Why cities are planting more ‘food forests’

Many of us see forests as places to walk, hike and enjoy nature. But more and more cities are planting “food forests” — not just for strolling through, but for growing fruits and veggies.

At the Cowichan Green Community Food Forest in Duncan, B.C., visitors can amble along green microclover pathways in the shade of big-leaf maple trees to pick herbs such as rosemary and savory, vegetables like asparagus, as well as fruits, including salmonberries, grapes, plums, kiwis and figs — for free.

“It’s quite the jungle right now,” said Janice MacKirdy, who runs the garden for the non-profit Cowichan Green Community Society, an environmental group focused on food security.

The roughly one-acre plot attracts families, who fill their baskets during berry season, and is a refuge and quiet thoroughfare for workers in the city centre. The community group also uses the harvest in its Meals on Wheels program for seniors and sells some at its “reFRESH Store,” which rescues surplus and potentially wasted perishable food.

Similar edible landscapes are popping up across the country, from Hay River, N.W.T., to Sudbury, Ont.

Red Deer, Alta., has no fewer than eight community orchards and food forests, planted since 2011, where the public can harvest nuts such as hazelnuts and walnuts and fruit such as haskap berries, cherries, apples and plums.

“This is an amazing activity to get people interacting with nature,” said Trevor Poth, parks superintendent for the City of Red Deer.

Both Poth and MacKirdy say urban food forests tend to be more appealing to people who might not normally go hiking or use community gardens, which require more work and personal commitment.

While Red Deer’s primary goal is to create a sustainable source of local food, these forests have other benefits, too, such as attracting and supporting birds and pollinators.

The city tries to plant them in partnership with schools or community groups to maximize opportunities to educate the public about where their food comes from and what can be grown locally.

“You teach kids … what berries they can eat off what tree,” Poth said. “Those kids go home and they tell their parents, and then the parents plant cherry trees in their backyard and they plant haskap and they plant apple trees. So we’re really trying to be the driver of change.”

He said that while many cities quietly put edible plants along roadways, Red Deer is “quite pushy, in fact, about sharing our knowledge of what we can grow.” It provides detailed maps showing exact locations and varieties of edible plants.

Poth said access to this fresh, local food has had a positive impact on people’s physical and mental health during the pandemic, which has forced many to look for outdoor activities close to home.

“People are happy or they feel more self-sustaining, and it’s been an excellent thing this year. It’s been one of the great positives, I think, that’s come out of coronavirus.”


— Emily Chung

The Big Picture: The 7 layers of a food forest

In order to maximize the amount of food that can be grown in a certain area, food forests are often designed to mimic a natural forest, with similar “layers” of plants that serve different roles in the ecosystem.

Breaking the Plastic Wave: Top Findings for Preventing Plastic Pollution

First-of-its-kind modeling analysis describes actions needed to stop plastic from entering the ocean

Empty bottles and other plastic waste cover a beach in Ouzai, Lebanon, on the outskirts of Beirut, in 2019. Diego Ibarr a Sanchez The New York Times/Redux

Plastic has become ubiquitous on store shelves and in our homes. From wrapped food and disposable bottles to microbeads in body washes, it’s used widely as packaging or in products because it’s versatile, cheap, and convenient. But this convenience comes with a price. Plastic waste is entering the ocean at a rate of about 11 million metric tons a year, where it is harming marine life and damaging habitats.

How did we get here? We have been producing vast quantities of plastic products and have had few measures in place to regulate their use or properly manage their disposal.

“Breaking the Plastic Wave,” a global analysis using first-of-its kind modeling, shows that we can cut annual flows of plastic into the ocean by about 80% in the next 20 years by applying existing solutions and technologies. No single solution can achieve this goal; rather, we break the plastic wave only by taking immediate, ambitious, and concerted actions.

Tories, NDP ask ethics watchdog to launch new probe of Morneau over WE trips

Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks to media during a press conference in Toronto, on Friday, July 17, 2020. File photo by The Canadian Press/Cole Burston

Opposition parties are asking the federal ethics watchdog to widen his probe of Bill Morneau regarding the WE organization as the finance minister continues to face calls for his resignation.

Conservatives and New Democrats have written to ethics commissioner Mario Dion to look into trips Morneau took three years ago, part of which were paid for by the WE organization.

Morneau said Wednesday he had just repaid WE Charity more than $41,000 for expenses the group covered for trips his family took to Kenya and Ecuador in 2017 to see some of its humanitarian work.

WE said the Morneau family trips were meant to be complimentary, part of a practice of showing donors WE’s work to encourage them to give more.

Morneau said he always planned to personally cover those amounts, but WE never charged him, much to his surprise after poring through receipts ahead of his testimony.

He said his family has since made two $50,000 donations to the charity.

The conflict of interest law prohibits ministers or their families from accepting paid travel, a lesson the government learned when Trudeau was found afoul of the rule for his family’s 2016 vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island.

On Thursday, the Tories said Morneau’s trips violated several sections of the Conflict of Interest Act — listing them out during a morning press conference — and called on him to resign as minister.

Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre said Morneau’s apology doesn’t cut it, and cited former Harper cabinet minister Bev Oda’s resignation following an expenses uproar that included expensing an infamous $16 glass of orange juice during a stay at a swanky London hotel.

“Why hasn’t Justin Trudeau fired him? I don’t ask that rhetorically, but specifically,” Poilievre said.

“If Justin Trudeau imposes any level of ethical standard on Bill Morneau, then others would ask that he impose it on himself.”

Opposition parties are asking the federal ethics watchdog to widen his probe of Bill Morneau regarding the WE organization as the finance minister continues to face calls for his resignation.

Trudeau, too, is facing an ethics probe for not recusing himself during discussions about awarding WE a deal to run the government’s $912-million program that will pay students grants of up to $5,000 based on the hours they volunteers.

Trudeau and Morneau have apologized for not declaring possible conflicts because of their familial ties to the organization — Trudeau because of speaking fees paid to his brother, mother and wife, and Morneau because one of his daughters is nearing the end of a one-year contract in an administrative role.

NDP MP Charlie Angus told the ethics commissioner in a letter that Morneau’s trips bring “to another level” concerns about the finance minister’s involvement in handing WE a contract to run the student-volunteer program.

The deal would have paid the organization $43.5 million in fees.

“WE may well indeed be engaged in philanthropic work, but as the case of the Aga Khan decision, it is plainly impermissible for a minister of the Crown to receive financial or in-kind gifts of this nature,” Angus wrote.

Separately, the House of Commons’ ethics committee decided Thursday to examine the ethics processes in the Prime Minister’s Office, to determine whether they need structural changes. The committee is already seeking copies of records related to the Trudeaus’ speaking engagements to inform a case study of the conflict-of-interest regime the committee monitors.

Two of Morneau’s cabinet colleagues — Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault and Economic Development Minister Melanie Joly — came to his defence, saying the finance minister explained himself at committee and apologized for any oversight.

Speaking at a virtual press conference in Montreal, where they announced investments in clean technology, Joly said Canadians would judge Morneau on his performance in steering the country through the worst economic downturn in a century.

“In these circumstances he was able to show leadership and come up with some programs that we’ve never seen as a country, including the wage subsidy, including the CERB,” she said.

“In that sense, Canadians will, I’m convinced, see that his work has been relevant and impactful in the context of the last months.”

It has been nearly three weeks since the government took over the program after WE backed out over the controversy of its involvement, and Ottawa has yet to roll it out.

Student groups have asked the Liberals to push the money into other supports, saying it’s too late in the summer for students to make the most of the program and earn enough to pay for schooling costs in the fall.

Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees the program, said in a statement Thursday, echoing previous ones, that officials are “working diligently to develop a transition plan, including looking at options on how best to proceed.”

“This means there will be delays but more information will be provided as soon as it is available,” spokeswoman Isabelle Maheu said in an email, adding officials “cannot comment or speculate on aspects of program design until a new plan is announced.”


