Bowery Farming uses technology to prioritize accessibility and sustainability in their produce growing operations
To some, the pristine growing conditions and perceived mechanical interference of a vertical farm can seem unnatural, but at Bowery Farming “interference” is actually not the goal at all. “We don’t really think about how people are involved in the growing process, but how to take people out of the growing process” says chief science officer Henry Sztul. “Our goal is actually to have as few people walking around our plants as possible.”
Bowery Farming is a network of vertical farms working to reengineer the growing process. Using a system of light and watering technology, Bowery is able to use 95 percent less water than a traditional outdoor farm, zero pesticides and chemicals, and grow food that tastes as good as anyone else’s.
Bowery Farming uses vertical farm-specific seeds that are optimized for flavor instead of insect resistance and durability. Seeds are mechanically pressed into trays of soil, and sent out into growing positions, or racks within the building that have their own lighting and watering systems. Each tray gets its own QR code so that they can be monitored and assigned a customized plan for water and light until they’re ready to be harvested.
Irving Fain, Bowery Farming’s founder and CEO contemplates the prediction from the United Nations that 70 to 80 percent of the world’s population will be living in and around cities in the next 30 years. “Figuring out ‘how do you feed and how do you provide fresh food to urban environments both more efficiently as well as more sustainably?’ is a very important question today, and an even more important question in the years to come.”
Growing rush for land is destroying ecosystems and disrupting lives to satisfy global demand for goods, study warns
Businesses and governments must stop the growing rush of commodities-driven land grabbing, which is “trashing” the environment and displacing people, says new research.
Palm oil and cobalt were extreme risks for land grabs according to an analysis of 170 commodities by research firm Verisk Maplecroft published last week. It also warned that, alongside cobalt, other minerals used for “clean” technology, including silicon, zinc, copper, were high risk and undermined the sector’s label.
The research showed that goods such as coconuts, garlic, tea and cocoa were also high risk for land grabbing.
In 2007, a world food price crisis led to a land rush as companies tried to secure production and costs. A UN report in September said commodity exports in the decade after grew 20%, to $4.38tn (£3.27tn) by 2019.
Verisk Maplecroft said the demand for more land to produce goods had been accompanied by displacement of indigenous communities and damage to natural capital – “such as clean air and water, pollinating insects, and soil quality” – crucial to battling the climate crisis.
Will Nichols, Verisk Maplecroft’s head of environmental research, said investors should scrutinise supply chains and pressure companies they work with to do more.
“There is a lot of money to be made from trashing the environment rather than saving it when you are a landowner or someone looking to invest in these kinds of industries and you’re aware that the government isn’t going to stand in your way,” said Nichols.
“The onus falls on corporations to be diligent about where they are sourcing, auditing suppliers, making sure commodities are coming from where they are told they are coming from.”
Nichols added that governments were responsible for enforcing regulations and eliminating corruption.
Campaign group Focus on the Global South published a letter signed by 257 organisations last Tuesday rejecting carbon-offsetting pledges from corporations and warning that initiatives such as tree planting will displace indigenous populations while land is still exploited for industrial agriculture.
Anseeuw highlighted Madagascar, where he said a new land law voted in this year by parliament actually reversed efforts to allow poorer farmers to secure land rights. He said the law would strip away land rights handed out since 2005.
“It gives government very strong central power over these lands and they can decide unilaterally what can happen. That opens up the door for a huge land grab. More than 3 million households could be affected,” he said. “It really shows the contradiction of what is being discussed, and the actions or decisions being taken at a global level, and what is going on in the field with governments and specific companies.”
Land Matrix, which monitors land deals globally, said in a September report that an increase in land acquisitions starting in 2008 had peaked, but there was potential for a new land rush as economies try to recover from the Covid pandemic, with countries like India and Indonesia opening up their land markets.
Kirtana Chandrasekaran, a programme coordinator at Friends of the Earth, said agribusiness was driving land grabs.
“There is a huge connection. In Indonesia, for example, there are several million hectares that have been grabbed from small-scale producers. Sometimes they do produce some palm oil for their own consumption but the problem is when it becomes needed for high-scale production for export,” said Chandrasekaran.
“You see huge lands rights violations, where people are completely thrown off land and or harassed and threatened.”
She said displacement often affected indigenous people who are key to protecting biodiversity.
“People are still consuming things that are produced locally by small-scale producers. Commodities production can be considered food, but it’s highly processed, not accessible outside urban centres and not very nutritious,” she said.
A fast-spreading bacteria could cause an olive-oil apocalypse.
