surrounding atmosphere is gone and replaced with livestock. As a result, one-third of the world’s carbon emissions come from agriculture.

What do the farmers think about industrial agriculture?


After the weeping subsided, the woman I interviewed had a lot to say about the Jamaican food system. She wasn’t the only one. When I sat down with farmers of all ages across the Jamaican Blue Mountains to understand the choices they had made and where they saw themselves in the grand scheme of the global food system, I realized many of them had family ties to agriculture that reached back generations. They told me how they prefer small, local business owners to buy their crops because they treat them better than larger corporations. Mr. Brown, a coffee farmer with 40 years of experience, said of the small business owner he works with?, “He’s a small farmer like us, and he knows the benefit of it, so he pays us more than the other people that come in to buy would buy for, you know?”

Agents of Change in Environmental Justice · Alexa White on supporting small-scale farmers

Walking with them through their farms, I saw that the crops growing alongside the coffee were not foods that they would take home to eat but rather foods that they needed to sell for export. Yet that diversity did not bring in enough additional money. Most of the companies, mostly led by non-Jamaican men, that buy their crops are only interested in coffee production. Even when these companies would buy other crops, they would pay them a minuscule amount compared to what they would make from the coffee on the international market. If you compare the prices of the fertilizers, manure, and other inputs needed to produce enough coffee to satisfy these companies with their rising costs, they would probably not be able to last until next year, farmers told me. Mrs. Crew, a third-generation farmer, explained, “It’s giving us a hard time, so I say maybe that is what is going to push small farmers out of the business.” Small-scale farmers are stuck in limbo, as they need to produce enough food to sell to the companies that control the market, which forces them to use expensive inputs that make it possible to get the crop yields the buying companies require. Profit margins are small –and farmers struggle to put enough food on their table.

As a result of this unjust arrangement, half of the world’s undernourished population (about 407 million people), 75% of Africa’s malnourished children, and most people living in absolute poverty live on small farms. That means that those living on the nearly 500 million small farms on this planet do not seem to benefit from their contributions to the world’s food security.

What can be done to help small farmers and tackle hunger?


For years now, sustainable development circles have debated changing the agricultural system as an urgent task if humanity is to have a livable future. A lot of attention has been given to pushing small-scale farms to increase production to “feed the world’s growing population.” And yet, small-scale farms already produce enough food to feed the world. Therefore, international initiatives to address world hunger should include small-scale farmers’ perspectives and participation.

But that won’t be enough.

To drive ourselves away from industrial agriculture we have to embrace the ideals of the food sovereignty movement –a movement that advocates for a food system in which the people who produce, distribute and consume food also control the mechanisms and policies of food production and distribution. It stands in contrast to the present corporate food regime, in which corporations and market institutions control the global food system. Food sovereignty requires us to rethink our relationship with food. It invites us to recognize, for example, how unnatural it is to expect to drink a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee on a cold February morning. A good way to start developing a more intimate relationship with food can be by consuming food from nearby food cooperatives or Community Supported Agriculture systems, which you can find using websites like Local Harvest or the Co-op Directory. Buying your food from Black, Indigenous, or POC-owned farms helps to re-distribute wealth to small-scale farmers.

Food is an environmental issue that we encounter every single day, yet as an international society, we chose to ignore the people who help to get food to our table and do nothing to end the oppressive systems impoverishing them. There must be a major shift in how our food systems operate. This can begin with you.

This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.

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Potassium Depletion: The Invisible Threat to Global Food Security

Research reveals a global threat to food security from potassium deficiency in soils, highlighting the imbalance between potassium removal and replenishment, the critical role of...

