Fairtrade doesn’t work: It’s time for the government to take responsibility for food injustice.

Cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast face volatile prices for their product if they don’t meet Fairtrade requirements

If you donate to a food charity, Fairtrade seems the place to go. After all, it provides a decent living wage to the world’s poorest farmers, who themselves often suffer from malnourishment. There’s one slight problem though, Fairtrade places it’s product on the global capitalist market and as a result creates more inequalities than it solves.

Fairtrade releases a commodity, let’s say cocoa, on the capitalist market. As such, the commodity is competed for by huge multinational retailers and the price of cocoa is now more volatile and reduced overall. Whilst this doesn’t matter for those who get a decent price from Fairtrade, what about everybody else?

To get a fair price for your food, you have to meet certain standards and be able to speak and sign documents in English. Those who can’t meet these requirements are often the absolute poorest and so not only are they not getting Fairtrade prices, but the price of their cocoa has gone down.

But what can Fairtrade do? It is embedded within an inescapable global capitalist market that itself opposes. In this way, they fundamentally oppose their own actions. Now i’m not saying you shouldn’t donate to Fairtrade, it is far better than the alternatives. However, it raises the question of why a charity that doesn’t even support its own actions, is seen as the solution to food insecurity.

Elizabeth Dowler, from the University of Warwick found that not a single UK policy was dictated by food security. Instead, they ‘support’ charities like Fairtrade. This is a blatant passing of the baton and a deliberate hiding from responsibility.

Providing global food security should be at the top of government agenda, but instead the best they can do is say, ‘fairtrade and other charities can do it, we support them.’ This total negligence of the world’s poorest is unacceptable and responsibility can no longer be placed at the hands of charities.

What happens when social and climate extremes collide?

Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the Syrian civil war, but would this have been prevented without climate change?

For most of us, the image of climate change is a hungry polar bear in a distant land, orangutans without a home or the bleaching of our precious coral reefs. For others, it means war.

Collin Kelley from Imperial College London explains that the appalling suffering from the Syrian civil war, whilst facilitated by extreme governance, is in fact the result of climate change. Collin explains that between 2007 and 2010 the fertile crescent, on which Syria lies, experienced the worst drought ever recorded. Although gross mismanagement by Syria’s president crippled their water supply, this was a drought that would be impossible without the release of greenhouse gases from humans.

The drought that lasted for 3 years resulted in crop and livestock devastation, but would not have been possible without rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The drought caused catastrophic loss of livestock and cropland, and without food a whopping 1.5 million people moved from rural areas to the cities, just to try and survive. Combine this with a huge influx of Iraqi refugees and Syrian cities faced massive overpopulation, crime, illegal settlement and famine. The Al-Assad regime has since systematically neglected the migrants, stimulating the shocking civil war.

This story makes two things abundantly clear:

Climate extremes, which are becoming more frequent, colliding with unstable societies ends in disaster.

Climate change isn’t just for tree huggers and weed smokers, but for anyone who cares about society and everyone in it.

Plenty more fish in the sea: the remarkable conservation success in the Gulf of California.

Biodiversity is flourishing the the Gulf of California since a conservation programme started.

Fish consumption has more than doubled in the last 50 years, leading to the over-fishing of a third of the worlds stocks. As a result, 90 species are at risk from extinction, including 40% of sharks and rays, which are important in ecosystem functioning.

It is easy to forget that fishing is not farming, it is hunting. On land, any animal that has ever been hunted for food has gone extinct. Luckily, the ocean is humongous and relatively inaccessible, so we still have a chance to protect our fishy friends from the same fate.

In the Gulf of California, Cabo Pulmo National Park was set up in 1995 and enforced a community based ‘no take’ zone, banning all fishing. Scientist Aburto-Oropeza studied the fish community in 1995, 1999 and then again in 2009.

After the first check up, they were disappointed to learn that the fish stocks hadn’t changed. You can imagine the excitement then, when ten years later fish biomass had increased by a ridiculous 463%, corals were thriving and sharks had started to patrol the ocean once more. Incredibly, the fish population had exploded so much that there was over-spill into surrounding area, boosting the yields of local fishermen.

However, these ‘no take’ zones only cover less than a percent of our oceans as it takes long term commitment and cooperation. Moreover, some of these have failed, due to a ‘top-down’ approach, where large companies have failed to use local expertise and reliable conservation methods to recover fish communities.

In any case, in a world where any environmental story is seemingly doom and gloom, it is nice to see a positive one!

The most extreme life on the planet part two: living for 250 million years.

Could a microbe (arrow) live inside a salt crystal for 250million years?

On the turn of the millennia, Russell Vreeland released an incredibly controversial paper, in which he claimed they had found a microbe that had been alive for 250 million years. That’s your life, 30000000 times. More remarkable still, the microbe had survived inside a salt crystal (above).

Originally, it was received with a great deal of caution in the scientific community, as no-one thought life could persist that long, even if in suspended animation, let alone active and growing. After all, how do you get energy to grow for a quarter of a billion years?

Since then, another scientist, Brian Schubert, devised a more robust experiment, suggesting that microbes can live off the glycerol produced by just one cell of green algae for 12.5 million years. The glycerol would provide energy for cell repair whilst preventing dehydration and protein damage.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility then, that life could persist for 250 million years, or even longer. Could Vreeland have been right all along? In a booming scientific field, the race is on to find out.