In early 2016, Giovanni Melcarne, an agronomist and the owner of an extra virgin olive oil farm in Gagliano del Capo, walked through the southern Italian countryside of Puglia. He was with a fellow olive-oil farmer who had called and told him there was something he had to see.
The two approached a centuries-old olive tree growing at the edge of the street along a traditional stone wall. All around, the old olive trees that covered the red clay were either dead or in an advanced state of decay, filling the landscape with an unnatural greyness. Melcarne was not surprised: At least 2 million olive trees in Puglia looked this way, including many of his own.
The cause of the blight was Xylella fastidiosa, a bacteria that researchers believe arrived around 2010 from Latin America, possibly from Costa Rica on an imported ornamental plant. Today, Xylella has infected at least one-third of the 60 million olive trees in Puglia, which produces 12 percent of the world’s olive oil. The bacteria leaves no chance of survival: Once a plant is infected, it’s doomed to die in a handful of years. Today, Xylella is spreading fast across Puglia, crossing into other Italian regions and Mediterranean countries, and upending the production of olives and olive oil, the symbols of the Mediterranean.
When the two reached the tree, the olive farmer pointed at a live, green bough on the otherwise dead trunk.
“The man told me that his father had grafted the tree with a Barese olive variety, which is good for eating,” Melcarne says. Grafting is common practice in the area: People take a twig of a different variety and insert it on the trunk of an older tree, where it will grow and bear the kind of olives of the tree it came from. Melcarne immediately suspected that the grafted branch was resistant to Xylella. It seemed to be keeping the olive tree alive.
“And then I thought, ‘Could it be that grafts could save the oldest and grandest olive trees’?” Melcarne says.
At the time, efforts to contain the Xylella blight were going poorly: Italian media and politics was dominated by vicious fights, accusations, and conspiracy theories that prevented a coordinated response. But seeing that bit of green, Melcarne felt hopeful. The agronomist was already exploring ways to fight the disease with a team of scientists, and that visit showed that there might be some hope against the olive-tree apocalypse.
“If today we don’t try to save at least some of the monumental olive trees,” Melcarne asks, “what identity will be left to this region?”
Whether you are in New York, London, or Melbourne, chances are good that the extra virgin olive oil you use to dress your salad, finish a fresh mozzarella, or sear a sea bass comes from Puglia. It is either explicitly labeled as such or, in many cases, disguised under the branding of other estates that didn’t quite yield the harvest they were expecting.
In Puglia, olive trees are everywhere. They have populated these lands since 1,000 BC, when the ancient Greeks brought them. Some trees still growing today saw ancient Romans passing by or welcomed Emperor Frederik II on his way to the Sixth Crusade, while many more were already old when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Americas. The trees have always been present in their corrugated fairy shapes, and they are an inherent part of the local culture. Each family owns a few olive trees and treats them like family, like immortal grandparents. Pugliesi have taken their presence for granted for a long time, but Xylella is now crushing that timeless, idyllic reality.
Xylella fastidiosa is carried by a sap-feeding insect, a spittlebug called Philaenus spumarius. When the insect bites an infected leaf, it involuntarily takes the bacteria on its saliva, giving Xylella a free ride to the next plant it feeds on. Through the bite, the bacteria enter the xylem––the plants’ vascular tissue, where water and nutrients flow––traveling countercurrent towards the roots. As the bacteria reproduce, they create a gel that clogs the channels, preventing water and nutrients from passing through. Once the plant is infected, it slowly starts dying.
The disease’s symptoms first appeared around 2010, but Italians didn’t know what was killing their trees. In 2013, scientists realized that it was Xylella. It was the first detection in Europe, and the European Union and Italian government immediately pushed for containment measures that implied the eradication of the infected trees. Speed was crucial: Stopping the spread would only get harder as it dispersed across Italy.
But many Pugliesi could not believe that a bacteria could kill these eternal trees. So thousands of people campaigned to stop the uprootings. Farmers chained themselves to infected trees, stopped railways, protested in city centers, and got full support from TV personalities, singers, and politicians, including Michele Emiliano, the region’s governor.
Much like the millions of people who would later resist pandemic lockdowns or call Covid-19 a hoax, the protesters believed that what was happening was part of a conspiracy. Some believed it was Monsanto’s fault and that the agrochemical company wanted to sell seeds for immune, genetically modified olive trees to farmers. Others said it was entrepreneurs and the Mafia, who wanted to build indiscriminately where the trees stood. A few more blamed chemtrails. The enraged public opinion led by an anti-science movement got so much momentum that in December 2015, government prosecutors from the city of Lecce started investigating the scientists studying the disease, blaming them for having brought it to Puglia. (After four years of investigations, all charges were dropped.)