Potassium deficiency in soils presents a significant risk to global food security, with economic and environmental concerns necessitating global assessment and sustainable management strategies.Research reveals a global threat to food security from potassium deficiency in soils, highlighting the imbalance between potassium removal and replenishment, the critical role of potassium in crop yields, and the need for sustainable management and policy coordination.Potassium deficiency in agricultural soils is a largely unrecognized but potentially significant threat to global food security if left unaddressed, finds new research involving researchers at UCL, University of Edinburgh, and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.The study, published today (February 19) in Nature Food, found that more potassium is being removed from agricultural soils than is being added, throughout many regions of the world. It also gives a series of recommendations for how to mitigate the issue. Potassium is a vital nutrient for plant growth that helps with photosynthesis and respiration, the lack of which can inhibit plant growth and reduce crop yields. Farmers often spread potassium-rich fertilizers over their fields to replenish the depleted nutrient, but supply issues can inhibit its use, and there are lingering questions about its environmental impact.The researchers report that globally, about 20% of agricultural soils face severe potassium deficiency, with particular regions likely to experience more critical shortages, including 44% of agricultural soils in South-East Asia, 39% in Latin America, 30% in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 20% in East Asia, largely due to more intensive agricultural practices.Co-author Professor Mark Maslin (UCL Geography) said: “Potassium is critical to sustaining the crop yields that keep the world fed, and its depletion poses a significant threat to the food security of millions of people around the world. This is an overlooked issue that needs to be addressed with a range of actions as the world population continues to grow.”Farmers often rely on potash as a fertilizer to replenish their field’s potassium, but the price of the mineral can be quite volatile. Potash production is highly concentrated, with just twelve countries dominating the nearly £12 billion international market for potassium fertilizers, with Canada, Russia, Belarus, and China producing 80% of the world’s total raw potash.The researchers highlight how in April 2022, the price of potash increased 500% above the previous year following a “perfect storm” of factors, including rising fertilizer demand, escalating fuel prices, recovery from the pandemic, a range of government actions around the world, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Belarus together export about 42% of the world’s potash supply, but following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the UK, US, Canada, and the EU imposed import sanctions on the two countries, disrupting global supplies and exacerbating the price spike.Since the initial price spike, the cost of potash has fallen by about 50%, but remains elevated, raising concerns that farmers will not be able to access sufficient fertilizer to maintain food supplies under the current system.Co-author Dr Peter Alexander of the University of Edinburgh said: “The volatility of potash prices has major implications across the global food system. Access to potassium is vital for farmers to maintain their crop yields, but the recent high cost of potash makes it more difficult for the most vulnerable to obtain.”This market concentration and vulnerability is one of the reasons the researchers have called for better potassium management and a robust intergovernmental coordination mechanism. Currently, there are no national or international policies or regulations governing the sustainable management of soil potassium akin to the systems that are being established for other vital crop nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.In 2021, global potash consumption reached 45 million tonnes, with global production projected to rise to about 69 million tonnes in 2025 with new projects starting up in Belarus, Canada, Russia, Australia, Eritrea, and the UK. However, potash mining has raised human rights concerns and has significant impacts on the environment. Potash mining generates millions of tonnes of refuse mostly composed of sodium chloride salts, which can leach into soils and salinize soil and water tables, harming plants and animals.The impacts of potassium fertilizer runoff into local ecosystems are poorly understood, and the researchers recommend more studies about its effects.Lead author Will Brownlie of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said: “The environmental impact of potash mining and use in agriculture is something that needs greater scrutiny. There’s much that we still don’t understand about the effects that artificial potassium enrichment has on nearby ecosystems. By wisely handling nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium together, we can reap multiple benefits, prevent pollution, boost crop yields, and minimize nutrient loss. It’s about coordinating our approach for better farming outcomes.”The researchers put forward six recommendations for policies and practices to prevent potential crop yield declines, safeguard farmers from price volatility, and address environmental concerns. The recommendations include:Setting up a global assessment of current potassium stocks and flows to identify the most at-risk countries and regionsEstablishing national capabilities for monitoring, predicting, and responding to potassium price fluctuationsHelping farmers maintain sufficient soil potassium levels with further research about the yield implications of limited potassium in various crops and soilsEvaluating the environmental effects of potash mining and developing sustainable application practicesDeveloping a global circular potassium economy that minimizes the use and maximizes the reuse and recycling of the nutrientIncreasing intergovernmental cooperation through the UN and other agencies to develop global policy coordination akin to what’s been developed for nitrogenReference: “Global Food Security Threatened by Potassium Neglect” by Will J. Brownlie, Peter Alexander, Mark Maslin, Miguel Cañedo-Argüelles, Mark A. Sutton and Bryan M. Spears, 19 February 2024, Nature Food.DOI: 10.1038/s43016-024-00929-8

California Is Forging Ahead With Food Waste Recycling. but Is It Too Much, Too Fast?