This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2020.— With files from Catherine Levesque


Finance Minister Bill Morneau paid back more than $40,000 to WE Charity just hours before he was to testify before MPs

Blinded by his own privilege, Bill Morneau is painfully out of touch with Canadians

Conservatives want 2nd ethics probe of Morneau’s WE ties

‘Covert genocide’: Province gets a ‘D’ on suicide prevention

Métis fiddler Tristen Durocher at a private function catered by Métis Local #13 members southwest of Saskatoon as he makes his way to Regina. Photo: Brandon White

Métis fiddler Tristen Durocher has passed the halfway mark on his walk from La Ronge to Regina to press for a legislated suicide prevention strategy. He intends to fast in front of the legislature building until something is done about it.

The walk is in protest of the province’s failure to adopt an Opposition bill to address suicide prevention by Cumberland NDP MLA Doyle Vermette this spring.

Tristen Durocher with two women carrying a banner reading “out of the darkness,” signed by families who have lost loved ones to suicide in northern Saskatchewan. Photo submitted by Brandon White/ Local Journalism Initiative/ MBC Radio.

Durocher called the province “criminally negligent” for not working on a legislative solution to a problem that “should be bipartisan.”

“It’s a violation of their fiduciary responsibility to the residents of this province to provide mental health services,” Durocher said.

“The tragic loss of a person by suicide is felt not only by family and friends, but by the entire community. We want to assure the public that suicide prevention is a priority for the government of Saskatchewan,” government spokesperson Matthew Glover told Canada’s National Observer.

Durocher is putting together a collection of 200 photos from families who have lost loved ones to suicide that he plans to exhibit at a park in front of the legislature.

Women at a candlelight vigil at the Vimy Ridge memorial in downtown Saskatoon on July 13. Photo submitted by Brandon White/Local Journalism Initiative/MBC Radio.

“There was one family that sent me a photo of a boy, and then four days later wrote me to say, ‘We didn’t think that we’d be sending you another photo (of another death) so soon, but this is our niece, and we lost her yesterday.’ That to me made this epidemic real, beyond statistics on deaths,” Durocher said.

“This is covert genocide.”

Rural and Remote Health minister Warren Kaeding said the government’s action plan released in May would address those issues.

“I would speak to Scott Moe because…. when I articulate some realities that I’ve lived through…. I want to see if he has a look of shame. I’d really like to know where his heart is, ” says Tristen Durocher. 

“This plan will guide activities specific to suicide prevention based on Saskatchewan’s context. It was informed by careful consideration of approaches across the country and international best practice,” Kaeding said.

But Durocher and others remain unconvinced. “It’s not a legislated document and there’s no accountability for following through on any of those vague suggestions… It does not inspire a lot of confidence and neither does Warren Kaeding,” Durocher said.

Jack Hicks, an adjunct professor of community health and epidemiology at the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, was highly critical of the province’s move to reject the bill.

“The government of the province with the highest rate of suicide in the country becomes the first province in Canadian history to vote down a totally polite, sane motion calling for serious action on suicide prevention. That’s something,” Hicks told Canada’s National Observer in an interview Monday.

Saskatchewan had the highest suicide rate among the provinces as of 2018, which Hicks said is the most recent nationally comparable data.

The procession crossing Sid Buckwold Bridge in downtown Saskatoon on July 17. Photo submitted by Brandon White/Local Journalism Initiative/MBC Radio.

“If it was a class assignment, I would give it a ‘D’,” Hicks said of Saskatchewan’s suicide prevention plan.

“Released on May 8, Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan is our plan to address suicide prevention. Pillars for Life was created to guide suicide prevention initiatives and activities specific to the cultural and social landscape of Saskatchewan,” Glover said.

Glover said the five pillars of the plan align with those set out by the Mental Health Commission of Canada and include specialized supports.

Glover said the plan calls for specific engagement with First Nations and Métis leadership as the work progresses.

“Ensuring a community-driven approach honours the fact that each community is unique and the solutions they present will produce meaningful change,” he said.

Pillars for Life: The Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Plan, takes a collaborative approach to suicide prevention to reduce risk factors in the province. The Opposition says it doesn’t go far enough. Graphic source: Saskatchewan Government.

Hicks worked with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) to produce the first provincial suicide prevention plan for Indigenous people in Canada. He also worked on the Inuit suicide prevention strategy and the Nunavut strategy.

“The situation in northern Saskatchewan is not complicated and what needs to be done about it is not complicated,” Hicks said, adding the path to a solution has already been laid out for the provincial government in FSIN’s strategy.

“I think Tristen Durocher is absolutely right in his characterization of the provincial strategy.

“I almost hate to use the word strategy because it barely lives up to the term.”

Tristen Durocher smudges Cumberland MLA Doyle Vermette, who tabled the suicide prevention bill at the Saskatchewan legislature. Photo by Michael Bramadat-Willcock.

Hicks said the federal government’s approach hasn’t been much more successful than Saskatchewan’s and gave it a C-minus, noting Canada and Norway are “the two only developed countries in the world with no national suicide prevention legislation.”

He said suicide by Indigenous people is ghettoized in Canada on both provincial and federal levels.

“They should reflect on the pain that has driven (Durocher) to do this, they should pick up the FSIN strategy and read it. They should call FSIN and the Métis Nation and sit down and rethink this in a spirit of full partnership, recognizing this is a largely preventable public health issue,” Hicks said.

Glover said that the province has met with representatives of the FSIN and Métis Nation–Saskatchewan to discuss Pillars for Life.

“We are appreciative of the work that went into the development of the Saskatchewan First Nations Suicide Prevention Strategy and look forward to working with Health Canada and First Nation communities to find solutions to address suicide in communities across the province,” Glover said.

Hicks also noted that while death by suicide disproportionately impacts northern and Indigenous communities, it was a spike in non-Indigenous suicide that pushed Saskatchewan’s rates above those of Manitoba in 2018.

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili joined Durocher on his walk in Prince Albert and Saskatoon and said he’s ready to work with the Saskatchewan Party government to pass legislation. He said the government could pass legislation “any time,” but doesn’t because it does not care about northerners.

Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili joins Tristen Durocher’s march as it approaches Saskatoon via Hwy. 11 on July 17. Photo submitted by Brandon White/Local Journalism Initiative/MBC Radio.

“There’s no question it’s politically motivated. They wanted this to go away. They introduced a plan that is not a plan. It’s not a recognized suicide prevention strategy… It will not save lives,” Meili said.

Premier Scott Moe addressed the issue in the legislature in June and called Pillars of Life “the very first steps… on a journey that we need to travel… together as individuals in communities right across this province.”

Hicks said that in jurisdictions where suicide prevention plans have worked, such as the province of Quebec, it’s because it has been a bipartisan issue. But he said that’s not the case in Saskatchewan.

Meili said he worries the rejection of the bill was “more of a cynical move” because the government feels helping northerners and First Nations people is unpopular with its supporters.

“This is not a frivolous ask. This is an ask to save lives, and it’s worth them listening to.”

Hicks said he doesn’t think the province is deliberately hurting northerners.

“I think they’re averse to spending money on Indigenous social realities that differ from the mainstream approaches… ”

Construction workers working on the Sid Buckwold Bridge in Saskatoon look on as the procession advances up the ramp to the bridge on July 17. Photo submitted by Brandon White/Local Journalism Initiative/MBC Radio.

Glover said that in 2020-21, the government is investing a record $435 million in mental health and addictions services and supports across Saskatchewan.

Durocher is also calling for Kaeding’s resignation. Glover said Kaeding has offered to meet with him. Durocher confirmed this, but said he declined to meet privately.

“That’s not how… northern Indigenous people do things. We work together. We are together trying to keep our communities on literal life support,” Durocher said.

“When we’re speaking to one of the premier authorities on rural and remote health, it shouldn’t just be me speaking on behalf of everybody.”

Durocher said he’s focused on getting to Regina, and he hopes the premier will meet with him once he is there.

Premier Scott Moe addressed the suicide prevention bill put forward by Cumberland NDP MLA Doyle Vermette and thanked him for championing the issue. Photo courtesy of the Saskatchewan Government.

“I would speak to Scott Moe because when I give some statistics to him, and when I articulate some realities that I’ve lived through… the funerals I’ve been to since I was a child, I want to see if he has a look of shame. I’d really like to know where his heart is.”

Glover reiterated the government’s willingness to talk.

“Our government is always open to conversations about how we can make improvements to the challenges of mental health and suicide,” Glover said.