“I do not expect to be thanked, but being pilloried by the media for having done my work with passion is a paradox,” says Donato Boscia, a plant pathologist and head researcher for Xylella at the National Research Council of Italy (CNR).
While conspiracies flourished, the disease advanced north at a speed of 30 km (18.6 miles) a year. Xylella is present in several countries worldwide, including the U.S., where it has been known for more than a century for attacking grapevines. But before arriving in Puglia, Xylella had never been detected on olive trees before.
“We could not wait for somebody else to deal with it,” says Pierfederico La Notte, an agronomist and researcher working on Xylella at CNR with Donato Boscia. While they studied how Xylella impacted the olive trees, Boscia and La Notte met with Giovanni Melcarne, the olive oil producer from Gagliano del Capo. Melcarne had noticed that in Salento, the lower tip of Puglia, certain olive trees were still alive between an ocean of death. It was 2016, and Melcarne brought the scientists to Gallipoli to check the green and thriving graft his fellow farmer had shown him, which later turned out to be Leccino––one of the only two olive varieties known to be resistant to the bacteria.
“That plant lightened up lots of lightbulbs,” La Notte says. Grafting, a technique as old as agriculture, seemed to show promise, just like it did a century ago when it saved European grapevines from Phylloxera, a tiny aphid that nearly destroyed the continent’s wine industry. If a resistant variety of olives could be grafted on the millenary trunks, the plant appeared to have a chance of survival.
In April 2016, while local politicians were delaying scientific research by withholding funding, Melcarne invested 130,000 euros––around $156,000, his lifetime savings––to graft 14 hectares of his olive trees. His family had been in the olive business since the 1500s, so Melcarne took the enormous financial risk not only to save his company, but to maintain his family’s tradition. He and the CNR researchers wanted to see if the varieties known to be resistant to Xylella––Leccino and Favolosa––could be grafted on older trees, and if other types had some resistance too. Lanotte called on greenhouses, collections, and producers from every corner of the globe, and this international community of scientists and farmers responded by shipping samples of their olive varieties to Puglia. In a short time, they grafted 270 different olive varieties on Melcarne’s fields.
While still solely funded by Melcarne’s life savings—due to the chaos and conspiracies paralzying the government response—their work advanced with trial and error. Grafts died from disease, broke during inclement weather, and were vandalized: One morning Melcarne found that dozens of his grafts had been snapped during the night. He suspected conspiracy theorists were behind it.
Word of the group’s experiment spread. Vanzio Turcato, a northern Italian who had decided to build his house in Puglia, on land home to a few dozen olive trees, became an early adopter of Melcarne’s grafts. He and his wife couldn’t stand the idea of seeing their 54 monumental olive trees die, so, in 2017, Melcarne grafted them all with patch grafts of Favolosa. But only two grafts out of 250 worked. It took two more years of trials to understand that crown grafts––chopping the old branch clean and inserting the grafts on the mutilated extremity––was the way to go. They had finally perfected a grafting protocol.
“I’d be happy if we manage to save even just 50 percent of the trees,” Turcato says. Today, though, his trees are vegetating luxuriantly, surrounded by his neighbors’ endless fields of grey, dead olive trees.
Ninety miles (150 km) from Turcato’s fields, Armando Balestrazzi, the owner of Masseria Il Frantoio, a boutique hotel and olive-oil farm, was well aware of the problem that was about to hit. And according to La Notte and Melcarne, olive trees have a higher probability of surviving if they are grafted before getting infected. The more advanced the infection, the less likely the grafts will work.
“When I heard about the grafts, I decided to run a test,” Balestrazzi says. It was 2019. His area was part of the disease’s buffer zone, and Balestrazzi had in his property 300 Leccino trees resistant to the disease. So he used their twigs to graft 50 of his 2,300 trees, all at least 1,000 years old. “I couldn’t stand with my arms folded while the scourge hit my home. I had to try to save them. And after two years, I know that it works.”
Balestrazzi says that 70 percent of his grafts have survived and are flourishing, and he has 2,250 more trees to graft. The region of Puglia recently issued a 5-million-euro incentive—advised by the work of La Notte and Melcarne—to push farmers to graft their oldest trees. But Balestrazzi is skeptical: “We still haven’t received any money from the damages of the 2016 flooding. Multiply $120 [the cost to graft a tree] by 2,250. How can I advance that amount of money knowing that probably I will never be reimbursed?” Many farmers are stuck in limbo: They want to save their trees, but bureaucracy and pandemic-related financial difficulties prevent them from doing so.
Grafting cannot save every olive tree of Puglia, though. It would take decades, as well as money that residents and the region do not seem to have. The researchers know that the grafting technique can only save the oldest trees and their beauty.
