The Pasture Problem

Can Smart Development and Intensification Slow the Expansion of Pasture?

Recent decades have seen remarkable developments across the pastures of the world. Even as production of meat and dairy from ruminants (grazing animals such as cattle and sheep) increased by almost a third, the footprint of pasture has begun to decline. And this change is significant, shrinking by nearly 64 million hectares, an area larger than France, between 2000 and 2013. The gains have been considerable for conservation. To the benefit of endangered species from the Asiatic cheetah in Iran to the saiga antelope in Kazakhstan, pastureland is going out of production and returning to nature.

While promising, these developments will not be enough to assure that rising demand for meat does not put new pressure on critical habitats. Global demand for ruminant meat and dairy is expected to rise by 44% between now and 2050. Even as pasture has shrunk in the global aggregate, it continues to expand in many parts of the world, particularly in emerging economies and the tropics, where some of the most intact and threatened areas of natural habitat remain.

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The Problems with a Large-Scale Shift to Organic Farming

Questionable Assumptions in the Case for Organic

A new study, led by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, gives the impression that a large-scale shift to organic farming would largely bring environmental benefits. And indeed, that’s how the paper has been covered. But if we look under the hood, the findings are dependent on several pretty questionable assumptions about diets and production systems that, together, make the paper’s conclusions hard to take too seriously.

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Might Feedlots Be the Sustainable Option?

The Limited Carbon Sequestration Potential of Cattle Grazing

A new report provides further evidence that cattle grazing, even when purportedly low-impact practices are used, might not be carbon-neutral or reduce net greenhouse gas emissions. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking: experts have long known that cattle have disproportionately large environmental impacts, especially when they spend their entire lives on pasture. This report adds to our understanding by calculating that at a global scale, grazing systems cannot sequester more carbon than is produced over the life of the cattle. What it doesn’t do, however, is consider how the environmental impacts of different production systems square up.

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Reducing the Environmental Impact of Global Diets

New Paper Points to Intensification of Meat Production

According to a new peer-reviewed paper in Science of the Total Environment—co-authored by Breakthrough’s Marian Swain, James McNamara, and Linus Blomqvist, along with ecologist William Ripple at Oregon State—demand-side efforts to reduce meat consumption will not be nearly enough to confront the environmental impacts of livestock over the next century, especially as meat demand in the developing world continues to grow. Improving the environmental efficiency of livestock production systems through intensification, on the other hand, while little discussed, holds significant potential to mitigate the impact of the sector both in terms of emissions and land use. Intensive beef production in particular, in which cattle finish their lives on grain-based feeds in highly controlled environments, dramatically reduces time to slaughter, and thus methane emissions, as compared with extensive, pasture-only systems.

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Farming Better

A New Study Says Agricultural Efficiency Is the Key to Sustainably Feeding the World

How do we feed a growing population while minimizing environmental impacts? Contrary to popular belief, making the switch from conventional to organic farming is not the answer, or so find Michael Clark and David Tilman in a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters. Rather, the authors emphasize, we should be prioritizing research and adoption of practices that increase agricultural input efficiency—the amount of food produced per unit of agricultural input.

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Food Production and Wildlife on Farmland

Can We Have It All?

What kind of agriculture most benefits biodiversity? In recent years, few questions have animated conservationists and land-use scientists more than this one. Rightly so: agricultural expansion and intensification are leading causes of wildlife declines and habitat loss, and with rising demand for agricultural products, pressures are set to mount even further.

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Losing Ground in the Amazon

Deforestation uptick raises questions about sustainable intensification

Perhaps the most depressing GIFs I’ve seen are the ones showing the time-lapsed encroachment of deforestation into tropical rainforests. Seen from space, deforestation looks like matte brown polygons marching across a landscape of deep green. On the ground, it looks like farmers chopping down trees, burning them to clear the area, and planting crops like soy to sell for export.

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Video: Precision Agriculture

Visualizing Agricultural Innovation

In a new essay, Breakthrough's Linus Blomqvist and Applied Invention's David Douglas consider trends in global food demand and crop yields. Given how much land humans use to grow food today, and how much progress we're making towards growing it more efficiently, is peak farmland in sight? Watch the video below, and read Blomqvist's and Douglas's essay for more information.

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Breakthrough Does the Impossible

First Taste of the Meatless "Burger that Bleeds"

On an otherwise ordinary fall Monday, the staff of Breakthrough Institute did the impossible. Impossible Burger, that is.

