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Free Trade versus Good Food

How the World Trade Organization struck down Country of Origin Labeling for meat

Eager to chalk up some second-term accomplishments, the Obama administration is busy with the final negotiating stages of a sweeping free trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although many of the details of the agreement remain secret, a lot of progressives and environmental groups are worried about the broad outlines of the deal. If you care about creating a more sustainable food system, you should be worried, too. Let me explain.

Supermarket oysters labeled by country of originPhoto by Bob Nichols/USDAThe United States is currently in a trade fight with Canada and Mexico over a US law that requires Country of Origin Labeling on most fresh meat, fish, vegetables, and nuts sold here.

First, some background . The Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) is one of the largest free trade regimes ever conceived. It would include 12 Pacific Rim countries — among them Australia, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, and the United States — and link more closely together some 40 percent of the global economy. In a bit of Clinton-era triangulation, the White House is hoping it can bring together centrist Democrats and the business wing of the Republican Party to get enough votes to squeak this deal through Congress. If the agreement has any chance of passing, it will need that kind of cross-aisle support, because a lot of the president’s core supporters don’t like what they see in the TPP.

Labor unions, a bedrock Democratic constituency, have long hated free trade deals, which they say give added protections to international investors and huge transnational corporations while off-shoring good jobs to low-wage companies. Writing last month in the Los Angeles Times, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka and Robert Reich, the Berkeley professor and former Clinton administration labor secretary, warned: “Following NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] with the Trans-Pacific Partnership is like turning a bad television show into a terrible movie.”

Environmentalists are also anxious about the TPP. Here’s Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, writing at The Huffington Post: The implications of [the TPP] are profound: Corporate profits are more important than protections for clean air, clean water, climate stability, workers' rights, and more.”

Unions and green groups are especially nervous about the way in which the TPP would expand what are called Investor-State Dispute Settlements, or ISDS. What exactly is an ISDS, and why is …more

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In Africa, Clean Energy Provides a Route to Clean Water

Uganda and South Sudan us solar PV to lower cost of pumping water

In Africa today more than 350 million people lack access to clean water, leaving them at risk of deadly diseases. At the same time, many parts of the continent are “energy poor” — electricity service is either intermittent or non-existent. Now, some development agencies are trying to kill two birds with one stone by using solar energy to run well systems.

Boy drinking water from a wellPhoto by USAID/Morgana WingardIn some places in Africa, the high amounts of energy needed to power water pumps increases the cost of water by up to 40 percent.

The eastern Africa countries of Uganda and South Sudan are implementing initiatives aimed at integrating renewable energy and water supply networks to enhance access to clean drinking water at an affordable cost and also improve pumping systems. The two countries are undertaking separate initiatives with support from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in a bid to address the inefficiencies in water pumping systems. In some places,  the high amounts of energy needed to power water pumps increases the cost of water by up to 40 percent .

Uganda is implementing a number of projects with the support of development partners and donors that will reduce water costs both in urban and rural areas through use of renewable energy. For example, the government is finalizing the second phase of the Energy for Rural Transformation project, financed partly by the World Bank. The project’s objective is to increase access to clean drinking water and also clean affordable energy. The project — which covers the country’s Mukono District sub counties of Nama, Nakusinga, Ntenjeru and Mpata — enables communities to power their water pumping systems using solar PV. Large areas of Mukono District are far from the national electricity grid, which means communities have to rely on diesel generators to run water systems, an expensive source of energy that contributes to high water rates. Although the state-owned National Water and Sewerage Corporation does not cover water supply in rural Uganda, it admits pumping water using energy supply from the grid or diesel power generators has increased its water pumping bill to an estimated US$9 million every year, accounting for 35 percent of total operating expenditure. And yet Uganda, like many countries in Eastern Africa, has plenty of sunshine, with estimated solar …more

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Can Lions on a Leash Help Save Endangered Big Cats?

A leading tourism operator in Zambia is planning to suspend its “lion walks,” sparking new debate.

Earlier this month, Lion Encounter Zambia announced that it has “agreed” to suspend its “lion walk” activities beginning in November 2015, a move which is being celebrated by wildlife activists in light of growing publicity linking similar activities to unethical lion breeders in the wider region, particularly in South Africa.

Two tourists petting lionsPhoto by Philip MilneTourists pay about $130 for close up encounters with lions at Lion Encounter Zambia

Lion Encounter Zambia falls under the umbrella of the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT). While ALERT itself is a not-for-profit organization, it manages three commercial operations: Lion Encounter Zambia in Livingstone, and Lion Encounter Victoria Falls and the original Antelope Park facility, both in Zimbabwe. All of these commercial ventures offer tourists the chance to have “close encounters” with lions, a lifelong dream for many visitors to Africa.