If you are or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, help is available at all hours. Support can be found at the Canada Suicide Prevention Service website. If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911.

You can learn more about suicide prevention in the province at Saskatchewan.ca.


Michael Bramadat-Willcock/Local Journalism Initiative/Canada’s National Observer

George Monbiot: People want a greener, happier world now. But our politicians have other ideas

Boris Johnson’s ‘return to normality’ will only mean more consumerism at the expense of the planet – we must resist it

A helicopter battles a wildfire in Khanty-Mansi, Siberia, July 2020. Photograph: Denis Bushkovsky/TASS

Out there somewhere, marked on no map but tantalisingly near, is a promised land called Normal, to which one day we can return. This is the magical geography we are taught by politicians, such as Boris Johnson with his “significant return to normality”. It is the story we tell ourselves, even if we contradict it with the very next thought.

There are practical reasons to believe that Normal is a fairyland to which we can never return. The virus has not gone away, and is likely to keep recurring in waves. But let’s focus on another question: if such a land existed, would we want to live there?

The polls consistently suggest we would not. A survey by BritainThinks a fortnight ago found that only 12% of people want life to be “exactly as it was before”. A poll at the end of June, commissioned by the nursery provider Bright Horizons, suggested that just 13% of people want to return to working as they did before the lockdown. A YouGov study in the same week revealed that only 6% of us want the same type of economy as we had before the pandemic. Another survey by the same pollsters in April showed only 9% of respondents wanted a return to “normal”. It’s rare to see such strong and consistent results on any major issue.

Of course, we would all like to leave the pandemic behind, with its devastating impacts on physical and mental health, its exacerbation of loneliness, the lack of schooling and the collapse in employment. But this doesn’t mean that we want to return to the bizarre and frightening world the government defines as normal. Ours was no land of lost content, but a place in which lethal crises were gathering long before the pandemic struck. Alongside our many political and economic dysfunctions, normality meant accelerating the strangest and deepest predicament humankind has ever confronted: the collapse of our life-support systems.

Last month, confined to our homes, we watched columns of smoke rising from the Arctic, where temperatures reached a highly abnormal 38C. Such apocalyptic imagery is becoming the backdrop to our lives. We scroll past images of fire consuming Australia, California, Brazil, Indonesia, inadvertently normalising them. In a brilliant essay at the beginning of this year, the author Mark O’Connell described this process as “the slow atrophying of our moral imaginations”. We are acclimatising ourselves to our existential crisis.

When business as usual resumes, so does the air pollution that kills more people every year than Covid-19 has yet done, and exacerbates the impacts of the virus. Climate breakdown and air pollution are two aspects of a wider dysbiosis. Dysbiosis means the unravelling of ecosystems. The term is used by doctors to describe the collapse of our gut biomes, but it is equally applicable to all living systems: rainforests, coral reefs, rivers, soil. They are unspooling at shocking speed due to the cumulative effect of “normality”, which entails a perpetual expansion of consumption.

This month we learned that $10bn-worth of precious metals, such as gold and platinum, are dumped in landfill every year, embedded in tens of millions of tonnes of lesser materials, in the form of electronic waste. The world’s production of e-waste is rising by 4% a year. It is driven by another outlandish norm: planned obsolescence. Our appliances are designed to break down, they are deliberately engineered not to be repaired. This is one of the reasons why the average smartphone, containing precious materials extracted at great environmental cost, lasts for between two and three years, while the average desktop printer prints for a total of five hours and four minutes before it is discarded.

The living world, and the people it supports, cannot sustain this level of consumption, but normal life depends on it. The compound, cascading effects of dysbiosis push us towards what some scientists warn could be global systemic collapse.

The polls on this issue are also clear: we do not want to return to this madness. A YouGov survey suggests that eight out of 10 people want the government to prioritise health and wellbeing above economic growth during the pandemic, and six out of 10 would like it to stay that way when (or if) the virus abates. A survey by Ipsos produced a similar result: 58% of British people want a green economic recovery, while 31% disagree. As in all such polls, Britain sits close to the bottom of the range. By and large, the poorer the nation, the greater the weight its people give to environmental issues. In China, in the same survey, the proportions are 80% and 16%, and in India, 81% and 13%. The more we consume, the more our moral imagination atrophies.

But the Westminster government is determined to shove us back into hypernormality regardless of our wishes. This week the environment secretary, George Eustice, signalled that he intends to rip up our system of environmental assessments. The government’s proposed free ports, in which tax and regulations are suspended, will not only exacerbate fraud and money laundering but also expose the surrounding wetlands and mudflats, and the rich wildlife they harbour, to destruction and pollution. The trade deal it intends to strike with the US could override parliamentary sovereignty and destroy our environmental standards – without public consent.

Just as there has never been a normal person, there has never been a normal time. Normality is a concept used to limit our moral imaginations. There is no normal to which we can return, or should wish to return. We live in abnormal times. They demand an abnormal response.


George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

Cost of preventing next pandemic ‘equal to just 2% of Covid-19 economic damage’

World must act now to protect wildlife in order to stop future virus crises, say scientists

Pangolins seized by authorities in Belawan, Indonesia. Photograph: Gatha Ginting/AFP via Getty Images

The cost of preventing further pandemics over the next decade by protecting wildlife and forests would equate to just 2% of the estimated financial damage caused by Covid-19, according to a new analysis.

Two new viruses a year had spilled from their wildlife hosts into humans over the last century, the researchers said, with the growing destruction of nature meaning the risk today is higher than ever.

It was vital to crack down on the international wildlife trade and the razing of forests, they said. Both bring wildlife into contact with people and their livestock. But such efforts are currently severely underfunded, according to the experts.

Spending of about $260bn (£200bn) over 10 years would substantially reduce the risks of another pandemic on the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, the researchers estimate, which is just 2% of the estimated $11.5tn costs of Covid-19 to the world economy. Furthermore, the spending on wildlife and forest protection would be almost cancelled out by another benefit of the action: cutting the carbon dioxide emissions driving the climate crisis.

The key programmes the scientists are calling for are: much better regulation of the wildlife trade, disease surveillance and control in wild and domestic animals, ending the wild meat trade in China, and cutting deforestation by 40% in key places. There was a clear link between deforestation and virus emergence, they said, with forest bats the likely reservoirs of the Ebola, Sars and Covid-19 viruses, and tropical forest edges a “major launchpad” for new viruses infecting humans.

“It’s naive to think of the Covid-19 pandemic as a once in a century event,” said Prof Andrew Dobson at Princeton University in the US, who led the analysis. “As with anything we’re doing to the environment, they’re coming faster and faster, just like climate change.”

Prof Stuart Pimm at Duke University in the US, part of the research team, said: “Investment in prevention may well be the best insurance policy for human health and the global economy in the future. We could stop future pandemics before they start.”

The UN’s environment chief welcomed the analysis. “The science could not be clearer,” said Inger Andersen. “As we emerge on the recovery side of Covid-19, we cannot afford a piecemeal approach to tackling diseases [from wildlife]. Irrespective of the final bill [for coronavirus], we can say with certainty that action now will save us billions in future costs, and avoid the tremendous suffering that we continue to see around the world.”

The analysis is the latest plea from experts for governments to address the destruction of the natural world and help prevent future pandemics. This month, a UN report said the world was treating the health and economic symptoms of the coronavirus pandemic but not the environmental cause. In June, experts said the pandemic was an “SOS signal for the human enterprise”; while in April, the world’s leading biodiversity experts said more deadly disease outbreaks were likely unless nature was protected.

“The wildlife trade is deeply corrupt,” said Dobson. “Some politicians would much rather that it not be stopped in many countries.”

The researchers said indigenous peoples who rely on wildlife for food must be protected from any restrictions.

Ending the wild meat trade in China was key, the researchers said, and would require almost $20bn a year. “I was shocked at the number of people employed: it’s several million,” said Dobson. He said there were also very few wildlife veterinarians in China: “The troops in the frontline trenches are missing.”

Akanksha Khatri, head of the World Economic Forum’s nature action agenda, said: “Covid-19 has shown us that human beings and our economic activity depend on the planet’s ecological balance. If we continue to push against this delicate balance, we do so at our peril.”