According to Melcarne, what’s needed to save Puglia’s olive groves is a long-term, coordinated plan led by politicians and scientists that stops the northward spread of the disease while investing in finding resistant varieties and grafting the oldest olive trees.
After three long years, the region’s administration recognized the value of Melcarne and La Notte’s work. They granted them 2 million euros to continue grafting and uncover new resistant, local varieties. Besides leading the grafting crusade, Melcarne is currently looking to reproduce wild Puglian olive trees that are still alive where Xylella has killed any other olive tree. The quality of local olives is what distinguishes the region’s extra-virgin olive oil from others, and local farmers are wary of planting resistant varieties such as Favolosa that do not belong to that territory and taste different. While they have found a grafting technique to save the region’s grandest trees, it is this search for local, resistant varieties that could protect Puglia’s beloved olive oil and the industry and food culture it supports.
Thanks to the thousands of tips he receives on social media, Melcarne has checked about 30,000 wild olives trees, covering 600,000 kilometers (372,822 miles) in his car in the process. He dreams of finding a local olive variety to replant the orchards destroyed by the bacteria. He picked 30 of them for reproduction, and he says he has found good candidates.
“I think we found one,” Melcarne says proudly. The future of the olive tree in the Mediterranean might well be in his hands.
Wadi Al-Assiut’s 200 hives of bee breeds that stretch back millennia draw attention from researchers for the health benefits of the honey they produce.
Stretching over 8,000 acres, the Wadi Al-Assiut protectorate is home to a diversity of rare plants, animals and birds, making it a favorite destination for wildlife lovers and scientists.
The protectorate, about 50 km away from the city of Assiut, is the breeding ground of endangered species of wild animals and wild plants, most notably the last breed of Pharaonic bees whose honey has multiple therapeutic and nutritional benefits.
Wadi Al-Assiut is also home to different types of wild deer, hawks, and migratory birds. After the Jan. 25 revolution, the protectorate was subject to several trespassing incidents and violations, but “this natural reserve still reflects the beauty of the Egyptian Eastern Desert,” said Mahmoud Nafadi, director-general of the reserve.
The protectorate’s rare breeds of Egyptian bees produce a special type of honey with great medicinal benefits that are being studied by students of pharmacy and science. Nafadi asserted that these breeds have existed since the days of the pharaohs.
“We give a lot of attention to these bees,” Nafadi said, with 200 beehives for them, made of wood or of clay. “Our goal is to encourage the multiplication of our bee species,” he said. “We planted 1,000 Ziziphus spina-christi trees, known as the Christ’s thorn jujube, so that the bees can feed on them as a natural pasture. We want to continue breeding our species of bees and to make them available to beekeepers.”
“The reserve includes the apiaries of a rare pharaonic bee breed,” Ali Ahmed Morsi, an environmental researcher at the protectorate, told Al-Monitor. “The protectorate succeeded in multiplying these bees through continuous breeding operations. Foreign scientific missions from all countries of the world come specifically to study this breed, whose honey is of great health benefit.”
He added, “The protectorate was mainly established to protect plant and animal species, safeguard living natural resources, preserve healthy environmental processes in the ecosystem, and conserve genetic biological diversity. This natural reserve is the only breeding ground for endangered species of wild animals and plants in the Egyptian desert.” Studies of plant genetics from the reserve, he said, are being used for agriculture and genetic engineering.
Wildlife breeding in the protectorate includes Egyptian deer, mountain goats, peregrine falcons, hyenas, and red wolves, in addition to migratory birds from Asia and Europe, Nafadi told Al-Monitor. The natural reserve was officially declared a protectorate in 1989 at the recommendations of a joint study by the University of Arizona and Assiut University.
Plant species in the protectorate include several medicinal plants and herbs that are used to treat kidney stones, colds, cough, and asthma, Nafadi said. “A milkweed plant known as Calotropis treats wounds, acne, and skin infections,” he continued. “It is also used in the treatment of paralysis of the limbs, scorpion stings, and many other conditions. The roots of this plant are used in the treatment of filariasis.”
But Nafadi warned that the protectorate is suffering from neglect. “Despite being one of the most important international tourist attractions, the protectorate is not getting the needed tourism attention,” he said, and local residents violate the protected lands. “Even after getting violation reports, they keep cultivating and planting these lands,” he said. “These incidents caused the migration of many rare species of animals towards the desert.”
He praised the state’s efforts to remove violations on the protectorate in coordination with the Ministry of Local Development and the Ministry of the Interior.
Nafadi also noted that the only animal that penetrated the reserve is a jackal referred to as Ibn Awa, which is not predatory to humans. “Hyenas in the protectorate are small in number and do not descend into the valley,” he said.