Two years after California launched an effort to keep organic waste out of landfills, the state is behind on getting food recycling programs up and running

CHULA VISTA, Calif. (AP) — Two years after California launched an effort to keep organic waste out of landfills, the state is so far behind on getting food recycling programs up and running that it's widely accepted next year's ambitious waste-reduction targets won't be met.Over time, food scraps and other organic materials like yard waste emit methane, a gas more potent and damaging in the short-term than carbon emissions from fossil fuels. California's goal is to keep that waste from piling up in landfills, instead turning it into compost or biogas. Everything from banana peels and used coffee grounds to yard waste and soiled paper products like pizza boxes counts as organic waste. Households and businesses are now supposed to sort that material into a different bin.But it has been hard to change people's behavior in such a short period of time and cities were delayed setting up contracts to haul organic waste due to the pandemic. In Southern California, the nation’s largest facility to convert food waste into biogas has filed for bankruptcy because it’s not getting enough of the organic material.“We’re way behind on implementation,” said Coby Skye, the recently retired deputy director for environmental services at Los Angeles County Public Works. “In America, for better or worse, we want convenience, and it’s very difficult to spend a lot of time and effort educating people about separation.”Meanwhile, some communities that ramped up collection now have more compost than they know what to do with, a sign that more challenges are yet to come as the nation's most populous state plows ahead with its recycling plans. Only a handful of states mandate organics recycling, and none are running a program as large as California’s, which seeks to slash by 75% the amount of organic waste it sends to landfills by 2025 from 2014 levels.Reaching that goal within a year would be a stretch, experts said.About three-quarters of communities are currently collecting organic waste from homes, said Rachel Machi Wagoner, CalRecycle’s director. While some places are lagging, her aim isn't to punish them but to help them get started, adding that every bit helps the state move towards its goal of reducing emissions.“My goal is about figuring out where the challenges are and getting us as quickly as possible to success," she said.“I don't know when we will reach our 75% goal, but we will reach it," she added.CalRecycle hasn't tallied data yet on how much organic waste was diverted from landfills in 2023. Jurisdictions reported diverting 11.2 million tons (10.1 million metric tons) of organics at the end of 2022, up from 9.9 million tons (8.9 million metric tons) the prior year, Wagoner said.Some challenges include getting residents on board with sorting their trash into a third bin and knowing what goes where. Others concern what to do with the nutrient-rich compost once it's been created from collected grass clippings, tree branches and food scraps.At Otay Landfill near the Mexican border, workers pick through heaps of branches and leaves to pull out plastic bits before the material is placed under tarps. The site processes 200 tons (181 metric tons) of organic waste daily and hopes to double that amount as more cities ramp up collection, said Gabe Gonzales, the landfill's operations manager.Once the compost is made, California's law requires cities to use much of it. But many say they don't have enough space to lay it all out. Chula Vista, a San Diego County city of 275,000 people, is supposed to use 14,000 tons (12,700 metric tons) of compost a year but uses a few thousand at best, said Manuel Medrano, the city's environmental services manager. Some is doled out in free compost giveaways for residents, while heaps of the material are stored in a fenced area of a local park.“To transport it is really expensive, to spread it is really expensive,” Medrano said. “We're nowhere near meeting that requirement."Communities with more open space might fare better. Cody Cain, head of marketing and sales for compost-maker Agromin, said his company has developed a plan to link cities struggling to meet these requirements with farmers who need the material for their soil."We basically are matchmakers. Call us the ‘Tinder' of compost, and we'll bring the farmer together with the city," Cain said.Food waste also can be converted into biogas to fuel vehicles or industrial operations. But a massive facility built three years ago in the Southern California city of Rialto now finds itself facing bankruptcy after Los Angeles was slow to ramp up collection, leaving the plant with insufficient waste, said Yaniv Scherson, chief operating officer for Anaergia Inc.“It's because the cities didn't enforce on time the market is struggling,” he said. “If it doesn’t get feedstock this year, there is a chance it shuts down completely.”LA Sanitation & Environment, which handles trash and recycling for the city of nearly 4 million people, had no immediate comment.Heidi Sanborn, founding director of the environmental National Stewardship Action Council, said she supports the state's law but wants more done to keep plastics out of compost and to develop alternative energy solutions. Some of California's challenges stem from the fact the state is trying to build a system on a scale the country hasn't seen, she said.“We're trying to fix incredibly tough problems. We're not going to find the perfect solution out of the gate," she said.But, Sanborn added, “we're on our way.”Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Imitation caviar: the future of eco-friendly packaging

Notpla, a London-based company, is revolutionizing packaging using seaweed, an eco-friendly alternative to plastic.Stephen Armstrong reports for WIRED.In short:Notpla, led by Pierre Paslier, utilizes seaweed to create biodegradable packaging for various products, including beverages and fast food.This innovative material grows rapidly without needing fresh water, land, or fertilizer, and it helps reduce carbon and ocean acidity.Notpla's journey began with edible drink containers for marathons, leading to sustainable solutions for takeout food containers and other products.Key quote:"We wanted to create something that would feel more like fruit; packaging that you could feel comes more from picking something from a tree than off a production line." — Pierre Paslier, CEO of NotplaWhy this matters:Notpla's seaweed-based packaging represents a significant stride in combating plastic pollution, crucial for preserving marine ecosystems and overall environmental health. This innovation aligns with global efforts to reduce waste and protect our planet, showcasing a practical and scalable solution to a pressing environmental challenge.Be sure to read: Food packaging can harm human health.