Stéphane De La Rocque, a veterinary expert at the World Health Orgazisation, said the analysis was much needed and that, after Covid-19, leaders were starting to understand the issue: ““It is the first time that we really have had a discussion about wildlife [and disease] and realised we have no surveillance system for wildlife.”


The Struggles of Sustainable Farming

If you’re paying $1 for lettuce, somebody’s being exploited. So is the environment


MAYBE IT TAKES a catastrophic event to change the way that consumers relate to their desires. In Canada, we have no collective memory of food-supply shortages, and most of us have a minimal relationship with the land on which our food is grown. The majority shops in large grocery chain stores, where supplies are brought in from a food depot. We do not know the farmers growing our food, and we do not know their farms. A large portion of what we eat is shipped to us from far away. Because of this, we have lost a sense of seasonal eating, of flavour, and of the labour that goes into producing our food.

Big-store grocery shopping is a hard habit to break. For one thing, it is convenient: you can buy most everything in one spot. And, for another, it’s often the cheapest, since these chains are able to buy in bulk. This type of purchasing has hidden costs, though. Hold up that inexpensive head of lettuce in your mind’s eye and consider the cost of the seed, the price of the hoops under which it is grown, the chemicals used to feed it and kill pests, the electrical expense of heating and cooling its environment, the extractive cost of watering it, the cost of finding, transporting, housing, and paying the seasonal worker who tends and harvests it, and the fuel and other transport expenses of trucking it from the south to a food terminal in Canada. Consider the environmental damage the runoff from these fertilizers and pesticides causes. Consider that the seasonal workers are doing skilled and exhausting labour for little pay, often far from home. Then consider that the grocery chain has also marked up that produce. Of this, Lauren Nurse, of Small Spade Farm, near Stirling, Ontario, says: “We can’t continue to expect to pay $1 for lettuce. Somebody is being exploited under that system, and certainly the environment is being exploited.”

This grocery-chain model has also been demonstrably compromised in the face of COVID-19. Items that we have taken for granted are not always in stock: yeast and toilet paper, but also, anecdotally, fruit and vegetables and specific cuts of meat. We are seeing long lineups and wait times to enter stores. We are experiencing the strange reality of physical distancing as we skirt one another in the aisles. For some of us, this is the first time we have had to think about where the food we buy comes from at all.

The problem is complex. Canada’s food-supply system depends on a cohort of migrant workers to seed, weed, and harvest its labour-intensive produce. Because of the pandemic, the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), run federally, will be necessarily curtailed. Mandatory fourteen-day quarantines, complex sanitation measures within current housing setups, and travel logistics mean fewer workers are making it here this year, and farmers are spending more to support them. According to the CBC, “Ontario employs up to 20,000 migrant workers a year to perform farm work throughout the growing season. The number nationwide is close to 60,000.” This is a workforce without which, the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association claims, “domestic food production will be impossible or significantly limited.”

If the pandemic brought us news of the fragility of Canada’s food chain, it was not a revelation to small-scale, sustainable farmers. Organic farms in Canada, which number over 7,200 according to data compiled in 2018 by the Canada Organic Trade Association, are often helmed by individuals working small acreages who strive to protect both local food supplies and the environment.

In the past, their message has largely been ignored. It’s easy to see why when you take into consideration that organic farms represent about 1.5 percent of the total land being farmed in Canada—a number that does not include other sustainable farms that do not have or cannot afford to apply for organic certification. But, now that we are, in fact, experiencing cascading events due to COVID-19, we might just be ready to pay attention.

SMALL-SCALE, sustainable farmers are mostly shut out of the large food-supply chain model—major grocery chains don’t bother with their relatively low volumes—and so they have long had to find ways to directly vend their produce to consumers. Bringing food from the countryside where it is grown into the city, in the hopes of selling it to urban consumers, might sound like an obvious fix. And it is true that, in the past twenty years, farmers’ markets have sprung up in many city neighbourhoods. But, as consumers, our perception of markets seems at odds with what farmers tell me of their experience. Farmers’ markets are great for community building, they say, but have unpredictable results for the farmers themselves. When it rains, customers stay home. In the height of growing season, attendance declines as folks are away at cottages and on vacations. Local farmers toil without the benefit of most of the direct farm subsidies that used to be available and, as a group, receive fewer subsidies now than large operations do, meanwhile incurring greater challenges getting their food to market.

Part of the problem, too, is consumer education. For many years, Thomasburg’s Earth Haven Farm, farmed biodynamically by Kathryn Aunger and her son, Aric Aguonie, has been doing community-educational outreach through its Earth Haven Learning Centre initiative. “I grew up a Native not knowing how to be Native,” Aguonie says; he came to farming as a way to reconnect with his roots. He is frustrated by the uphill battle he experiences as he tries to educate people about local food production with regard to planting zones and growing seasons. In the current system of food supply, we are encouraged to make decisions based on criteria made for us by the supply chain—criteria that have to do less with our health and the health of the environment than with the demands of big-box capitalism. In an ideal local food supply, Nurse points out, “Mrs. Peabody doesn’t expect bananas out of season or from an Ontario vendor. We move to a more seasonal model.” Augonie puts this more baldly: “If you have the word sale above the pile of whatever’s underneath the word sale, they’re gonna get that.”

While farmer’s markets can provide some outreach in terms of education about food supply, many small farmers have developed Community Share Agriculture (CSA) programs as a way to market their products and their messages about sustainable agriculture. CSA is a system in which consumers buy shares in the production of a given farm, the bounty of which is then divided up over the season in food boxes delivered to the shareholders. This means that, in the early season, when crops are just coming up, the consumer might receive a small portion while, later in the season, they get a box that is overflowing with fresh produce. It’s a system that is vital for small operators because it provides cash flow early in the year, which in turn allows for seed and animal purchases ahead of growing season, when income sources for the farmer are otherwise scarce. It also cuts out intermediate retailers like food-box aggregators (small operations that put together food boxes from a variety of local and sometimes imported sources but do not themselves farm), allowing farmers to reap the most from their sales. CSA puts consumers in direct relationship with their food and how it is grown.

Aunger points out that this system, in which consumers see week by week what is being produced and in what quantity, offers its own kind of learning. There might be gorgeous, delicious foraged blackberries. There might also be, say, kale that an insect has fed on. The first astonishment, that the kale is imperfect, gives way to a feeling of marvel: this food is so rich and healthy, of course other creatures want a nibble.

Under COVID-19 restrictions, this system of getting food to table works especially well. “CSA is a great model,” says Emily Vanderwey, manager of the CSA program at Earth Haven, “because we can deliver food while complying with the social distancing recommendations. Food from our farms hasn’t travelled as far, hasn’t been touched by as many hands, hasn’t taken as much energy to be produced and distributed.”

Despite—or perhaps thanks to—their relative size, small farms are often more fleet-footed than larger operations in times of crisis. Within days of the announcement of the Canada–US border closure, Nurse redesigned her crop plan: the large quantities of salad greens that she had planned for the high-end restaurants she previously supplied (and which were not able to open in the pandemic) were swapped out, and a variety of greens and heritage vegetable crops designed to accommodate the different needs of local and urban shoppers got planted instead.

Similarly, in Orono, Ontario, just as Dave Kranenburg and his partner, Emily Tufts, of Kendal Hills Farm, were harvesting mushrooms for contracts with restaurants that would no longer be able to buy them, they immediately reached out to their market network and quickly created an online farmers’ market. Like many brilliant ideas, this one is relatively simple. In its first week, farmers were asked to offer food they had for sale through the online shop, where customers placed their orders. The farmers brought their products to Kendal Hills Farm, where they were sorted, packaged, and delivered to a network of homes not only throughout the GTA but also local. The shop grossed $51,000 in its first week, which suggests a robust demand, with the corollary benefit to farmers of saved transport time and guaranteed sales.

Kranenburg had long been thinking about solutions for the sales and distribution problems his farm and others face, but he says that “this wasn’t a strategic move. It’s not like I was hoping for a pandemic. A lot of us were hoping for a change to the local food system, and something as chaotic as [what] the world is experiencing right now kind of breaks all the habits and norms and allows new ideas that have been percolating to actually maybe take.” Kranenburg hopes projects like this will foretell a paradigm shift in the way Canadians shop for food.