Because Assiut has a dry climate, many plants need to be irrigated, and the reserve’s underground well is currently out of order. “I submitted a request for a new well to the Ministry of Environment and we conducted a study for this purpose,” Nafadi said. “The protectorate is currently irrigated through a truck loaded with water tanks.”
Winemakers must pay close attention to their soil, the rain, the heat, and the sunlight. But rodents like gophers and mice can wreak havoc on a vineyard. Rather than turning to rodenticides to deter pests, graduate students at Humboldt State University in California are testing a more natural approach by using owls.
The experiment is part of a long-term research study under the direction of professor Matt Johnson of the university’s Department of Wildlife. The current cohort, including students Laura Echávez, Samantha Chavez, and Jaime Carlino, has placed around 300 owl nest boxes sporadically through vineyards in Napa Valley. They are documenting the impact of relying on owls to deter and remove pests rather than rodenticides.
The researchers have surveyed 75 wineries in Napa Valley, and four-fifths now use the owl nest boxes and notice a difference in rodent control. The barn owls have a four-month nesting season, during which they spend about one-third of their time hunting in the fields. A family of barn owls may eat as many as 1,000 rodents during the nesting season or around 3,400 in a single year.
So far, the graduate students have found that the barn owls in vineyards are reducing the number of gophers, but not mice. They are also evaluating the owls’ impact on voles, but that is inconclusive at this time.
But the most important part of the study is whether or not the presence of these owls has led to a decrease in the use of rodenticides in Napa Valley. As of January 2021, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation placed tougher limits on rodenticide use, which can kill birds and other animals that eat rodents poisoned by the rodenticides. These pesticides lead to gruesome deaths via internal bleeding for the rodents that ingest them.
The researchers say that most of the vintners in their study no longer use the rodenticides since adding nest boxes to their properties. But whether relying on owls is reducing pesticide use in Napa Valley isn’t certain. One recent study found that of farmers growing wine grapes in Napa Valley, about 80% use nest boxes and about 21% use rodenticides.
“Whether the use of barn owl boxes caused that reduction in rodenticides is, of course, not proven,” Johnson told Bay Nature. “Nonetheless, this result is encouraging.”
Farmers have been using owls and other raptors to hunt rodents for centuries, but modern chemical pesticides have taken precedence over natural methods in recent times. In an effort to leave less of a negative impact on the environment, farmers around the world are reverting back to relying on raptors to control pests, rather than toxic pesticides. Nest boxes are popping up in agricultural fields across the U.S., Malaysia, Kenya and Israel to help naturally remove rodents that destroy crops.
In Napa Valley, nest boxes aren’t the only tactic for creating more sustainable farmland. Wine grape growers are also trying to minimize water usage and tilling. They’re also planting perennial grasses between rows of grapes, as this may reduce soil erosion and improve nutrient and carbon cycling.
Still, there’s a long way to go in improving sustainable agriculture, including in the wine industry. Napa Valley has over 40,000 acres of vineyards, and only 3,800 acres are certified organic. With the increasing use of nest boxes, there’s hope that farmers will rely on these more natural methods over the rodenticides.
With climate change threatening traditional coffee farming, Finnish scientists say they have produced coffee from cell cultures with an aroma and taste resembling the real thing.
The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland may have come up with a more sustainable alternative to growing coffee beans by floating cell cultures in bio-reactors filled with a nutrient medium used to make various animal- and plant-based products.
Heikki Aisala, the VTT researcher in charge of evaluating the process, said cups of cellular coffee probably could not pass standard taste tests just yet, but had lots of potential for a multi-billion-dollar global industry.
“Not like of course 100%. It tastes like a combination of different types of coffees. We’re not there yet with the commercial variety, but it certainly does resemble coffee at the moment,” said Aisala.
VTT Research Team Leader Heiko Rischer said lab-grown cell cultures offered a more sustainable way to make coffee, given that because of high demand, countries were devoting ever larger tracts of land to grow coffee beans, leading to deforestation.
Rischer said the environmental benefits of lab-grown coffee included reduced use of pesticides and fertilizer and less need to ship coffee beans long distances to markets.
In Europe, lab-grown coffee would need to be approved as “Novel Food” before being marketed.
But will discriminating coffee aficionados drink it?
Satu, a barista at a Helsinki coffee shop, thinks so.
“I think some day we’re going that way because of all the natural coffee sources vanishing, so we have to move along…If it tastes good and the aroma is coffee based, so why not? I think it’s possible,” she said.
A surprisingly high amount of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock: specifically, from the methane in the burps and other gases, they release as part of their digestive process.