Notpla, a London-based company, is revolutionizing packaging using seaweed, an eco-friendly alternative to plastic.Stephen Armstrong reports for WIRED.In short:Notpla, led by Pierre Paslier, utilizes seaweed to create biodegradable packaging for various products, including beverages and fast food.This innovative material grows rapidly without needing fresh water, land, or fertilizer, and it helps reduce carbon and ocean acidity.Notpla's journey began with edible drink containers for marathons, leading to sustainable solutions for takeout food containers and other products.Key quote:"We wanted to create something that would feel more like fruit; packaging that you could feel comes more from picking something from a tree than off a production line." — Pierre Paslier, CEO of NotplaWhy this matters:Notpla's seaweed-based packaging represents a significant stride in combating plastic pollution, crucial for preserving marine ecosystems and overall environmental health. This innovation aligns with global efforts to reduce waste and protect our planet, showcasing a practical and scalable solution to a pressing environmental challenge.Be sure to read: Food packaging can harm human health.

Changing Food Systems Could Create Multi-Trillion Dollars of Economic Benefits Every Year

A new global policy report from the Food System Economics Commission (FSEC), authored by leading economists and scientists, reveals that worldwide changes in food systems...

A new report by the Food System Economics Commission highlights that transforming global food systems could yield socio-economic benefits of 5 to 10 trillion USD annually, surpassing the costs of such changes. It emphasizes the urgent need for policy overhaul in food systems, which currently cause more harm than good, and can potentially save millions of lives and mitigate climate impacts.A new global policy report from the Food System Economics Commission (FSEC), authored by leading economists and scientists, reveals that worldwide changes in food systems could result in socio-economic gains ranging between 5 and 10 trillion USD annually.The most ambitious and comprehensive study of food system economics so far underlines that food systems are currently destroying more value than they create and that an overhaul of food system policies is urgently needed. On the other hand, the cost of transformation would be much lower than the potential benefits, offering a better life to hundreds of millions of people.“The costs of inaction to transform the broken food system will probably exceed the estimates in this assessment, given that the world continues to rapidly move along an extremely dangerous path. It is likely that we will not only breach the 1.5°C limit, but also face decades of overshoot”, states Johan Rockström, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and FSEC Principal. “The only way to return back to 1.5°C is to phase out fossil fuels, keep nature intact, and transform food systems from source to sink of greenhouse gases. The global food system thereby holds the future of humanity on Earth in its hand”, he adds. Food systems powerful means to potentially save 174 million lives from premature deathIn the report, the scientists provide the most comprehensive modeling of the impacts of two possible futures for the global food system to date: our `Current Trends’ pathway, and the `Food System Transformation’ pathway. In its `Current Trends´ pathway the report outlines what will happen by 2050, even if policymakers make good on all current commitments: food insecurity will still leave 640 million people (including 121 million children) underweight in some parts of the world, while obesity will increase by 70% globally. Food systems will continue to drive a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, which will contribute to 2.7 degrees of warming by the end of the century compared to pre-industrial periods. Food production will become increasingly vulnerable to climate change, with the likelihood of extreme events dramatically increasing.FSEC also finds that the food system can instead be a significant contributor to economies, and drive solutions to health and climate challenges. In the `Food System Transformation` pathway, economists show that by 2050 better policies and practices could lead to undernutrition being eradicated, and cumulatively 174 million lives saved from premature death due to diet-related chronic disease. Food systems could become net carbon sinks by 2040, helping to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, protecting an additional 1.4 billion hectares of land, almost halving nitrogen surplus from agriculture, and reversing biodiversity loss. Furthermore, 400 million farm workers across the globe could enjoy a sufficient income.“The cost of achieving this transformation – estimated at the equivalent of 0.2-0.4 percent of global GDP per year – is small relative to the multi-trillion dollar benefits it could bring. Food systems are a uniquely powerful means of addressing global climate, nature, and health emergencies at the same time – while offering a better life to hundreds of millions of people,” says Hermann Lotze-Campen, FSEC Commissioner and Head of Research Department “Climate Resilience” at PIK.“Rather than mortgaging our future and building up mounting costs leading to high hidden health and environmental costs that we will have to pay down the line, policymakers need to face the food system challenge head-on and make the changes which will reap huge short- and long-term benefits globally,” says Ottmar Edenhofer, PIK Director and FSEC Co-Chair. “This report should open up a much-needed conversation among key stakeholders about how we can access those benefits whilst leaving no one behind,” he concludes.Reference: “The Economics of the Food System Transformation.”