The Silicon Valley startup Impossible Foods has started a limited release of its Impossible Burger, the meatless burger that "bleeds," at select restaurants in New York, L.A., and San Francisco. One hundred percent plant-based with ingredients including wheat, soy, and coconut oil, the Impossible Burger’s “magic ingredient” that gives it its unique meat-like quality is a protein molecule called “heme.” Heme is especially abundant in animal muscle and “is what makes meat smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty,” but the team at Impossible Foods was able to extract and ferment it from plant ingredients.

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Can Industrial Food Be Part of the Food Movement?

Earlier this month, Jayson Lusk, a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, made the audacious case that “Industrial Farms Are Good for the Environment.”

Lusk explains that operating at a large scale gives farmers the opportunity to invest in technologies that both improve productivity and reduce environmental impacts, like advanced machinery that can precisely track crop yields or water use. These tools and the precision they enable is something farmers a few decades ago could only dream about. He presents statistics showing American farm productivity has risen in recent decades while environmental impacts like land use and soil erosion have decreased.

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Do High Agricultural Yields Spare Land for Conservation?

New Data and Perspectives in the Organic vs. Conventional Debate

Last week, the open-access journal PLoS ONE published a paper by Andrew Kniss, Steven Savage, and Randa Jabbour measuring the difference in crop yields between organic and conventional farms in the US. But, in line with the author’s express hopes, this paper is “not just another organic yield vs conventional comparison for partisans to throw at each other in debates.”

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Improving on Nature

Dispatches from the Front Lines of Ecomodernism

"So sometime in the distant past, at least 20,000 years ago and probably much more, members of our species decided they could improve on nature."

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Seeds of a Good Anthropocene

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

The UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change's twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris is less than a month away. I'm not a huge fan of forums for hundreds of negotiators to figure out how to make business-as-usual sound like ambitious target-setting, but okay. 

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Songs of Ecomodernism

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

This week we published the German translation of An Ecomodernist Manifesto. I always like learning how 'ecomodernism' translates into different languages. In German, it's 'Ökomodernisten.' 

By my rough calculations, the Manifesto can now be read by about a third of the planet in their native language, and about half the planet in a primary or secondary language. 

...

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Ecomodernism: A Third Way

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

"During a presidential election year, the eco-modernists have a prime opportunity to advance their agenda on a national level. Is it possible for candidates to actually move beyond the question of who’s to blame for climate change and make this about sound environmental and economic progress instead?"

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Ecomodernists in Finland and Oysters in California

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

“Ecomodernism is an environmental movement that seeks to defend and enhance the environment’s well-being while simultaneously increasing possibilities for human prosperity. For ecomodernists, both the vitality and diversity of natural world and the existence and progress of humanity are fundamental values.” 

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Nature Unbound

Decoupling for Conservation

Over the last two centuries, the growing human population and rising consumption have caused widespread loss of wildlife and natural habitats. Existing conservation approaches based on protected areas and ecosystem services have been unable to stem this loss at the global scale.

There are also many trends that suggest hope for the future, however. Technological progress is increasingly decoupling environmental harm from economic growth. A new Breakthrough Institute report, titled Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation, offers a new framework for global conservation that focuses on accelerating the technological and economic processes that drive decoupling.

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September 23: Linus Blomqvist at UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources (London)

Global conservation efforts focus on protected areas and in recent decades on payments for ecosystem services. While important at the local level, these approaches have proven unable to halt the loss of wildlife and natural habitats on a large scale. Following the release of a new report Nature Unbound, Linus Blomqvist will argue that what spares nature is technological change, along with urbanization and modernization.

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It’s Time to Scrap the Ecological Footprint

Earth Overshoot Day Is Fundamentally Meaningless

Today is Earth Overshoot Day, the day when, according to the Global Footprint Network, “humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year.” By the end of the year, we are told, humanity will have consumed 1.6 Earths’ worth of renewable biological resources

Considering all the defaunation, pollution, freshwater depletion, and climate change caused by humans, the idea of global ecological overshoot seems commonsense. Farms, production forests, and cities together take up nearly half the Earth’s ice-free land, displacing and fragmenting natural habitats. 

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Price Nature or Make Nature Priceless?

Evaluating Conservation in the Anthropocene

A panel of leading scientists at this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue considered how best to protect natural areas, at regional and global levels. The panelists agreed that dominant forms of environmental protection have failed in many regards. 