It can add up to nearly three gigatons of carbon dioxide per year, a significant amount that puts it on a scale with heavy manufacturing industries and other more obvious polluters.
In light of this, some have advocated that we change our eating habits to consume less meat and dairy. Another way to approach the problem is to change what the cows and other livestock are eating. Bovaer is a food additive that safely and immediately suppresses digestive methane production in cows, reducing emissions by up to 30%.
Given that a single cow can produce three tons of carbon dioxide each year, the widespread use of Bovaer could have an enormous impact on livestock-based methane emissions.
Regulators in Brazil and Chile have granted full market authorization for Royal DSM’s Bovaer to be given to cows as well as sheep and goats, the company said recently in a statement.
The methane-reducing additive obtained this first approval after a 10-year collaboration called Project Clean Cow, and its success in 48 scientific trials on farms in 13 countries across 4 continents—peer-reviewed studies (such as this one in 2020 at UC Davis) that were published in scientific journals
“A beef trial with Bovaer at Sao Paolo State University (UNESP) in Brazil conducted in 2016-2017, showed enteric methane emission reductions up to 55%, which highlights the potential for radically more sustainable cattle farming in Latin America to further lower their carbon footprint,” said Mauricio Adade, president DSM Latin America.
And the additive comes “without adverse effects on performance”, says São Paulo State University Professor Ricardo Reis.
”The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) stated that a rapid reduction of methane emissions could reduce the spread of global warming in the near term and have a positive effect on air quality,” said DSM’s Mark van Nieuwland. “We know the agricultural and livestock sectors recognize this opportunity for change and are eager to act.”
Just a quarter teaspoon of Bovaer per cow per day consistently reduces burped methane emission by approximately 30% for dairy cows and even higher percentages (up till 90%) for beef cows. After suppressing methane production in the stomach, it is broken down into compounds already naturally present in the cow’s stomach.
Tech giant Amazon has announced a nature-based carbon removal project in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest in partnership with The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
How do you get a small rancher to give up cutting trees for pasture and instead produce high-value and sustainable agricultural products without the requisite skills, money, or access to markets? A new initiative is trying to solve this problem in the Brazilian Amazon.
Called the Agroforestry and Restoration Accelerator, this nature-based carbon removal project aims to help small farmers diversify production and reach new markets, focusing on reforestation and regenerative agroforestry while also advancing economic development. The initiative, announced in early September by U.S-based tech giant Amazon in partnership with nonprofit The Nature Conservancy (TNC), will set up a project in Pará state, home to 9% of the world’s tropical forest area and 40% of Amazon deforestation — the highest rate of forest loss in Brazil.
But this isn’t a philanthropic movement. While Amazon will invest money and provide technical assistance to farmers — and TNC and other nonprofits will provide support on the ground — the tech colossus will receive carbon credits in exchange. Amazon executives and NGO representatives say this project is a win-win for forests, farmers, investors, and even for international carbon credit markets.
“The logic was to generate an alternative source of income so the small farmers wouldn’t have to expand their cattle production through deforestation. This logic, however, had always been philanthropic so far,” said TNC conservation director Rodrigo Spuri Tafner de Moraes in a phone interview.
Before the partnership with Amazon, TNC said it developed a pilot project in Pará over the last eight years named Cacau Floresta (“forest cocoa” in English) to help small farmers start producing sustainable crops of high market value, such as cocoa; Brazil is one of the world’s top cocoa-producing countries, but is still a net importer of the commodity.
According to TNC, this pilot project incentivized small farmers and ranchers to recover degraded or unproductive areas by planting cocoa trees in addition to other native species. This approach created low-carbon, small-scale agricultural production through agroforestry systems that recovered the forest while opening up a new income source for farmers, the nonprofit added.
Now, through the partnership with Amazon, the investing model aims to generate carbon credits by scaling the project over time, with the possibility of bringing in other investors, the partners say. The goal for the first three years, they say, is to support 3,000 small farmers and restore around 20,000 hectares (nearly 50,000 acres), an area approximately the size of the city of Seattle. Amazon calculates that this would remove up to 10 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through 2050.
“We believe that there are more than 40,000 farmers who could benefit from a program like this in the region, and that would take a significant scale of investment,” James Mulligan, senior scientist at Amazon, told Mongabay in a phone interview. “We will set up the basic structure of the project and set up the program to scale. In order to scale, it needs additional investments which could come from different sources.”
To succeed, the project includes comprehensive steps, developers say, ranging from a platform to select eligible farmers, to training for the requisite skills, given that deforestation here is driven largely by cattle ranchers who don’t know how to produce cocoa. Smallholders will also have access to high-quality seeds, access to credit lines, logistics to support sales, and entryways to markets, they add.