THE HARD TRUTH is that food produced in a sustainable way is expensive, and we as consumers need to come to terms with this. Small-scale, sustainable farmers do not use chemical sprays to augment nutrients. They build whole integrated systems using organic and biodynamic techniques that are more labour-intensive, that use less fossil fuel–dependent machinery, and that rely on heritage seeds (and collecting them, as well). They also do this on a more human and humane scale.

Compare this to an industrial organic operation where, for example, chickens are selected for their size or egg-laying capacity and bred for these attributes. A free-range designation, which many large operators now have, means only that the chicken has access to the outdoors, not that it actually uses that access point to leave the industrial barn. In a small operation, chicken flocks actually range freely, finding at least some of their own food—which has positive taste and nutrient outcomes. Not housing livestock indoors, not chemically feeding produce, and keeping farm operations human scale all come at a price, but the benefit is borne out in the potential nutrition and flavour of the food and the well-being of the land on which it is produced. Nurse says that the actual cost of producing a dozen organically, sustainably farmed eggs without subsidy is $8. The cost of sustainable food puts it out of reach for many consumers, yes—but, if organic, biodynamic, and other related kinds of production were supported through subsidy and other funding sources for farmers doing this work in sustainable agriculture, it would help level the playing field, lower prices, and make this food more accessible.

York University’s Rod MacRae, whose work focuses on creating a national food-and-agriculture policy for Canada, points out that “the dominant model assumes the supermarkets can keep supply chains operating,” adding that “the big-three chains don’t participate much in the small regenerative farmer model.” In other words, Loblaws, Sobeys, and Metro limit the choices we make insofar as they rarely support local food production. It’s always been lamentable (and strange!) to me that I can pass farm-stand displays of plump, juicy tomatoes in July on my way to the Foodland in Madoc, Ontario, only to find that cheap, hard, flavourless versions, trucked in from the southern US or beyond, are my only option. The fact is that these flavourless versions are developed for their ability to withstand diseases and survive transport, not for their taste. They can be produced more cheaply in part because these operations rely on cheap labour.

The industrial food-supply system we have allowed to develop therefore encourages practices that put sustainable farmers at an impasse. Unsupported by the dominant system and forced to market to a capricious consumer, many small operators have had to maintain off-farm income streams in order to keep farming. For years, Nurse has taken on sessional academic work at OCAD University, where she teaches printmaking. She also has city customers who hire her company to landscape their properties. In effect, she is “paying to farm by using off-farm income in order to steward the land.”

COVID-19 regulations will make farming even more difficult and expensive as all farmers scramble to keep up with new rules in the face of the pandemic. The extensive variety of financial outreach from the federal government for farms affected by the domino effect of border restrictions and other COVID-19-related economic perils does not always extend to small-farm operators.

As a thought experiment, I wonder: if given the choice between two heads of lettuce that appear identical, where one is sustainably and locally grown at $3 and the other has been sprayed with chemicals and imported at $1, which would you choose? The savvy consumer on a limited budget might well choose with his wallet in mind. But what if, in a perfect world, where our government supported the endeavour of sustainability as an imperative, they cost the same amount? And what if that imperative was an initiative that put its might and will behind the health of its citizens, the health of local food-production economies, and the health of the climate and environment? Which head of lettuce would you choose then?

When asked whether he believes that this pandemic will open a way for a lasting, positive reimagining of the way we think about food production and supply, Ralph Martin, author of Food Security, says, “There’s no doubt in my mind that this COVID-19 crisis will help people to understand more about what food is and how it is grown and processed and what foods are healthy. Health is now top of mind, and people have more time than they did before to think about food. It can no longer be taken for granted, and that is positive.”

The small-scale farmers I spoke to are eager for this change. Kranenburg tells me that he believes “small farmers are being called to action,” adding, “We’ve got this—we grow food, we can grow lots of food. It’s just that we need a different way of getting it to people.” Nurse tells me that, within days of putting out a CSA call to her network, she had twenty-five families signed up. Small Spade Farm is only a seven-acre operation, but at its capacity, were Nurse to have support from the community, it could supply a weekly CSA box to 100 families. A shift like that would allow her to quit her off-farm jobs and concentrate on what she loves to do—feed us. Extrapolate from that number, and it is possible that our local, sustainable farming operations—our farmers—could grow much more of our food than they currently do, while contributing to environmental rejuvenation. Not only that but, in this brave new world, Aunger tells me, “the local farmers will prosper and the community will see a drastic change in their health.”


 (@KKuitenbrouwer) wrote the bestselling novel All the Broken Things.

A Billion More Tons of Plastic Could Blanket Earth by 2040

Even with immediate action, 710 million metric tons of plastic will enter the environment in the next two decades, scientists show. Welcome to Plastic Planet


IMAGINE YOUR FAVORITE stretch of coastline—whitesand beaches, rocky tide pools, the cliffs of Dover, what have you. Now transport yourself ahead two decades, after plastic production and waste have continued to skyrocket. Humanity is now unloading 29 million metric tons of bottles, bags, and microplastics (little bits smaller than 5 millimeters) into the oceans annually. That means for every meter of your favorite coastline, 50 kilograms—that’s 110 pounds—of plastic is entering the sea every year.

“Now imagine that’s happening for every meter of coastline around the world,” says Richard Bailey, who studies environmental systems at Oxford University. “That’s the amount we’re looking at—it’s a colossal amount.”

Over the past few years, scientists have been exposing the hazards of microplastics—or ground-up particles that easily blow around the world and work their way into plants and animals. But all the while, macro-plastics like bottles have been accumulating in the environment, shedding microplastics as they degrade. Writing today in the journal Science, Bailey and his colleagues are publishing the alarming findings of their comprehensive review of the cycle of all this plastic. If we as a species don’t collectively take action, they warn, 1.3 billion metric tons of plastic will flow into the sea and tumble across the land between the years 2016 and 2040.

Even with immediate and drastic action, that figure could be 710 million metric tons—460 million of them on land and 250 million in the water. Making matters worse, throughout much of the world people burn the plastic they can’t easily recycle, to the tune of perhaps 133 million metric tons of waste by 2040. That spews dangerous toxins and CO2 (plastic is made of oil, after all), further warming the planet.

To model the plastic waste ecosystem, the researchers created eight “geographic archetypes,” instead of picking apart the dynamics of how individual countries handle trash. “We didn’t want it to become a blame game,” says the study’s co-lead author, Winnie Lau, senior manager of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on ocean plastic pollution. “What we wanted to do was to understand the problem and how it came about, rather than pointing out specific countries.”

Lau and her colleagues named these eight archetypes after national income levels and geographical designations, so high-income urban and low-income urban, or high-income rural and low-income rural. Each is expected to have a different level of waste management services. “The higher the density, the easier it is for core services to be provided,” says Lau. “Obviously, high-income places have more services they can provide, and low-income places don’t have as much resources to pay for services like waste management.”

So a low-income rural area is more likely to struggle with proper disposal of plastic waste than a high-income area. That’s especially true for an island nation without the room to bury what residents don’t recycle. The temptation, then, is to burn the stuff that’s not recyclable. For the plastic that is reusable, informal waste pickers might go door to door collecting in the absence of an official waste management program. By contrast, a high-income urban geographic archetype might have a robust waste-management infrastructure.

The team then created a mathematical model that could predict how much plastic waste these archetypes would produce by 2040. “The job of the model was to integrate the data that we could collect for all of the different geographical archetypes around the world,” says Bailey. “We tried to work out how the plastic flowed around the system in each of those types. And then we just basically crank the handle and we push the plastic through the system and see where it ends up.”

Often, unfortunately, it ends up in the environment. The modeling found that currently each year, 30 million metric tons of plastic is dumped on land. Almost 50 million metric tons are burned out in the open. Another 11 million metric tons flow into the sea. According to the model, by 2040, those figures could be all the more startling: 77 million metric tons dumped on land, 133 million burnt, and 29 million sent to the sea.

The model found that we can reduce total waste by 30 percent if we reduce plastic use as much as possible. Adopting new materials like compostable polymers can reduce another 17 percent of the waste. Robust recycling programs could account for an additional 20 percent reduction.