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Ruth DeFries Bestowed 2015 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Mapping a Blueprint for the Good Anthropocene

Between 1845 and 1849 one million people starved to death in Ireland and another million fled the island. The immediate cause was a virulent fungus that destroyed potatoes. But the underlying reason, held good opinion in Britain, was that there were just too many Irish people. “The cheapness of this nourishing root [potatoes],” wrote Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus two decades earlier, “joined to the ignorance and barbarism of the people, have encouraged marriage to such a degree that the population has pushed much beyond the industry and present resources of the country.”

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Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene

Humanity As a Force for Good

Sometime next year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) may or may not decide that humans have changed the Earth so significantly that we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. The idea that humans have created a qualitatively different planet from the one we inherited was discussed at the beginning of the 20th century, but the informal use of the term dates back to the 1980s and ‘90s. In 2000, Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer formally proposed renaming the current geologic epoch, arguing that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, when the increased use of fossil fuels began the process of anthropogenic global warming –– a view that was echoed by other prominent earth scientists and promoted by environmental journalists.

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The Environmental Case for Industrial Agriculture

Small-scale Food System Enlarges Human Footprint

The following keynote address was delivered by Ted Nordhaus at the first annual Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy Symposium on June 3, 2015. The speech has been lightly edited.

Thank you for having me today. It has come to my attention during the course of this conference that the fast food chain Chipotle has announced that it will no longer serve food grown with genetically modified organisms. Apparently, this occurred last month, but somehow I missed it on Twitter. Between the debut of Caitlyn Jenner, the latest royal baby, and the FIFA corruption scandal, I guess it just slipped through my stream.

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Is Feedlot Beef Better for the Environment?

Smaller Land Footprint and Lower Pollution Pointed to by Scientist Judith Capper

This past February, the nation's top nutrition panel released new dietary guidelines, urging Americans to start thinking about the environmental impacts of the food they eat. Meat, especially beef, was highlighted as having the most environmental impact. Not all beef is created equal, however, so what kind should conscientious consumers choose? If you thought “grass-fed,” you might be in for a shock. Dr. Judith Capper, an animal scientist, shares her surprising research into how grass-fed beef actually has higher environmental impacts than conventional beef.

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The Return of Nature

How Technology Liberates the Environment

In September 2014, a bear in the Apshawa Preserve, 45 miles northwest of New York City in New Jersey, killed Darsh Patel, 22, a senior at Rutgers University, while he was hiking with friends. Patel’s death was the first fatal bear attack recorded in New Jersey in 150 years. Five friends were hiking when they came across the bear, which they photographed and filmed before running in different directions. After regrouping, they noticed one was missing. State authorities found and euthanized the bear, which had human remains in its stomach and esophagus, and human blood and tissue below its claws.

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Waste Not, Want Not

The Rhetoric and Reality of Food Waste

Food waste has become a high profile topic in the world of food politics and the environment. In the wake of a recent report, the New York Times wrote an editorial urging food waste reduction, calling it a “serious threat to the global environment and economy.” The United Nations estimates that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, and according to one expert, the amount of food wasted in the United States alone would be sufficient to feed 1 billion hungry people in the world. Jonathan Foley explained that smaller portions and eating more leftovers are some of the most effective solutions to increase food availability.

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Wicked Fat

Harvard Historian of Science Steven Shapin on the Nutrition Wars

Last month the US government issued a 571-page report suggesting it would be making significant changes to its dietary guidelines. Eggs are no longer a no-no. Caffeine consumption is encouraged to prevent Parkinson’s disease. The report comes at a time when new studies, and journalists including Gary Taubes, Nina Teicholz, and Aaron Carroll, have called into question the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet promoted by the nutrition establishment for more than half a century.

Breakthrough is interested in the battle over dietary advice as an example of “wicked problem” — a problem characterized by high levels of uncertainty and expert disagreement — and asked Harvard historian of science, Steven Shapin, to provide some historical and sociological context. Shapin is the author of numerous articles and books about the history diet and nutrition.

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Ruth DeFries Announced as 2015 Paradigm Award Winner

How Humans Thrive in the Anthropocene

The Breakthrough Institute will honor Ruth DeFries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University, with the 2014 Paradigm Award in recognition of her exceptional research on how humans transform their environments. 

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Agriculture

Feeding a population approaching 10 billion will require major innovations in the way we grow, distribute, and think about food. To meet demand with minimal environmental harm, we will need to sustainably intensify agriculture, growing more food and livestock on less land and using less water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Genetic modification and advanced technologies like lab-grown meat and high-rise greenhouses are needed to meet food demand efficiently and with minimal environmental harm. 

