Clean Energy Insights

Bees, trees and seas crises stem from unsustainable food production

7 minute read

As featured in the Hill

After years of an ongoing confluence of crises, our society is going through a seriously difficult chapter.

But some problems deserve a lot more attention than they’re currently receiving. Like the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that the UN secretary general called an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

Our planet is breaking down in front of us. And we’re basically ignoring it, choosing to invest more resources in fighting endless wars than in preserving the very planet that sustains us. We’re like a family whose house is burning down — and rather than trying to put it out, we’re fighting over who gets to sit at the head of the table.

In addition to the IPCC report, three headlines about concurrent planetary crises now coming to a head jumped out at me recently. The trees, the bees and the seas, it seems, are all in deep trouble. And the governments of the world are letting the industry culprits go on doing what they’re doing.

The trees

The first disturbing headline came from the New York Times and read: “Amazon Rainforest May Be Approaching a Critical Tipping Point,” and noted, “the rainforest is approaching a critical threshold beyond which much of it will be replaced by grassland, with vast consequences for biodiversity and climate change.”

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the largest rainforest in the world. It accounts for over 60 percent of the world’s remaining rainforest and is home to 30 percent of the world’s species.

The Amazon “is on the edge of this cliff, this switch to a different ecosystem,” said Carlos Nobre, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Amazonian Research in Brazil who’s been calling attention to this for 30 years. If it crosses this threshold it could be a different “ecosystem for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands of years.”

As scary as this sounds, hope is not lost. “We still have a chance to save the forest,” he said. We have to get to zero deforestation, zero forest degradation.”

However, that might be easier said than done. While Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has joined 100 countries in pledging to end deforestation, during his presidency deforestation has increased by record-high rates, increasing 22 percent just last year.

The Bees

The second alarming headline came from The Guardian: “Fears for bees as US set to extend use of toxic pesticides that [paralyze] insects.”

One of the most alarming trends over the past decade and a half has been the die-off of honeybees, a critical pollinator that plays a major role in our food supply. Last year beekeepers reported 45 percent loss of their bees over the winter months. This terrifying trend has a clear villain — a suite of chemical pesticides known as Neonicotinoids.

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) moved toward approving the use of these toxic chemicals for the next 15 years, even after the EU has outright banned them, and Canada has severely limited them.

Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity told The Guardian, “We are already seeing crashes in insect numbers and we don’t have another 15 years to waste … It’s frustrating to see the EPA go down this path. We really are at a crossroads — we can follow the science and the rest of the world or we can go out on our own and appease the chemical industry.”

What makes this announcement sting even more is that so many Americans naively expected this type of brazen industry collusion to be a thing of the past under the Biden administration and new leadership at EPA. 

The seas

The third disturbing headline is from National Geographic: “How overfishing threatens the world’s oceans — and why it could end in catastrophe.”

National Geographic reports, “Scientists have long been sounding the alarm about a looming catastrophe of ocean overfishing — the harvesting of wildlife from the sea at rates too high for species to replace themselves” at which point fisheries collapse and throw the largest ecosystem on the planet into havoc.

A 2003 study found that large ocean fish populations had been reduced to only 10 percent of what they were before industrial fishing. To put it another way, we’ve killed 90 percent of the ocean’s big fish in a matter of decades. 

You might think that this is a perfect opportunity for the governments of the world to collaborate and put limits on overfishing to avoid this impending disaster. After all, World Trade Organization (WTO) members have been discussing solutions to the problem since 2001. However, in spite of the UN’s calls for this insanity to stop, the governments of the world have steadily increased their subsidies to the fishing industry over the last decade, now amounting to over $30 billion per year, emboldening these practices.

A wake-up call

All three crises stem from our misguided ways of feeding ourselves. Over the past century, our fossil fuel-based industrialized food system has become the dominant approach to feed our growing population despite the long-known devastating effects. As we more effectively clear cut the Amazon rainforest to meet the world’s increased demands for meat, overfish the oceans to the point of fisheries collapse, and pump more pesticides into our monocropped agriculture, we’re ignoring the obvious. We can’t keep eating this way or the ecological systems that we rely on, including the trees, the bees and the seas, will break.

Make no mistake, industries that have led these practices — the logging and ranching industries, the pesticide-producing chemical industry, as well as the fishing industry — are so well entrenched with the government agencies that are supposed to regulate them that governments are now openly doing industry bidding across the globe.

So, the challenge now is not just, how do we feed 8 billion people on a warming planet sustainably. Now the challenge is, how do we stop monolithic industries and the government agencies failing to regulate them from keeping us handcuffed to these calamitous practices while our planet falls apart? What will it take to develop the moral courage to break free from the corporate overlords holding us hostage, create clean energy abundance, restore ecological balance and create pathways to peace? A better future is possible. We don’t have to follow this current path to conclusion. We can collectively shift our trajectory as so many social and political movements have shown in the past. 

Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas

Previously Featured on The Hill

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