Even given all that, plastic waste will still be a serious problem. “By feasibly doing everything we possibly think we can, as much as we possibly can, we’re still left with 5 million metric tons” flowing to the sea, says Bailey. “It’s a vast improvement over 29 million tons, but there’s still an innovation gap. We still don’t have the technology or the materials we need to reduce that down to zero.”

The central, persistent problem is the broken economics of the recycling industry: It’s hard for companies to make more money selling recycled materials than it costs to process the stuff. That’s due in large part to the cratered price of oil, which is making it exceedingly cheap to just pump out more virgin plastic.

Bailey says that investing more in recycling is a win-win: You reduce plastic pollution while also creating jobs that will be more vital than ever in the economic aftermath of the pandemic. “There’s no point just asking people to be nice to the planet,” says Bailey. “We know from the history of climate change efforts that that kind of approach is limited. It needs to be economically feasible.”

But focusing just on recyclers lets the makers of all this plastic—soda bottlers and any number of other manufacturers—off the hook. “This is not a problem that can be solved on the back of the taxpayers,” says George Leonard, chief scientist of the Ocean Conservancy, who wasn’t involved in this new research.

But how about this: a manufacturing tax on plastic, just like governments are beginning to put a price on carbon. The idea with a carbon tax is that governments charge large-scale polluters, like electrical utilities, for spewing CO2, disincentivizing them from spewing more carbon. They then use the proceeds to fund investments in climate mitigation measures, like green energy infrastructure.

A plastic tax would work the same way. A government would charge companies that use virgin plastic a fee, incentivizing them to switch to fully recycled materials or alternative paper-based materials, which break down once they reach the environment. “You then take those revenues and allocate that toward solutions to the problem,” says Leonard. “So that could be investing in waste management infrastructure, that could be investing in recycling.”

Really, it’s not such a far-fetched idea: Backers of the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act are collecting signatures to get a plastic tax on the ballot in 2022. But to really change corporate behavior, the idea would need to be scaled up nationally, and then globally.

Without drastic and immediate measures, the fight against plastic pollution will follow the same path as the fight against climate change: We’ve waited far too long to stop CO2 from accumulating in the atmosphere, and we’re in danger of waiting far too long to turn off the plastic spigot. “What this paper makes clear is, really, any future scenario for a healthy planet is going to require that this kind of year-over-year growth in plastic production has got to stop,” says Leonard. “It began in 1950, and it continues to accelerate. And there’s really no viable solution that doesn’t result in bending that curve.”



Plastic waste entering oceans expected to triple in 20 years

Agroforestry Is Both Climate Friendly and Profitable

Incorporating trees into farmland benefits everything from soil health to crop production to the climate. Investors say it might also yields profits

Livestock advisor Gaabi Hathaway and herding dog Bohdi inspect ‘mulberry alley’ at Tennessee’s Caney Fork Farms. Image by Sherman Thomas courtesy of Caney Fork Farms.

In the latter part of 2016, Ethan Steinberg and two of his friends planned a driving tour across the U.S. to interview farmers. Their goal was to solve a riddle that had been bothering each of them for some time. Why was it, they wondered, that American agriculture basically ignored trees?

This was no esoteric inquiry. According to a growing body of scientific research, incorporating trees into farmland benefits everything from soil health to crop production to the climate. Steinberg and his friends, Jeremy Kaufman and Harrison Greene, also suspected it might yield something else: money.

“We had noticed there was a lot of discussion and movement of capital into holistic grazing, no till, cover cropping,” Steinberg recalls, referencing some of the land- and climate-friendly agricultural practices that have been garnering environmental and business attention recently. “We thought, what about trees? That’s when a lightbulb went off.”

Propagate quickly started attracting attention. Over the past two years, the group, based in New York and Colorado, has expanded into eight states, primarily in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, and is now working with 20 different farms. Last month, it announced that it had received $1.5 million in seed funding from Boston-based Neglected Climate Opportunities, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

“My hope is that they can help farmers diversify their production systems and sequester carbon,” says Eric Smith, investment officer for the trust. “In a perfect world, we’d have 10 to 20 percent of U.S. land production in agroforestry.”

For the past few years, private sector interest in “sustainable” and “climate-friendly” efforts has skyrocketed. Haim Israel, Bank of America’s head of thematic investment, suggested at the World Economic Forum earlier this year that the climate solutions market could double from $1 trillion today to $2 trillion by 2025. Flows to sustainable funds in the U.S. have been increasing dramatically, setting records even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the financial services firm Morningstar. And while agriculture investment is only a small subset of these numbers, there are signs that investments in “regenerative agriculture,” practices that improve rather degrade than the earth, are also increasing rapidly.

In a 2019 report, the Croatan Institute, a research institute based in Durham, North Carolina, found some $47.5 billion worth of investment assets in the U.S. with regenerative agriculture criteria.

agroforestry in Hudson NY. 

A Propagate Ventures agroforestry project in Hudson, N.Y., planted in April 2020. Image courtesy of Propagate Ventures.

“The capital landscape in the U.S. and globally is really shifting,” says David LeZaks, senior fellow at the Croatan Institute. “People are beginning to ask more questions about how their money is working for them as it relates to financial returns, or how it might be working against them in the creation of extractive economies, climate change or labor issues.”

Agroforestry, the ancient practice of incorporating trees into farming, is just one subset of regenerative agriculture, which itself is a subset of the much larger “ESG,” or Environmental, Social and Governance, investment world. But according to Smith and Steinberg, along with a small but growing number of financiers, entrepreneurs, and company executives, it is one particularly ripe for investment.

Although relatively rare in the U.S., agroforestry is a widespread agricultural practice across the globe. Project Drawdown, a climate change mitigation think tank that ranks climate solutions, estimates that some 650 million hectares (1.6 billion acres) of land are currently in agroforestry systems; other groups put the number even higher. And the estimates for returns on those systems are also significant, according to proponents.

Ernst Götsch, a leader in the regenerative agriculture world, estimates that agroforestry systems can create eight times more profit than conventional agriculture. Harry Assenmacher, founder of the German company Forest Finance, which connects investors to sustainable forestry and agroforestry projects, said in a 2019 interview that he expects between 4 percent and 7 percent return on investments at least; his company had already paid out $7.5 million in gains to investors, with more income expected to be generated later.

This has led to a wide variety of for-profit interest in agroforestry. There are small startups, such as Propagate, and small farmers, such as Martin Anderton and Jono Neiger, who raise chickens alongside new chestnut trees on a swath of land in western Massachusetts. In Mexico, Ronnie Cummins, co-founder and international director of the Organic Consumers Association, is courting investors for funds to support a new agave agroforestry project.

Small coffee companies, such as Dean’s Beans, are using the farming method, as are larger farms, such as former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s Caney Fork Farms. Some of the largest chocolate companies in the world are investing in agroforestry.

“We are indeed seeing a growing interest from the private sector,” says Dietmar Stoian, lead scientist for value chains, private sector engagement and investments with the research group World Agroforestry, also known by the acronym ICRAF. “And for some of them, the idea of agroforestry is quite new.”

Part of this, he and others say, is growing awareness about agroforestry’s climate benefits.

Gains for the Climate, Too

According to Project Drawdown, agroforestry practices are some of the best natural methods to pull carbon out of the air. The group ranked silvopasture, a method that incorporates trees and livestock together, as the ninth most impactful climate change solution in the world, above rooftop solar power, electric vehicles and geothermal energy.

If farmers increased silvopasture acreage from approximately 550 million hectares today to about 770 million hectares by 2050 (1.36 billion acres to 1.9 billion acres), Drawdown estimated carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced over those 30 years by up to 42 gigatons—more than enough to offset all of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans globally in 2015, according to NOAA—and could return $206 billion to $273 billion on investment.

Part of the reason that agroforestry practices are so climate friendly (systems without livestock, i.e. ‘normal’ agroforestry like shade grown coffee, for example, are also estimated by Drawdown to return well on investment, while sequestering 4.45 tons of carbon per hectare per year) is because of what they replace.

Traditional livestock farming, for instance, is carbon intensive. Trees are cut down for pasture, fossil fuels are used as fertilizer for feed, and that feed is transported across borders, and sometimes the world, using even more fossil fuels.

a silvopasture system agroforestry 

Photo of silvopasture system in Georgia by Mack Evans. Image via U.S. National Agroforestry Center.