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Conservation

We live on a planet whose natural processes are now widely impacted by human activities. The Anthropocene, or “Age of Humans,” presents new challenges and opportunities for conservation, which must ask how a world population going on 10 billion people can lighten its footprint on the planet to leave room for vibrant, diverse natural landscapes. Embracing technology, urbanization, and human ingenuity is key to navigating this age of opportunities and hard choices. 

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Forging an Ecomodernist Vision of the Future

From Water Consumption to Whales, Generation Fellows Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

Have the construction costs and duration of new nuclear builds always increased over time? How did humans move away from hunting whales for oil and lubricants? What will innovation look like in the 21st century given that it is increasingly complex? These are a few of the big questions Breakthrough Generation Fellows 2014 tackled this summer, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research in the areas of energy, environment, and innovation. 

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A Wilder Bay Area

Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect

Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.

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A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet

Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century

Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife. 

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Can We Grow More Food on Less Land?

Sustainable Intensification Needs to Continue For Trend to Last

Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.

When you consider that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70 percent increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).

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Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature

Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.

But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment. 

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A Marriage of Two Agricultures

Pamela Ronald on the Need for GMOs and Organic Farming

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. "Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, 'Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what's in our food,'” Shumlin declared.

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The Best-Case Scenarios for Palm Oil

Why Rhett Butler is Optimistic About Forest Conservation

Two firsthand experiences with deforestation – one in Ecuador, another in Borneo – inspired Rhett Butler to launch the news site Mongabay, which was named one of the top 15 environmental websites by TIME, and remains one of the most popular sources for conservation and biodiversity news. Trained as an economist, Butler believes he comes to conservation with a broader view of what motivates people to act, and how certain conservation and land use policies are adopted whereas others aren’t. Most recently, he was an advisor to the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, which features a prominent episode on palm oil deforestation in Indonesia. Breakthrough caught up with Butler to discuss the economic benefits and environmental hazards of palm oil production, with an eye toward the policies and trends that give us reason to be more optimistic about deforestation.

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Beyond Food and Evil

Nature and Haute Cuisine After the Chez Panisse Revolution

“If, for some crazy reason, you decide to make this dish, then we’ll need to have a talk about the lichen powder.” So begins the recipe for “Prather Ranch Beef Encrusted in Lichen,” a typical selection in San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson’s new cookbook. Fresh lichen powder, needless to say, is not available at the grocery store. Nor can you order it online. You have to venture into the woods, find the best-tasting lichen, and scrape it off trees. Then you have to turn technology loose on it: clean it, rinse it several times, boil it for one to three hours, dehydrate it overnight, and grind it. 

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Reducing Our Hoofprint

How Agricultural Intensification Can Boost Yields and Biodiversity

Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts. 

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Marine Biodiversity is the New Frontier of Conservation

‘By-catch’ Reduction Shows Promise of Industry Working With Conservationists

The debate raging within the conservation community over “new conservation” appears to be essentially a religious war, with doctrinal beliefs well defined and the rancor and defamation appearing to grow each month. In essence, the “new conservation” argues that the major gains in biodiversity protection will be made in human-used environments and by working with communities and industries that use these environments rather than by the use of protected areas (Kareiva and Marvier 2012).

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Can Palm Oil Deforestation Be Stopped?

Why Only Sustainable Intensification Can Save Indonesia's Forests

There has been growing interest among environmentalists and the public in recent years about palm oil and its role in tropical deforestation. Most recently, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously features palm oil plantations in Indonesia as one of its main narratives, explaining how carbon emissions from deforestation are a driver of climate change. Celebrity correspondent Harrison Ford gapes from a helicopter, looking down at the swaths of palm oil plantations that have replaced tropical forest.

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Farm to Fable

Eating Local May Feel Good, But Is It Smart for the Planet?

The local food movement has captured the imagination of many foodies, chefs, and gardeners. But is “going locavore” also good conservation — or just an exercise in feeling good?

The term “local” food has various and sometimes conflicting definitions. It often means food grown “near” the consumer (eg, within 50 miles, the county, or the same state). It can also mean food sold in an alternative food market. And it could refer to food that has some characteristic reminding people of what they think of as home.

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The Human Toll of Anti-GMO Hysteria

Study Estimates Opposition Has Cost 1.4 Million “Life Years” Since 2002

By 2002, Golden Rice was technically ready to go. Animal testing had found no health risks. Syngenta, which had figured out how to insert the Vitamin A-producing gene from carrots into rice, had handed all financial interests over to a nonprofit organization, so there would be no resistance to the life-saving technology from GMO opponents who resist genetic modification because big biotech companies profit from it. Except for the regulatory approval process, Golden Rice was ready to start saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness in people around the world who suffer from Vitamin A deficiency.