Such encounters cost tourists roughly $130. Some pay up to a few thousand dollars to “volunteer” at one of ALERT’s commercial sites for a few weeks or so. All three ALERT sites attract huge numbers of visitors and volunteers per year, predominantly from Europe and, even more so, the United States.

Ostensibly, it’s all in the name of conservation. But many conservationists have their doubts whether such programs are in the interest of the individual animals or the species as a whole.

The most widely publicized and championed “conservation” project that ALERT sponsors is its four-stage “Rehabilitation and Release” program, which, in theory, would see captive-born and essentially tame cubs gradually being weaned away from human contact and learning to behave like wild prides in large fenced areas with other game. The cubs of these captive-bred prides, which never would have been exposed to human contact, would then be relocated to the wild areas of Africa that “most need them.” 

In the past few years there has been a growing chorus of voices against ALERT and in particular against its commercial ventures in Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The criticisms are numerous and multi-faceted.

First, lions at ALERT’s commercial facilities have been known to attack human visitors. In one incident ALERT’s founder Andrew Connelly had to kill a lioness that attacked a nine-year-old girl at Antelope Park. Some fear it is only a matter of time before a human fatality occurs.

Second, a number of former visitors …more

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What Lies Behind the Recent Surge of Amazon Deforestation

Conversation: Ecologist Philip Fearnside explains what needs to be done to once again bring deforestation under control

Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years and is one of the foremost authorities on deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest. A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Fearnside has focused his work on how to sustainably develop the Amazon in the face of enormous pressures to cut and clear the forest.

Ecologist Philip Fearnside

Fearnside is now watching with alarm as, after a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of cutting and forest clearing in the Amazon is on the rise again. In an interview with Fearnside explains the factors behind the resurgence in deforestation, including a slowly improving global economy, rising commodity prices, and recently enacted Brazilian laws and policies that are encouraging the development of the Amazon. Fearnside warns that this great tropical forest will sustain even graver losses if Brazil’s newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff — who is backed by large landowners and agribusiness interests — doesn’t change course.

Richard Schiffman: Deforestation is now rising dramatically in the Brazilian Amazon. When did this begin?

Philip Fearnside: Deforestation went up a bit — they call it the hiccup — in 2013, but now in just the past six months there has been an explosion. Deforestation, as measured from images taken by Brazil’s DETER satellite system, far more than doubled from September 2014 through January 2015 over what it had been during those same months a year earlier.

The government hid these figures before the recent election. The August and September data would normally have been released in October [before the October 26th presidential election]. But they sat on the data, and it was not disclosed until the end of November. It’s a scandal.

This comes as a surprise to many observers who thought that Brazil had the deforestation problem under control. Rates of deforestation actually declined from 2004 until 2012. How do you account for these earlier declines?

The exchange rate with the Brazilian real hit a peak in 2002. From almost 4 reals to the dollar, it went all the way down to 1 ½, which means if you are exporting things like soybeans or beef, all your expenses are in reals and you get paid in dollars, and they are worth half as much in Brazil, …more

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Three Deaths Near A Sierra Leone Forest Highlight the Problems that Plague Conservation Efforts

Human-animal coexistence issues can be more complicated than just economic and ecological factors

In the dead center of Sierra Leone, a river cuts through a patch of forest. At one point, this fragment was part of a much larger forest. However, industry, mining, and war have stripped much of the land, leaving only a small parcel of forestland. Deep inside this fragment of land, there exists a slowly dwindling glimpse of the jungle that had previously existed. Tall trees form a giant canopy. Beneath the canopy, streams flow past large flowering plants. Birds glide across the forest and their calls echo through the trees. Monkeys jump from branch to branch. Below them, wild cats, such as servals and genets, patrol the forest and small hoofed animals drink from the streams.  In the midst of it all, there are chimpanzees.

ChimpanzeesPhoto courtesy of the Arcus Foundation.Chimpanzees in the wild in Sierra Leone. As the primates' habitat shrinks violent confrontations with humans becomes inevitable

On a spring morning, two dead chimpanzees were carried away from this fragment. Their wrists and ankles were bound around a large wooden pole. As their bodies were set down on a dirt road, several people, all from the villages that bordered the forest, gathered around. They saw two large male chimpanzees; who, only a short time ago, had been part of a disappearing ecosystem.

Two months later, I walked through the forest patch, having no idea what had occurred. The man I was with had previously hunted the chimpanzees, but now switched his efforts to trying to protect them. (Names of all villagers mentioned in this article have been withheld to protect their identities.) I remarked to him that the chimps were completely silent. At this, he told me what had happened. The news took me by surprise. Looking back, I'm not sure why I was surprised. Up until three years before, killing chimpanzees had been a somewhat regular occurrence in the forest fragment, even though killing the primates is illegal in Sierra Leone. However, we were three years into a community-based conservation initiative  (a partnership between the local villages and us, the outside researchers) that was aimed at conserving this small population of less than 20 chimpanzees. The initiative had been successful for the first two years. Now it seemed like things were beginning to crumble.

