In common language and literature, the word parasite has nothing but negative connotations. It signals one who feeds off another in an exploitative and harmful way. This mindset towards parasites was reinforced once again as the title of the incredible 2019 movie from Bong Joon-ho. And what a film that was.
However, as it turns out, more than half of all documented parasitic relationships between species are actually mutually beneficial, at least if kept in the right balance. And in order to protect our ecological and food systems, we may need to start putting more serious attention towards parasite conservation.
Seems kinda wild, huh? Let’s explain.
The term itself refers to any two organisms that have a close relationship. These can be good and bad. But often that is not so black and white.
Let’s take the common hookworm. Nobody would probably raise their hand and say hey, toss a couple hookworms in me. With large numbers, hookworms can lead to intestinal disease in humans and cause anemia. However, a few hookworms is probably better than zero. This is because they can combat some autoimmune problems such as inflammatory bowel disease. The key then would be keeping them monitored and managed.
Let’s take another interesting example. The humble yellow rattle is a parasitic plant that drinks water from grass and can cause it to dry out. Doesn’t sound good right? False. Grasslands can easily take over landscapes and overwhelm other forms of wildflower. The humble rattle mitigates against this and in the wild, allows for key wildflowers to flourish amongst the grassland landscape. These wildflowers give life to insect pollinators, which then keep other vegetation strong. These pollinators give life to amphibians and birds. And so the food web goes. In this case the humble rattle is not necessarily positively symbiotic with its host directly – grass – but it is with the larger ecosystem around it.
Pangolins, a favorite animal of Animalia and the most trafficked wild animal in the world, seem to have a positive symbiotic relationship with a specific species of tick. Scientists observe more ticks in healthier pangolin population ranges, however the exact nature of the relationship has yet to be determined.
WHERE TO BEGIN WITH CONSERVATION
Well that’s a good question. A team of scientists who specialize in parasites have laid out a sort of 12-step plan to help conserve parasites. And it starts with data. We have no idea how many parasitic species there are in the world. They range from animals to plants to bacteria to fungi. So the first step is getting more informed and documenting more parasites and their ecosystem roles. This team has set a very ambitious goal of documenting 50% of all parasitic organisms on Earth.
There are other things we need to do as well. Ranging from adding them to protected species lists to creating protocols for parasite management to raising awareness in the media. We’re trying to help with the latter!
As an example, when many wild animals are captured temporarily for observation or tagging, let’s say a wild panda or that adorable pangolin, historically biologists first “clean” them of any parasites such as ticks and simply discard them. However, we often don’t know necessarily if that parasite is hurting that animal and if so how. Perhaps that parasite could be providing an immune system protection needed when put through a great deal of stress from capture. We are also missing an opportunity to collect and study that parasite by just killing or discarding it.
WHAT’S OUR TAKE
It truly marvels us how intricate and interconnected nature is, and how much we still have to learn and figure out. Maintaining biodiversity is one of the key pillars for addressing climate change and saving this planet. That is why we provide so much coverage of species and ecosystem health here on Animalia.
There is no doubt that parasites fit into our food and ecological systems in more ways than we currently understand. And these can be negative, positive, neutral, or oscillate between the two based on other variables. Either way, as ridiculous as it might sound, we need to take steps forward in conserving these often hated freeloaders. Much like a millennial living with their parents, while at first glance it might look like another drifter mooching off the family tree, that person could actually be really taking care of their parents physically and emotionally, saving up smartly for home ownership, overcoming their own health issues, etc….the point being, there is always more than meets the eye. Especially with parasites.
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BIPARTISAN MOVE TO SLOW DEFORESTATION
Global deforestation is a big problem. By now most folks know about the record setting deforestation pace of the Amazon in Brazil. From August 2020 to July 2021, the Brazil Amazon lost nearly 11,000 square KM, or roughly 13x bigger than New York City. The Amazon has tragically been deforested so much it is now on the verge of being a net greenhouse gas emitter as opposed to a net GHG sink. Not good.
We covered much of what is happening in Brazil on this front in a podcast episode earlier this year.
But it’s not just Brazil and the Amazon. This is a problem globally. Some deforestation comes from natural wildfires that occur every year. Some come from the more expansive and longer lasting fires due to climate change, which sadly does not have a great immediate term solution. However, the biggest culprit of deforestation is one we do have direct, immediate control over – clearly forests for agriculture and cattle.
It seems it’s so rare these days to find bipartisan support for anything, but a new bill to amend the Lacey Act of 1900 that would clamp down on deforestation is getting support from both Democrat and Republican representatives.
YOU ARE PROBABLY EATING OR USING DEFORESTED PRODUCTS RIGHT NOW
Honestly we all are. This is because 6 of the world’s largest commodities are the main sources of deforestation:
- Palm Oil
The problem is, we have no idea right now of knowing what is coming from deforested lands. The US, for example, imports 60,000 pounds of Brazilian beef every year, and no doubt a big chunk of that comes from deforested Amazon territory. However we are not tracking that because there are no laws or current financial reasons to do so.
This bill changes that.
It would impose major economic sanctions on any imports from illegally deforested lands specifically for these 6 commodities. And with it require tracking documentation for any and all imports for these 6 down to the specific source.