People working on the ground with related initiatives for forest-friendly products say more needs to be done to bolster the domestic market. Amazon farmers need not just support to produce sustainable crops, but also infrastructure for innovation within the forest, says Guilherme Faleiros, coordinator of product commercialization from the Amazon for Idesam, a Brazilian NGO that develops projects with rural farmers and traditional, riverine and Indigenous peoples.
“The Amazon forest needs the type of incentive that Embraer [the Brazilian aerospace manufacturer] provided to the aviation industry, or that Embrapa [the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation] provided to the large farming industry. We need something similar focused on the Amazon and agroforestry, to make local economy move forward,” Faleiros told Mongabay in a recent interview.
Bolstering carbon credits
The developers behind the Agroforestry and Restoration Accelerator say that once the production chain is in place, they will also build and improve infrastructure related to carbon credits, including monitoring via satellite imagery, development of more advanced algorithms, and in loco supervision.
Amazon, the company, is a co-founder and signatory of the Climate Pledge, which commits to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, or 10 years ahead of the target established by the Paris Agreement. Within this goal, the company says it’s focusing on eliminating emissions both within and outside its value chain of business, and identifies nature-based solutions as an important way to do that. “Our focus on reducing deforestation recognizes that a continuation of current rates of deforestation over the next decade would put the Paris Agreement targets out of reach no matter what companies do in their own operations,” the company says in a document laying out its path to net-zero carbon.
To make sure that the investment’s impact will be quantifiable and validated, Amazon says it wants to improve the carbon credit market. The company says the goal is to have the project in Pará generating what’s known as high-quality carbon credits. That means they have to be quantifiable, real, permanent, and socially beneficial. Acknowledging existing criticisms of carbon credits, Amazon says it will invest in technological solutions to improve the accuracy of measurement and monitoring. “We are evaluating the vulnerability of current standards, and want to go above and beyond, and drive change in the carbon credit market,” Mulligan said.
According to TNC, the improvement of monitoring systems to ensure the permanence of carbon credits is imperative to scale future projects aimed at Amazon reforestation. “Nature has the capacity to provide 40% of the climate mitigation needed in the world, including restoration of forests, keeping carbon on the ground and conserving the forest,” Spuri said in a phone interview. “For that, we need to unlock more private investments focused on the rehabilitation of the forests.”
Projects helping small farmers shift their production toward sustainable models, however, need to also provide support with post-production, according to Eduardo Darvin, coordinator of the social business program at the Instituto Centro Vida (ICV), a sustainability nonprofit. “[Farmers] often do not have knowledge about the logistics for commercialization and for getting certification [for organic and sustainable labels] of their products. This is already a reality for selling to local markets, and even more if we think about exports,” Darvin said in a recent interview with Mongabay.
The COVID pandemic has shown the fragility of our global food supply chains, with many supermarkets and restaurants in almost every country having experienced food shortages.
Millions of people in the UK alone have experienced severe food insecurity during COVID-19, according to a recent report by the country’s Foods Standards Agency. But food shortages were prevalent long before the pandemic.
At the same time, one-third of all food produced each year is squandered or spoiled before it can be consumed. Research also suggests that high-income countries waste as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces.
This food waste then ends up in landfills to rot – which releases greenhouse gases. And when this is combined with the amount of energy it takes to produce, manufacture, transport and store this food, it contributes a staggering 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to our planet. To put that in context, if food waste was a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after the US and China.
But the good news is there are numerous techniques, technologies and policies that together could help reduce global food waste at every point in the process of producing and consuming it.
Why is food wasted?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation for the United Nations, lack of infrastructure, limited knowledge on storage and food handling, combined with unfavourable climatic conditions, can lead to a lot of food spoilage and waste in low-income countries.
On the other hand, in high-income countries, aesthetic preferences and arbitrary sell-by dates mean food easily becomes waste. Cosmetic blemishes, produce that is too ripe, too big, too little or even the wrong shape can lead to perfectly good fruits and vegetables going to waste.
As the global population continues to increase, it places real pressure on world food production. Indeed, the industry will need to grow by at least two-thirds by 2050 to ensure adequate nutrition for everyone in the world.
Yet, despite the dire need to become more resourceful, food waste and loss is at an all-time high. Making it clear that unless prompt action is taken, food shortages will soon become a long-term reality.
What can be done?
The key to tackling this issue is to have a resilient and resourceful “farm-to-fork” approach to help reduce food waste and to ensure the future of food security. Here are some things that can help combat food waste:
AI drones and precision farming
Collaboration with food producers and more investment in technological applications and overall infrastructure at the earlier stages of the food supply chain can drastically improve food waste and loss in low-income countries.