Bayer Fights String of Roundup Trial Losses Including $2.25B Verdict in Philadelphia

The Bayer Corporation has spent more than $10 billion to settle lawsuits that claim the popular weed killer Roundup causes cancer

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — When a Philadelphia jury awarded $2.25 billion in damages this year in a case that linked Roundup to a cable technician’s blood cancer, the verdict became the largest yet in the long-running litigation over the popular Monsanto weed killer.Corporate parent Bayer had set aside more than $10 billion in 2020 to settle about 125,000 cases, many consolidated in California. And it won a string of nine individual lawsuits that started going to trial in 2021. But the tide changed last year when juries began handing down nine- and 10-figure awards to plaintiffs who had developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma.“They try to show that non-Hodgkin lymphoma is just something that happens randomly,” said lawyer Tom Kline, who represented the Philadelphia plaintiff with co-counsel Jason Itkin. “(But) the arc of the scientific literature has turned against Monsanto in the past seven years.”Thousands of cases remain, including one under way in Delaware over a South Carolina groundskeeper's cancer death. Bayer insists the weed killer is safe, but has reformulated the version sold to consumers to remove the pesticide known as glyphosate.“Bayer will continue to try cases based on the overwhelming weight of science and the assessments of leading health and scientific regulators worldwide, including E.P.A., that support the safety and non-carcinogenicity of Roundup,” the Berlin-based company said in a statement, referring to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.Kline argued that Bayer ignored known health risks from glyphosate to keep Roundup on the market, failing to even warn consumers to wear gloves and protective clothing when they used it. He and Itkin obtained a $175 million verdict in another Roundup case in Philadelphia last fall.Their latest client, John McKivison, told jurors in January that he used the product for 20 years — at a former warehouse job, on a deer food patch he tended at his home near Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and at the church and Little League where he volunteered. He said he mixed the concentrated version of Roundup into a spray bottle, which sometimes led to spills that soaked his skin.McKivison’s cancer is in remission but he said he fears a relapse and at 49 spends his days “worrying, wondering and waiting.”The jury awarded him $250 million in actual damages, then penciled in an additional “2 billion dollars” for punitive damages, the verdict slip shows. The jury foreman, a college librarian, declined to comment while other Roundup cases are still playing out.Bayer, in a 174-page post-trial motion filed this month, called the jury award “excessive” and the ground rules in Philadelphia courts unfair. The company, for instance, said there was no evidence McKivison had suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in actual losses.And the company continues to challenge the central claim that glyphosate causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma, pointing to studies that say it occurs at the same rate in Roundup users as the general population.The Roundup lawsuits took off after a branch of the World Health Organization raised concerns about glyphosate in 2015, calling it “probably carcinogenic to humans.”The EPA meanwhile says it does not pose an “unreasonable risk." A U.S. appeals court in California has ordered the agency to review that 2020 finding, while Bayer hopes to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court that the EPA's stamp of approval should invalidate the state court claims.Bayer meanwhile hopes to reduce the McKivison award, noting that judges have slashed three other large verdicts. A $2 billion verdict awarded to a California couple who both got cancer was reduced to about $87 million. A $289 million verdict in the first Roundup trial was cut to $78 million and then about $20 million.Bayer, in the post-trial motion, said the McKivison judge allowed “improper and abusive cross-examinations" and let their opponents make “the gruesome and false statement that the plaintiff is under a ‘death sentence.’”Large jury awards in Philadelphia are nothing new and the city has the dubious distinction of often topping a list of “ judicial hellholes ” by the ATR Foundation, a tort reform group.However, Kline said the city jury pool is changing along with its demographics as more young professionals settle there. He said half of the 12 jurors had attended college and a few, including the foreman, had graduate degrees. Ten of them had to agree Roundup was more likely than not a cause of McKivison’s cancer to find Bayer liable.“We’re confident that the verdict is sound,” Kline said.Bayer bought St. Louis-based Monsanto for $63 billion in 2018, only to see its share price tumble in the years since.Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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