Livestock raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), produce more methane than cows that graze on grass. A silvopasture system, on the other hand, involves planting trees in pastures—or at least not cutting them down. Farmers rotate livestock from place to place, allowing soil to hold onto more carbon.

There are similar benefits to other types of agroforestry practices. Forest farming, for instance, involves growing a variety of crops under a forest canopy—a process that can improve biodiversity and soil quality, and also support the root systems and carbon sequestration potential of farms.

A Changing Debate

Etelle Higonnet, senior campaign director at campaign group Mighty Earth, says a growing number of chocolate companies have expressed interest in incorporating agroforestry practices—a marked shift from when she first started advocating for that approach.

“When we first started talking to chocolate companies and traders about agroforestry, pretty much everybody thought I was a nutter,” she says. “But fast forward three years on and pretty much every major chocolate company and cocoa trader is developing an agroforestry plan.”

What that means on the ground, though, can vary widely, she says. Most of the time it is a company’s sustainability department that is pushing for agroforestry investment, not the C-suite. Some companies have committed to sourcing 100 percent of their cacao from agroforestry systems. Others are content with 5 percent of their cacao coming from farms that use agroforestry.

What a company considers “agroforestry” can also be squishy, she points out—a situation that makes her and other climate advocates worry about companies using the term to “greenwash,” or essentially pretend to be environmentally friendly without making substantive change.

“What is agroforestry?” says Simon Konig, executive director of Climate Focus North America. “There is no clear definition. There’s an academic, philosophical definition, but there’s not a practical definition, nothing that says, ‘it includes this many species.’ Basically, agroforestry is anything you want it to be, and anything you want to write on your brochure.”

He says he has seen cases in South America where people have worked to transform degraded cattle ranches into cocoa plantations. They have planted banana trees alongside cocoa, which needs shade when young. But when the cocoa is five years old and requires more sun, the farmers take out the bananas.

“They say, ‘It’s agroforestry,’” Konig says. “So there are misunderstandings—there are different objectives and standards.”

Pigs raised on New Forest Farm in Wisconsin silvopasture agroforestry 

Pigs raised on New Forest Farm in Wisconsin benefit from tree shade, fruits and nuts. Livestock serve multiple purposes in agroforestry, such as pest management, soil fertilization, and additional farm revenue. Photo courtesy of Savanna Institute.

He has been working to produce a practical agroforestry guide for cocoa and chocolate companies. One of the guide’s main takeaways, he says, is that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to agroforestry. It depends on climate, objectives, markets, and all sorts of other variables.

This is one of the reasons that agroforestry has been slow to gain investor attention, says LeZaks of the Croatan Institute.

“There really aren’t the technical resources—the infrastructure, the products—that work to support an agroforestry sector at the moment,” LeZaks says.

While agroforestry is seen as having significant potential for the carbon offset market, its variability makes it a more complicated agricultural investment. Another challenge to agroforestry investment is time.

Tree crops take years to produce nuts, berries, or timber. This can be a barrier for farmers, who often do not have extra capital to tie up for years.

It can also turn off investors.

“People are bogged down by business as usual,” says Stoian from World Agroforestry. “They have to report to shareholders. Give regular reports. It’s almost contradictory to the long-term nature of agroforestry.”

This is where Steinberg and Propagate Ventures come in. The first part of the company’s work is to fully analyze a farmer’s operation, Steinberg says. It evaluates business goals, uses geographic information system (GIS) components to map out land, and determines the trees most appropriate for the particular agricultural system. With software analytics, Propagate predicts long-term cost-to-revenue and yields, key information for both farmers and possible private investors.

After the analysis phase, Propagate helps implement the agroforestry system. It also works to connect third-party investors with farmers, using a revenue-sharing model in which the investor takes a percentage of the profit from harvested tree crops and timber.

Additionally, Propagate works to arrange commercial contracts with buyers who are interested in adding agroforestry-sourced products to their supply chains.

“Here’s an opportunity to work with farmers to increase profitability by incorporating tree crops into their operations in a way that’s context specific,” Steinberg says. “And it also starts addressing the ecological challenge that we face in agriculture and beyond.”


Ten years after the Deepwater Horizon, new spills seem imminent

Ten years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, sending some 750 million liters of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of nearly three months, it’s still difficult to say if the disaster ever had an endpoint

Ten years after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, sending some 750 million liters of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of nearly three months, it’s still difficult to say if the disaster ever had an endpoint.

From the vantage point of New Orleans, which became ground zero for the response to the spill, there’s evidence that much of the damage from the worst oil disaster in US history lingers on.

Robots attempt to repair the Macondo Well’s blowout preventer during the Deepwater Horizon spill.Credit: BP

“Whenever we hear that oil spills will be less bad than we think, the Deepwater Horizon disaster shows how they can turn out,” says Bellona President Frederic Hauge, who observed the early days of the catastrophe from a helicopter over the Gulf. “Today we see a clear picture of how big oil is arrayed against the interests of everyday people. BP may have legally paid for what its done, but morally and ethically it has not.”

On the morning of April 20, 2010, workers aboard the Deepwater Horizon, a BP-operated deep sea drilling rig, were sealing an exploratory oil well 1,220 meters beneath the gulf. While they did so, a pocket of flammable gas travelling at nearly the speed of sound shot up the drill pipe, causing it to buckle. An emergency valve, called a blowout preventer, designed to cap the well in the event of such a kick, failed. When the gas reached the rig, it triggered an explosion, killing 11 of the crew and sinking the rig.

It would be 87 days before BP, which was operating the Deepwater Horizon, could bring the gusher under control. Several attempts to plug the well failed. A small air force took to the skies to coat the slick with chemicals meant to break it up and sink it to the sea floor. Other pockets of oil were set ablaze in flames visible from outer space.

By the time it was over, more than 2,000 kilometers of coast would be fouled in oil and marine life would be devastated. Thousands were put out of work in fisheries, tourism and energy. In the end, it would prove to be 12 times bigger than the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, the previous record holder.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster signaled the risks of drilling for oil in one of the most culturally significant, ecologically diverse places in the world. But ten years and $69 billion in cleanup efforts later, many of the impacts of the catastrophe are still unfolding.

Take, for instance, the fish – which researchers at the University of South Florida say are still contaminated with hydrocarbons. Take the size of the spill itself, which a recent study has found to be far more extensive than initially thought, reaching as far as the southernmost tip of Florida.

Or take the opinion of a US government commission, which concluded that another such spill is largely inevitable –despite a decade’s worth of attempts to prevent just that.


Oil on Gulf waters after the Deepwater Horizon spill.Credit: Jonathan Henderson

Take, too, the continuing impact the spill had on human health. According to a government health study published seven years after the spill, tens of thousands of workers who first responded to the study are still wrestling with respiratory illnesses brought on by Corexit, the chemical used to disperse the spill. And take that many of those who were affected by that chemical – mostly lower-income fisherman – are still ill, or have gone on to die.

The more time that passes, the worse the spill seems to become, begging the question – could something like this happen again?

“Of course it could happen again, and I think one of the things of most concern is that our ability to control a spill is pretty much the same as it was 10 years prior,” says Frances Beinecke, who sat on the independent government commission that reviewed the failures leading up to the blowout.

Beineke and the six other members of that commission, which was formed under the Obama administration, have now told the New York Times that their recommendations haven’t been taken seriously, and that the US is only marginally more prepared than it was ten years ago, to cope with a spill of the Deepwater Horizon’s magnitude. As oil drilling moves farther offshore and deeper at sea, they say, the risk only increases.

“Disasters like oil spills will happen again because this is an extremely high-risk operation, particularly when you’re talking about drilling for oil over a mile of water and then a couple miles down under the sea floor,” Frances Ulmer, another member of the commission, told the Guardian. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong.”

Trump-era safety rollbacks

Some 17 percent of the oil produced in the United States comes from the Gulf of Mexico. Over 1,800 platforms are connected to refineries along the shore through more than 41,000 kilometers of pipelines. Leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused oil prices to plummet, Gulf production continued to be remarkably robust.