This is important because plant diseases and pests – along with poor harvesting techniques – can be a big factor in the high levels of food waste at this point in the food supply chain.
Our research also indicates that artificial intelligence (AI) powered drones can help farmers become more resourceful and reduce the overuse of pesticides in food production. This is important because pesticides can adversely affect the food ecosystem. They pollute water, deplete soil fertility and contaminate turf – all of which can result in food loss and waste. This approach also enhances crop yield and reduces operational costs as well as improves the health of livestock. So it’s also better for the environment.
Target shoppers’ wallets
A big part of the food waste problem is changing how we shop and view food and our mindset around what constitutes waste. But research shows the best way to tackle food waste among consumers is to highlight the potential money that can be saved as well as the “feel-good factor”, or moral value, of doing a good thing for the environment.
A recent study with households in London, UK and Ontario, Canada, found that a two-week money-based intervention – called “reduce food waste, save money” – helped participants to throw away 30% less food. Participants were given local information on food waste and costs, along with tips on how to improve food planning, efficiently purchase, store, and prepare food – and how to use leftovers to create new meals.
Similarly, new technology can help commercial kitchens reduce food waste by directly connecting behaviour changes to increased profits. For example, the Winnow software system calculates the costs of discarded food, correlating food waste to sales. This AI-powered system has allowed Ikea stores to reduce food waste by 50% in 2020, saving 1.2 million meals in the process.
While the problem of food waste can feel quite out of your hands as a consumer, there are things you can do to help.
Things like supporting businesses or restaurants that use waste foods in their products or meals. Planning your meals around sell-by dates. Not throwing out food if it’s a bit wilted or bruised and only buying what you need – especially on special occasions where food can often go uneaten and to waste.
You can also show supermarkets that “wonky” fruit and veggies are just as good as the “normal” shaped produce by buying these over the perfect looking pears or potatoes.
Ultimately, it’s not going to be any single thing that solves food waste, but a collective approach can enable us to make the changes that need to happen.
The founder of the world’s biggest plant-based meat company has suggested that a tax on meat could help tackle some of the problems from growing meat consumption.
Asked if he backed a tax on meat, Beyond Meat’s Chief Executive, Ethan Brown told the BBC “the whole notion of a Pigouvian tax, which is to tax negative, you know, things that are high in externalities, I think is an interesting one. I’m not an economist, but overall and totally that type of thing does appeal to me”.
Mr Brown added “I think taxing things we want more of such as income and not taxing things we want less of, I’ve always wondered about that. So in general, that type of taxation scheme is interesting to me. But I’ve got to leave it to others to work out the details”.
Critics argue that such a levy would raise the cost of living and amount to unnecessary government interference.
Even without such a tax Mr Brown thinks that consumers are already starting to make the choice to eat less meat.
“If you look at shopper data that we have, 93% of the people that are putting the Beyond burger in their cart are also putting animal protein in,” he said.
“That says we’re getting more and more penetration into the broadest swath of the market, which is people who are consuming animal protein, but again, are hearing this information about their health or maybe hearing about climate, or maybe uncomfortable with factory farming, they’re deciding to cut down on their consumption of animal-based products.”
Pizza Hut has expanded its partnership with Beyond Meat by adding four new meat-free pizzas to its permanent menu in the UK. The new vegetarian pizzas enjoyed huge success in their trial run last year, however, they are not currently suitable for vegans.
The UK announcement is part of a global strategic partnership between Pizza Hut and Beyond Meat and builds upon previous launches, such as in the US, when Pizza Hut became the first national pizza company to launch a plant-based meat pizza across the country.
This year, Beyond Meat signed a partnership with Yum! Brands, which includes the Pizza Hut restaurant chain, as well as KFC and Taco Bell to make Beyond Meat the preferred supplier for Yum! Brands as well as developing plant-based menus for its restaurants.
Although the inclusion of dairy cheese on the pizzas may bemuse and discourage vegan consumers, the pizza chain is aiming to attract a younger consumer base, including Gen-Z and millennial consumers. Similar launches of vegan alt-meats paired with non-vegan dairy products have been seen recently in Little Caesars and its Field Roast collab, as well as Johnny Rockets and its Impossible Burger – which vegan customers would have to order: “bun-less or with lettuce”.
While the crossover flexitarian market is growing exponentially and the aim of these mainstream products is to introduce meat-eaters to meat alternatives, it may seem injudicious that so many large companies are following this path of “deveganizing” vegan products. With so many successful plant-based dairy products on the market, it does beg the question of why brands would continue to disregard the growing number of potential vegan customers.