It’s still not in use anywhere, however, because of the opposition to GM technology. Now two German economists have quantified the price of that opposition, in human health, and the numbers are truly frightening.

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Four Surprising Facts About Population

Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster

One often hears that we are in the midst of exponential population growth, and that the Earth cannot support many more people. Unless we take immediate measures to control population growth, the story goes, we are on a crash course for ecological and humanitarian disaster.

But what is really going on with global population trends? In this essay, we present four surprising facts that will change the way you think about population, the environment, and human progress.

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Bitter Harvest

How Anti-Technology Environmentalists Have Reversed the Green Revolution

Norm Borlaug had no illusions that the Green Revolution was anything other than a means to buy the world time. Time, to get our house in order, to stabilize our populations, to generate the knowledge that would allow us to support ourselves without destroying the environment; and to enable most people to lead their lives in dignity. The expectation, he told me in several conversations in the early 2000s, was that we as societies would take up the new knowledge and use it wisely. 

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When Renewables Destroy Nature

How Integrating Society Into Nature Can Be Bad For Both

The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.

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Love Your Frankenfoods

Anti-GMO Mob Scarier Than Biotechnology

The Frankenstein metaphor that opponents of genetically modified food use to promote their fears is more apt than they realize. Yes, the monster is an unnatural life-form created by scientific hubris that wreaks death and destruction, the way they describe biotechnology. But remember that frightened angry mob in the Frankenstein movie, the terrified townspeople that take up torches and pitchforks and follow their baying hunting dogs to kill what they fear? It’s a more-than-apt metaphor for how the most virulent segments of the anti-GM mob are behaving. And for society as a whole, between the perceived risk of GMOs and the real risks of making policy about safety under the torches of an emotion-driven mob that distorts and ignores the evidence, the latter is the FAR scarier of the two.

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2013: A Year of Hope and Change for the Environment

How the Green Ideological Nucleus Split

For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.

But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.

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Food Biotech Gridlock

Why Allowing Labeling May Assuage Public Skepticism

--Todd Newman and Matthew Nisbet

In November, Washington state voters rejected Initiative 522 that would have required foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be labeled. If the vote passed, Washington would have been the first state in the nation to require such labeling. With roughly $30 million in total spending, the ballot fight was the most expensive in the state’s history, making Washington the latest public stage for the ongoing conflict over GMOs that pits industry and many scientists against an increasingly well-funded coalition of media-savvy advocates. 

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GMO Fears Overblown

World Without GM Crops Poses Greater Risks

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the topic of genetically modified (GM) foods and, more specifically, labeling food that contains GM ingredients. Recently, the state of Washington voted on an initiative that would force manufacturers to disclose their use of genetically altered crops. If it was approved, Washington would have become the first state to pass GM labeling requirements, although dozens more are considering similar legislation.

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America, Land of Carnivores

An Interview with Maureen Ogle, Author of "In Meat We Trust"

In Meat We Trust,” Ogle’s newest book, hit shelves Tuesday, November 12. In it, she traces the history of meat in America, from the livestock raised by the original settlers to the birth of the modern industrial system. Along the way, she seeks to understand what she sees as a fundamental disconnect between consumers’ demand for an abundance of cheap chicken, beef and pork, and the producers whose motives bear little resemblance to what the critics would have us believe.

Ogle spoke with Salon about Americans’ long-standing and complicated relationship with their favorite proteins, from price scandals to pink slime. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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New Paper Challenges Metrics of Ecological Overshoot

Ecological Footprint Found to Be "Misleading"

Is humanity really using 1.5 Earths? That is the central finding of the Ecological Footprint (EF), a widely cited global sustainability indicator used by the United Nations and major NGOs around the world to estimate the impact of human activity on the biosphere. But a paper published today in PLoS Biology finds the method behind the Ecological Footprint "so misleading as to preclude its use in any serious scientific or policy context."

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Is Pot Growing Green?

Assessing the Carbon Footprint of Cannabis

Over the past several years, the campaign for marijuana legalization has surged ahead in the United States. Colorado and Washington have voted for full legalization, and a number of other states now allow the consumption of medical cannabis. Yet the US federal government still regards the substance as a “Schedule 1” drug, more dangerous and less useful than cocaine or methamphetamine. The position of cannabis in American society is a deeply charged issue undergoing a sea change in the court of public opinion.

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It’s Time to Label GMOs

Why We Need to Move Biotech Out of the Shadows

In just about three weeks from now, on November 5, Washington State will likely pass a ballot initiative to label GMOs. Polling I’ve seen suggests two-thirds of voters currently approve of I-522. Those numbers may come down a bit, but my hunch is this particular battle is lost.