I asked for a meeting with members of each of the six villages that bordered …more

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A Bicycle-Powered Food Recovery Initiative That Also Saves Water and Energy

Boulder Food Rescue has saved more than 800,000 pounds of food from being wasted with nearly zero use of fossil fuel or water resources

My legs ache. It’s 8 a.m. in February and the sun is just beginning to hit the mountains above Boulder, Colorado. I’m pulling a massive bicycle trailer filled with produce using a mountain bike. The traffic light in front of me turns green and I pedal through a four lane intersection at about 5 miles an hour. Behind me, the bike trailer carves a wide arc as I turn into the perpendicular street. After what seems like minutes, I reach the other side of the intersection and the safety of another bike lane.

Biker with food carrierPhoto by Ethan WeltyCome rain or snow: Boulder Food Rescue volunteers make 80 to 90 weekly deliveries to a thoroughly diverse group of recipients that includes the low-income elderly population, preschools, daycares, soup kitchens, housing cooperatives, day shelters, and homeless shelters.

I’m doing this for Boulder Food Rescue, a small nonprofit organization that has been redirecting perishable food from Boulder’s grocery stores to organizations in need for over three years. My trailer today is full of bakers’ bags of bread and stacks of prepared deli food in plastic see-through containers. Recently, I hauled 120 pounds of bananas. The deliveries are made using a fleet of bike trailers. The use of cargo bike trailers stands out in the suburban environment of Boulder, where volunteers ride with the car traffic on a daily basis.

Hana Dansky, executive director of the organization, explains how it all started: “We were doing a meal in the park called Food Not Bombs based on a model that was started back in 1980 and has chapters across the country. We started the meal and people were saying ‘this is the most nutritious meal that we can find, its full of fruits and vegetables’. Through doing that meal we really got to know the community and other non-profits that were serving the community. We started to figure out where the needs were and where the gaps were,” she says.

“We discovered some gaps in the system. By the time the food bank picks up food from the grocery store, transports it to the warehouse, sorts it, and then redistributes it, three to seven days can pass. Fruits and vegetables in particular they either couldn’t take, or couldn’t redistribute. They would throw them away or they would redistribute bad produce. We go straight …more

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On the Frontlines of Thailand’s “Blood Wood” War

Criminal syndicates are poaching rosewood from the forests of Southeast Asia

Deep in Thailand’s Thap Lan National Park it's oppressively hot, sticky and claustrophobic. Above us, huge trees, fighting to break free from the stranglehold of snaking vines, reach skyward, their spreading canopies stealing our daylight. We're penned in by a twisted tangle of dense, damp undergrowth, our ears assailed by a maddening buzz of cicadas, red mud sucking at our boots, ravenous mosquitoes feasting on our exposed flesh. It's forbidding and alien.

Siam rosewood tree with forest guardPhoto by Ann and Steve ToonA Siam rosewood tree blessed by a Buddhist monk in Thailand’s Thap Lan National Park. The forest has become a war zone, laid siege by gangs of armed criminals in search of rosewood, which fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars on the international black market.

It's also insanely beautiful and a biodiversity hotspot of international importance. Thap Lan is one of five contiguous national parks which form the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of more than 2,300 square miles of rugged tropical forest in the east of Thailand, close to the Cambodian border. It's home to many threatened and endangered species, including Asian elephant, Siamese crocodile, and banteng. And tiger. Seldom seen, but we have the proof of their presence right in front of our eyes. Eric Ash, of the Thai-based anti wildlife trafficking organization Freeland Foundation, has invited us along to check camera traps he's placed along the forest trails. We're poring over his laptop, amazed at the sheer wealth of wildlife that shows up: leopard cat, elephant, Asiatic black bear, pig-tailed macaque, large-spotted civet, dhole, hog badger. Then what we're most looking for: a huge, muscular male tiger fills the screen. Eric checks the stripe pattern. “This is male number two,” he says.

Freeland's cameras have revealed a significant population of Indochinese tigers living deep in the forest, where until recently conservationists believed they had gone extinct. But these same cameras have shed light on an altogether more sinister and deadly forest secret, the reason we're accompanied everywhere here by an armed guard. The forest has become a war zone, laid siege by gangs of armed criminals in search of a natural commodity that fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars on the international black market. It's not the tiger they're hunting, but a tree.

men unloading rosewood logsmore

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