In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the US interior department restructured in a bid to allow a new division of the agency, the bureau of safety and environmental enforcement, or BSEE, to focus on safety. The move was meant to separate safety regulators from government officials who might be more motivated by the money coming in from taxes on drilling.

Crucially, the Obama administration also beefed up safety rules for the offshore oil industry, including checks on blowout preventers like the one that failed on the Deepwater Horizon.

But those rules have been weakened under the Trump administration. In 2019, the administration introduced numerous rollbacks to Obama-era rules at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s trade group – including independent certification of blowout preventers and bi-weekly tests.

Checks by the BSEE have been reduced as well. According to a study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal policy institute, the number of safety inspections the agency has conducted on rigs, platforms, pipelines, and other facilities during the last three years of the Trump administration decreased by 13 percent. The same study showed that enforcement actions against offshore drillers had fallen by 38 percent.

Drilling deeper

Meanwhile, offshore drilling is only going deeper and getting more dangerous. The Deepwater Horizon reached a depth of 1,300 meters. Now, studies show that more than half of the oil produced in the Gulf is coming from wells even deeper than that. One Chevron-operated well, called “Blind Faith,” reaches more than two kilometers to the sea floor.

All of this despite a 2013 study, which found that for every 100 feet (or 30.48 meters) an oil well’s depth increases, documented incidents like spills or crew injuries increase by 8.5 percent.

Such accidents have been on an upswing under the Trump administration. Between 2018 and 2019, the amount of oil spilled per barrel on America’s outer continental shelf has increased six fold over the previous two years, the same report from the Center for American Progress says.

Other smaller-scale incidents that don’t make headlines are frequent in the gulf. Between 2007 and 2018 there were an average 115 fires and explosions in federal waters annually ­– about one every three days – according to government data. There were also nearly 50 fatalities over that time.

nasa deepwater horizon spill

Lingering oil slick in the Mississippi Delta off the coast of Louisiana on May 24, 2010., more than a month after the Deepwater Horizon blowout.Credit: NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response AND demis.nl

Leaks are a constant state of affairs. One oil well off the southeastern coast of Louisiana, owned by Taylor Energy, has been leaking since 2004, spilling between 300 and 700 barrels per day. The well’s reserves could keep it leaking for the next 100 years if it isn’t capped, meaning it will one day eclipse the Deepwater Horizon spill in terms of volume.

Fighting spills puts people at risk

That a new spill will one day meet gulf shores has become and article of faith. Unfortunately, efforts to control a new slick will likely look much as they did after the Deepwater Horizon, with armadas of local fishermen once again mustered onto the front lines and toiling in a haze of chemicals.

That’s because little has been done to avert the kind of public health crisis the Deepwater Horizon’s cleanup left in its wake. As the oil eventually receded, many who fought to clean it up became seriously ill. Many of them have died of respiratory complications, including cancer.

In the days following the blowout, some 47,000 people, mostly newly jobless fisherman, were contracted by BP to pilot their boats into the slick pulling skimmers. Others worked in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to siphon oil off the beaches.

Almost immediately, thousands of them broke out in rashes. They began to cough up blood and developed wheezes. Some were plagued with migraines. Many complained of burning eyes and memory loss. Still others were struggled with new heart aliments, kidney problems, liver damage, and discharge from their ears. Some experienced cognitive decline and anxiety attacks.

What all of them had in common is their exposure to Corexit, an oil dispersant that contains an array of toxic chemicals, but which BP assured the workers was as safe to use as dishwashing liquid. From the first days of the spill through the eventual capping of the well that following July, BP oversaw the dumping of 7 million liters of the dispersant from airplanes flown over the Gulf.

Ten years later, controversy still rages about the wisdom of carpet-bombing the Gulf with these chemicals, and documents released since reveal that government scientists expressed concern at the time about the health consequences of mixing such large quantities of dispersants with the millions of barrels of sweet crude.

Oil and dispersants are a toxic stew. When the two are combined, they unleash heavy metals and hydrocarbons like benzene, hexane, and toluene, which are known carcinogens. Dispersants like Corexit contain solvents meant to break oil down into tiny droplets that sink. But when ocean water evaporates, so do these chemicals. When they are carried inland by the wind, they can sicken those who inhale them.

According to dozens of interviews conducted by Bellona in the months and years following the spill, as well as affidavits obtained by the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based whistleblower protection group, that’s exactly what happened.

“There is a core of very sick patients who undoubtedly will be ill for the remainder of their lives as the result of exposure to chemicals involved in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy,” says Michael Robichaux, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in south Louisiana and a former state senator.

In their interviews, many of these patients who worked on spill cleanup said they were discouraged by BP contractors from using protective gear, even though, as 2013 study later showed, Corexit, when mixed with oil is 52 times more toxic than oil alone.

Those who complained were met with efforts to silence them. In their affidavits and interviews, former cleanup workers attested to being the victims of an intimidation campaign for revealing they were ill. The sick were followed, their homes broken into, their trash ransacked, their privacy corroded. They became increasingly isolated.

Their advocates, meanwhile, were attacked in vicious online campaigns. With the rise of social media, Internet trolls connected to BP swarmed whistleblowers who posted photos of oiled beaches.

Even Bellona wasn’t safe. When I followed up on these reports by contacting BP in my hometown of New Orleans, I was told to be “careful” because company officials knew where my child attends school.

The intimidation became so intense that even five years after the spill I was meeting with sources who didn’t want their names printed in locations they didn’t want me to disclose.

“We could get killed for what we’re telling you,” began one such conversation at a remote beach cabin in Florida.

Even many doctors were unsure of what to do.

“Until a couple of years ago, I thought it was all in my head,” says Lamar Moore, who worked off the beaches of Alabama towing an oil skimmer in the aftermath of the spill.

He began coughing up blood and suffering blinding migraines during the first month the blowout continued. He still suffers from chronic bronchitis and wears special sunglasses to correct a heightened light sensitivity he has experienced since the 2010 disaster.

Warzone_in_Gulf_of_Mexico deepwater horozin

Burning and skimming operations in the Gulf of Mexico; June 10, 2010.Credit: kris krüg (www.kriskrug.co)

When Moore sought help at an Alabama hospital, he was told he was making things up for a quick payday. Like hundreds of others, he eventually found treatment far away from the Gulf. Others weren’t so lucky. Jack Hill, Moore’s crewmate, died of lung cancer in 2015.

Some of what ailed patients like Moore wasn’t officially acknowledged until 2017, when the US National Institutes of Health released a landmark study on nearly 30,000 people who had participated in cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

It established what Moore and others had known for years – cleanup workers exposed to Corexit during the nearly three months oil spilled into the sea were likely to experience coughs, wheezing, chest tightness and eye, nose, throat and lung irritation.

The NIH study was followed by another, in 2018, from Johns Hopkins University, which found that oil dispersants increased the concentration of ultrafine particles, which can travel through the air and penetrate human lungs.

And in 2019, the US Coast Guard, which coordinated the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, released a study on 4,800 of personnel that responded to the disaster. The study found a relationship between increased exposure to dispersants and the likelihood of symptoms including coughing and shortness of breath.

These findings are borne out by the Government Accountability Project, which conducted a new 10th anniversary survey of the witnesses it interviewed for its earlier report. The new report establishes that nearly all of them were still suffering from symptoms they had reported in the months following the spill. In many cases, the report notes, some were reporting that their health had worsened.

While it may never be possible to arrive at an exact number for those affected by “BP Syndrome,” as this array of illnesses came to be called, litigation launched in 2012 offers a rough ballpark.

That year, BP agreed to a $7.8 billion class-action medical lawsuit for those who had gotten ill to avoid piecemeal litigation clogging the court system. The suit was designed to compensate victims $60,700 each, and allowed people to file further claims if they developed more serious symptoms.

More than 37,000 people filed claims under the class action suit. But eight years later, only a fraction of those claims have been paid. Countless others opted out of the suit to pursue individual litigation.

After the release of the NIH study, more than 6,000 new health claims were filed against BP, BloombergLaw news portal reports. Moore’s claim was among those, though he is still waiting for a settlement.

Yet, even with clear evidence that Corexit is dangerous to human health, it remains listed with the EPA as an approved dispersant for use on oil spills and the US government has failed to adopt meaningful controls on its application.


By  charles@bellona.no