I’m told that it’s entirely possible that the ballot initiative could then be struck down as unconstitutional, so it being passed is not the end point. But as Churchill once said, it is certainly the end of the beginning. The strategy of fighting labeling state by state will have failed, and something new will have to take its place. Today I want to outline to you some ideas about what this something new might look like.

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Fukushima Fallout Does Not Endanger US Seafood

Radiation Levels in Fish No Higher Than Average Banana

This article was originally published by the Center for American Progress.

In recent weeks, there has been a significant uptick in news from Fukushima, Japan. Officials from the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, admitted that radioactive water is still leaking from the nuclear plant crippled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The new revelations about the amount of water leaking from the plant have caused a stir in the international community and led to additional scrutiny of Pacific Ocean seafood. Last week, South Korea announced it had banned all imports of Japanese seafood from a large area around Fukushima. And Al Jazeera reported that the cost to the region’s fishing industry over the past two years exceeds $3.5 billion.

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Mapping the Anthropocene

Visualizing How Humans Are Embedded in Nature

Any ecology student could tell you what biomes are: vegetation types, such as grasslands and tropical rainforests, that ecologists use to map the planet. But there’s a problem. Biomes exist only at the discretion of nearly 7 billion people trying to live their lives on a crowded planet.

Invert that ancient image of invasive humans chopping away at the edges of a pristine nature. The era has long since moved from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Nature is now embedded within a matrix of human-altered croplands, pastures, towns and cities. These anthropogenic biomes — “anthromes” for short — offer a fresh way of seeing our planetary pastiche.

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Betting Against Apocalyptic Thinking

The Simon-Ehrlich Wager

$576.07. That is how much money Julian Simon won from Paul Ehrlich, John Harte and John Holdren in 1990 in a bet about commodities prices. The wager was actually a proxy for competing ideological views about the role of humans on the Earth. The story of the bet between Simon and Ehrlich is told in a wonderful new book by Yale historian Paul Sabin, titled The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and the Gamble over Earth’s Future.

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Behind the Golden Rice Attack

Don't Blame Filipino Farmers for Anti-GMO Attack

Did you hear that a group of 400 angry farmers attacked and destroyed a field trial of genetically modified rice in the Philippines this month? That, it turns out, was a lie. The crop was actually destroyed by a small number of activists while farmers who had been bussed in to attend the event looked on in dismay.

The nature of the attack was widely misreported, from the New York Times to New Scientist to BBC News, based on false claims by the activists. But then anti-GMO activists often lie. In support of the vandals, Greenpeace has claimed that there are health concerns about the genetically modified rice. In fact there is no evidence of risk, and the destruction of this field trial could lead to needless deaths.

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The Founding Father of Foodie

Wendell Berry and Green Pastoralism

No other contemporary writer has captured the hearts of food-conscious Americans than Michael Pollan, who argues across his seven books, most recently Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, that our food and our eating habits have a complex narrative we must heed. Today’s narrative, according to Pollan, is one in which Americans tacitly accept the industrial food industry and cheap energy system, both of which are cause not only for obesity and disease, but also global warming, pollution, and humanity’s numerous wicked problems. 

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Against ‘Anti-science’ Tribalism

Science Is No Substitute for Politics

One of the more useful concepts to emerge from online discussions is Godwin’s Law, which holds that the longer that an online debate takes place the probability that someone invokes Hitler or the Nazis approaches 1.0. When discussions reach such a point of fantastic overstatement, the existence of Godwin’s Law enables its invocation, and often a conversation can be reset to good effect.

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A Locavore’s Dilemma

On the Fantasy of Urban Farming

I have no idea where my food comes from, but I hope it’s shipped by rail from a California factory farm.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m an environmentalist, not an agribusiness executive. But I’m an environmentalist who can do math, and the numbers on locavorism, like much else in green-urbanist food ideology, don’t add up.

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Humans Have Shaped Earth for Millennia

Rethinking Invasive Species, Human Impacts, and Nature's Resilience

Are there any pristine ecosystems out there? The evidence is growing that our ideas about virgin nature are often faulty. In fact, the lush rainforest or wind-blown moorland we think is natural may be a human creation, with alien creatures from distant lands living beside native species. Realizing this will change our ideas about how ecosystems work and how we should do conservation.

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Don’t Fight GMO Labels

Realigning Consumers' 'Right to Know'

I support GMOs. And we should label them. We should label them because that is the very best thing we can do for public acceptance of agricultural biotech. And we should label them because there’s absolutely nothing to hide.