Extreme life part one: volcanoes:https://swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/2019/04/21/the-most-extreme-life-on-the-planet-part-one-life-in-volcanos/‎(opens in a new tab)

To understand how long 250 million years read: Feel old yet? Understanding just how ancient Earth is: https://swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/2019/04/10/feel-old-yet-understanding-just-how-ancient-earth-is/‎(opens in a new tab)

Are we creating a ‘super weed’, and how scared should we be of herbicide resistance?

Roundup is the most common herbicide, but will it work for much longer?

Weeds cost the U.S economy a whopping 30 billion dollars a year by competing for our crop’s nutrients, but are in a constant and gruelling fight for survival with herbicides. These herbicides kill the weeds, increasing yields by a third. The fear is that weeds will become resistant, creating ‘super weeds’, and with three billion more people to feed in thirty years, will be a serious threat to food security. But how likely is this, and should we be worried?

Well, herbicide resistance is happening, all the time in fact. By slightly altering the shape of their proteins, weeds can avoid the toxic herbicide, and if the genes for that protein spreads into the next growing season, will compete with the crop for nutrients and reduce yields.

The response of farmers is simple: rotate the different kinds of herbicides and the weeds won’t be able to react in time. However, Dr Christophe Delye is concerned that herbicide rotation might work in the short term, but could promote long-term resistance to not one but all herbicide types.

Farmers often rotate their herbicides to kill weeds like these ones.

He explains that herbicides work by targeting a specific part of a weed, say, the amino acids. Until recently, we thought that the response of the weed was equally specific, altering just the targeted amino acid. The reality however, is that when stressed, the weeds exhibit a range of responses, on multiple parts of multiple genes and in doing so, gaining a slight resistance to all herbicides.

Keep doing this and eventually the ‘super weed’ will be able to avoid every toxic herbicide we throw at them.

So should we be worried? Although the chances of a dystopian and barren landscape in 50 years is unlikely, we already have so many worries in the food system (see links below), that reduced yields from herbicide resistance simply cannot be allowed.

Is the choice between agriculture and biodiversity really an ultimatum? https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/139

Multi-billion pound American companies deliberately cause famine in Malawi to increase their profits. https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/87
The Soil we Live on is Disappearing and it is YOUR Responsibility. https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/swiftscience971095579.wordpress.com/55

The most extreme life on the planet. Part one: life in volcanos.

Yellowstone National Park, with each ring of colour due to a different microorganism.

For all its beauty, Yellowstone National Park is a terrifying place. If it erupted tomorrow, most of America would be drowned in ash, and they wouldn’t see sunlight for weeks. Add extreme pressures, no nutrients and oxygen depletion to the searing heat in volcanic pools and you can understand why we used to think life here was impossible.

However, those amazing dashes of red, green and yellows sweeping across the volcanic pools are not from the rocks but from microbial life which aren’t just tolerating the scorching heat, but need it to survive.

Apart from being a liiitle bit painful, if I jumped in the pool and tried to survive, my cell membranes would crumble, my enzymes and proteins would melt and my DNA simply unravel and fall apart. How is it then, that at 115°C we still find archaea (single celled organisms which are as different from bacteria as we are)?

To survive and grow, these archaea have ultra strong membranes to stop the cell from melting. Weirdly, they then pump salt into their cells, acting as a clamp to hold the protein and DNA structures together, so they don’t fragment. For food the ingenious and complicatedly named Sulfolobus acidocaldarius actually sticks and clings onto sulphur crystals and uses the hydrogen sulphide to gather energy.

Nothing so far has been found above 120°C as it is thought any large molecules will simply fall apart. But, we have been wrong before.

As an aside to why you should care, the first ever life, which has given rise to you, me and everything living almost definitely lived in a deep sea volcano. Furthermore, the enzyme used to replicate DNA and sequence entire genomes was isolated from a bacteria living in a volcano.

If you are interested, I will be writing about various extreme life in the near future, including life in space, other planets, inside ice, rocks and salt and will be asking whether it is possible for an organism to live for 250 million years.

Is the choice between agriculture and biodiversity really an ultimatum?

A once diverse community is converted into a sea of golden wheat.

Land that used to harbour an array of life is being converted into vast expanses of tumbling golden carpets of wheat fields, relentlessly smothering and suffocating everything in its path. This planting of monocultures is considered the single biggest threat to biodiversity on Earth. However, nearly a billion people are malnourished, and with an extra 2 billion more people by 2050, we have to find more food from somewhere.

It may seem like an ultimatum between food or forests, but Dr Joern Fischer from The Ecological Society of America examines how food can be produced without human’s mass slaughter of anything living.

Fischer suggests that combining fields and forests by having fallow years, targeting areas for native wildlife to establish, or even just to have a row of trees at the boundary of the farm is enough to significantly increase biodiversity. Providing a lush oasis in the middle of the rolling dunes in wheat field deserts would not only save vital species, but make the crops less vulnerable to disease or shocks and stabilize and pump nutrients into the soil, ultimately increasing yields in the long term.

In Costa Rica, they have combined agriculture and natural forests to create a diverse, but productive landscape.

Fischer also notes the importance of creating corridors between ‘natural paradises’ or national parks. Every creature has a certain climate they thrive in, called their ‘climate envelope,’ outside of which survival is a struggle. Clearly, a polar bear would struggle in the Amazon and Trump (or Drumpf, which is his original family name) would struggle in any meaningful conversation. These natural refuges can’t move and so, with climate change, more and more species are suffering in a climate their not supposed to be in. Natural corridors would offer a network, like roads between cities, for creatures and trees to travel across in order to stay within their envelope.

It seems then that whilst intensification of agriculture is needed to feed the world, we can work with nature to produce more food, whilst maintaining oases for wildlife to thrive.