It’s being proposed as an amendment to the Lacey Act, an over century old law that bans illegal trafficked animal and plant products.
While this would be a major step in the right direction, it does come with one serious flaw in the form of a loophole. The imports would be sanctioned only if the illegal deforestation status is in the country where it occurs. i.e. Brazil has to make deforesting the Amazon illegal for beef from those farms to meet these sanctions. And while Brazil does have some existing laws against deforestation, they are nowhere as stringent as they need to be according to most ecological scientists. Don’t expect that to change at all under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
WHAT’S OUR TAKE
First of all, anything and everything that addresses climate change getting bipartisan support these days needs to be applauded. So let’s hope this amendment gets passed and we can feel some positive vibes towards our congressional lawmakers for a day.
That loophole however, is a big one. In addition, the UK and European Union are drafting similar bills, hoping to build some global momentum for this topic going into COP26.
Let’s harken back to ivory trading. While the Lacey Act passed in 1900, ivory sales in the US flourished for decades. Not until the 70s and 80s did the international countries home to elephants actually step up and issue stricter laws protecting our beloved pachyderms. With that the ivory sales in the US slowed down dramatically (although not so much in other countries).
So this law is only as good as the source country passing its own deforestation laws. Still, it’s a much needed step in the right direction.
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WALL STREET EYES OFFSET PAYOUTS
If you’ve been with us for a while, you know our skepticism on carbon offsets. If you are new to Animalia, well welcome! Love having you here. Let us introduce you to a prickly fella – the carbon offset. Not surprisingly, the offset is getting a new best friend – Wall Street.
Offsets are used by big companies to negate their carbon emissions and get to net zero. Producing a lot of pollution? Well, rather than, ya know, not doing that, you can just buy offsets and tell the world you are at net zero and keep on polluting. It’s accounting. There are some offsets that are more legitimate than others – such as renewable energy contracts. One of the most problematic areas is forestation. It’s wrought with issues, from forests not being maintained to leakage (where the company you buy the offset from plants some trees for you but then tears down some others for commercial usage), double counting, and so forth.
This is why we don’t think companies should have Net Zero plans at all. They should have plans on how they are lowering the emissions of their actual goods and services and positively contributing to larger systems, like decarbonizing our electricity grid, even if they never actually get to true net zero.
But sure enough, here comes big money on Wall Street smelling a way to make a quick buck regardless of the true long term environmental impact.
Oak Hill Advisors, which manages $52B in assets, is putting down $500M to purchase forestland they “claim” would otherwise not be managed sustainably – offering ZERO details on what this means or what evidence there is of this – alongside partners BlueSource, a company that creates and sells carbon credits.
DANGERS OF FREE MARKET CARBON CREDITS
Up until this point, most carbon credits have been sold in regulated, cap and trade markets that are designed to make it expensive to pollute over time. We’d like to just see a full on carbon tax instead, which this system is sort of in lieu of, but there have been some benefits.
However with this newfound obsession with Net Zero, every major company’s environmental target to check the ole PR box, and the rise of carbon offsets being the primary choice for getting there, the unregulated market for privately negotiated carbon credits is growing.
It’s very dangerous, because if it continues to gain momentum, it will keep companies from actually lowering their emissions at all, and will keep us in this game of chasing our collective tails on global warming and lead us head on into the dreaded 2C temperature increase. As a reminder, just 100 companies worldwide are responsible for over 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions. And offsets are most affordable by these massive companies, hence Wall Street’s interest.
Let’s take a look at other major players in this space?
Guess who owns a major stake in Finite Carbon, another offset seller competing with Bluesource? BP Energy, also one of the largest buyers of offsets as an accounting tool to essentially keep fossil fuels going and keep renewable energy minimized to avoid any disruption to their market dominance.
Guess who just bought a huge timberland investment firm in hopes of drawing and selling offset credits out of it? JP Morgan Chase, the world’s largest funder of the fossil fuel industry. Yes, that’s right all of you with those Chase sapphire cards, sadly your bank is pretty much the worst when it comes to environmental protection.
Oak Hill and Bluesource claim that increasing the offset market can allow for more forest protection, especially if the price of offsets outpaces the price of timber. However this is also incredibly misleading.
For one, culling some timber in the right amounts can be really beneficial. Particularly against wildfires and droughts, which are kind of a massive issue right now. Too many trees creates water competition that dries all of them out. We also need fire breaks by taking down trees in the right areas. These wildfires and droughts cause many other problems, not just the direct greenhouse gases the lost trees emit. Secondly, the biggest problem in deforestation is not for timber, it’s for agriculture. So getting to the point where forest-sourced carbon offsets can outpace timber costs will make zero meaningful difference.
WHAT’S OUR TAKE
Offsets really are getting so increasingly frustrating.
It should surprise nobody that these massive Wall Street firms know nothing about climate change or the science or domino effects behind what they are doing. They just see a new way to make money, and being able to window dress it as environmental progress makes it even sweeter. Check the boxes of those questionable ESG scores as well.
We gotta clean this stuff up. We have to stop the race towards Net Zero as the end all be all goal for companies. We absolutely at the very least should cap what % of your net zero plan can come from offsets.
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