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The Truth About Genetically Modified Food

Debunking the GMO Conspiracy Theory

I think the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) represents one of the greatest science communications failures of the past half-century. Millions, possibly billions, of people have come to believe what is essentially a conspiracy theory, generating fear and misunderstanding about a whole class of technologies on an unprecedentedly global scale.

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The Long Anthropocene

Three Millennia of Humans Reshaping the Earth

Humans have been changing Earth’s landscapes at globally significant levels for at least 3000 years, and doing so by increasingly productive and efficient means, according to our new research challenging the claim that use of land by industrial civilization is destroying planetary ecology at an accelerating pace.

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The Ecology of Obesity

How the Focus on Neighborhood Food Environments Led Public Health Astray

Starting in the mid-nineties, ecologically-minded Americans increasingly came to see farmers markets as a way to bring healthy foods to poor neighborhoods, support local organic agriculture, and even address global warming. During the Bush years, major health philanthropies joined these efforts, making new grocery stores their highest priority in combating obesity, which was disproportionately affecting the poor.

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The Making of the Obesity Epidemic

How Food Activism Led Public Health Astray

In the 1990s, many public health advocates homed in on food availability as a significant influence on obesity. Major anti-obesity campaigns now center on radically remaking school and neighborhood food environments by reducing access to unhealthy foods and improving access to healthy ones. With this approach advocates have fostered a reductive story about obesity that appeals to liberal audiences but doesn’t comport particularly well with the evidence. Against the popular discourse, those most at risk for obesity would be far better served by strategies demonstrated to improve overall health than calls for more grocery stores and farmers’ markets.

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How Genetically-Modified Crops Can Save Hundreds of Thousands from Malnutrition

After Controversy, GM Rice and Yams Will Finally Reach Rural Poor

Biofortification is particularly useful for reaching the rural poor who grow the food they consume, and are therefore largely outside the reach of food fortification programmes, which work best in urban areas where most food is purchased in markets. Unlike supplements, biofortified vitamin A-enriched food and crops will continue to protect children from deficiencies in a sustainable way at little extra cost as they are harvested each year.

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Why I Was Wrong About GMOs

And How They Can Help Sustainably Feed the World

A Lecture to the Oxford Farming Conference on January 3, 2013.

I want to start with some apologies. For the record, here and upfront, I apologise for having spent several years ripping up GM crops. I am also sorry that I helped to start the anti-GM movement back in the mid 1990s, and that I thereby assisted in demonising an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment.

As an environmentalist, and someone who believes that everyone in this world has a right to a healthy and nutritious diet of their choosing, I could not have chosen a more counter-productive path. I now regret it completely.

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The Progressive Case for Modernization

Against the 'Infantile Left'

It is virtually impossible to discuss manufacturing, energy, infrastructure and related subjects from what I consider a center-left perspective without being challenged by anti-industrial or post-industrial Luddites who claim that the genuine progressive position is an amalgam of Mathusian anti-consumerism and energy austerity, often combined with support for old-fashioned, premodern methods of making artifacts and growing food.  I had thought that this debate was limited to the liberal left, and was surprised to learn, from an interview with Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa, that a similar debate occurs within the less familiar (to me) circles of the radical left.

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We’re Not Running Out of Fertilizer

Against ‘Peak Everything’

Jeremy Grantham, a well-known presence in the financial world, recently published a World View column in the journal Nature in which he concludes that, “simply, we are running out’’ of almost all commodities whose consumption sustains modern civilization. There is nothing new about such claims, and since the emergence of a vocal global peak oil movement during the late 1990s, many other minerals have been added to the endangered list. Indeed, there is now a book called Peak Everything. What makes Grantham’s column – published under the alarmist headline “Be Persuasive. Be Brave. Be Arrested (If Necessary)” – worth noticing, and deconstructing, is that he puts his claims in terms more suitable for tabloids than for one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific weekly magazines.

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The Future of Food

Ending Agriculture to Feed and Re-Wild the Planet

I have criticized him before for investing in projects like sovereign libertarian island-states, but I am glad to see that Paypal founder Peter Thiel is investing in the worthy cause of in vitro food production. The sooner we manufacture most of our food from stem cells or chemicals, rather than grow it, the sooner vast amounts of land on the earth’s surface can be partly or wholly “re-wilded.”

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Environmentalism, the Face of a Deeper Fight

The Lesson of Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner, an ecologist and pioneer of modern environmentalism who passed away on Sunday, pursued a mission that went far beyond preserving biodiversity or reducing pollution. Like many environmentalists today, he sought to advance a values-based vision of how society should work.

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How Land-Efficient Is Organic Agriculture?

It is a truth universally acknowledged - amongst my friends and relations at least - that organic agriculture is better for the planet. Environmentally-conscious consumers typically are prepared to pay a hefty premium for organic meat and vegetables, whilst baby foods are nearly all organic these days - reflecting the equally widespread belief that organic is healthier due to the absence of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. Everyone wants the best for their young children, and the best must surely be the most natural.


These beliefs are remarkably persistent, despite strong scientific evidence which refutes them. That natural necessarily equals more safe than artificial is a fallacy. In 2009 a major study for the UK Food Standards Agency found that there was no nutritional or health benefits to organic. Indeed there is strong counter-evidence, as relatives of those who died from eating organic bean sprouts in Germany last year can attest - as I understand it, the bean sprouts likely harboured toxic e-coli bacteria passed on via animal manure added to the parent plant. This use of manure rather than synthetic fertilisers is celebrated by organic proponents, but likely caused dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries in this instance. (Imagine if the sprouts had been GMO!)

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Beyond Planetary Boundaries

Environmental Science After Rio+20

The failure to account for different environments points to the main problem with the planetary boundaries framework: it only measures environmental change as negative -- as progression toward supposed biophysical boundaries -- and never as positive, either for humans (e.g., more food) or environments (e.g., higher yields resulting in less deforestation).

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Planetary Boundaries: A Review of the Evidence

The planetary boundaries hypothesis - embraced by United Nations bodies and leading nongovernmental organizations like Oxfam and WWF - has serious scientific flaws and is a misleading guide to global environmental management, according to a new report by the Breakthrough Institute. The hypothesis, which will be debated this month at the UN Earth Summit in Brazil, posits that there are nine global biophysical limits to human development. But after an extensive literature review and informal peer review by leading experts, the Breakthrough Institute has found the concept of "planetary boundaries" to be a poor basis for policy and for understanding local and global environmental challenges.

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Evolve Beyond Planetary Boundaries

In the two years since climate treaty talks fizzled in Copenhagen, the international community finally seemed to be learning from its mistakes. A growing number of NGOs and academics pointed to the lack of cheap and clean alternatives to fossil energy as the underlying cause of the failure of Kyoto, cap and trade, and the Emissions Trading Scheme in Europe. Business leaders like Bill Gates called for radical energy innovation as the key to feeding and electrifying the planet -- without over-heating it. And in a recent BioScience article, a number of prominent ecologists issued a manifesto calling for an international embrace of "planetary opportunities" like urbanization and agricultural innovation, two keys to truly sustainable development. 

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Agriculture Didn’t Plow Under the Hunters

By Robert Dello-Russo

In, "The Planet of No Return," Erle Ellis contends that "hunting-and-gathering was not displaced for lack of wild animals and foods, but due to the superiority of agriculture."

I disagree. Ellis's view of the rise of agriculture is a classic myth that has been propagated by non-archaeologists for generations -- the "better mousetrap" theory of agriculture. My own archaeological research suggests the opposite.

Take the commitment to agriculture in North America. We have good evidence that maize arrived in the American Southwest about 3,800 years ago. Yet, in the archaeological record, we do not see the sustained development of maize-based communities until about 1,500 years ago. If agriculture was so much better than hunting-and-gathering (H&G), what was everybody doing in the intervening 2,300 years?
 

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Love Your Monsters Ebook

Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene

These are demoralizing times for anyone who cares about the global environment. Emissions trading, the Kyoto treaty, and sustainable development have all failed. And yet climate change, deforestation, and species extinction continue apace. What lessons can we draw from the failure of environmentalism — what must we do now?

In this provocative collection of essays edited by the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism,” leading ecological thinkers put forward a vision of postenvironmentalism for the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Over the next century it is within our reach to create a world where all 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living that will allow them to pursue their dreams. But this world is only possible if we embrace human development, modernization, and technological innovation.

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Mark Lynas Interviewed in Yale 360

mark-lynas-environmentalist-and-author.jpg

Yale 360 published an interview this week with Mark Lynas, environmental journalist and author of The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, which was released this past summer. Breakthrough's book review of The God Species is available here.

Lynas has become well known for his about-face on certain environmental issues like nuclear power, genetically modified agriculture, and geoengineering. In the interview, Lynas discusses his conversion, and why he feels traditional environmental opposition to these technologies is irrational and dangerous.

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