1) A new study points to a link between grassland butterfly species and loss of small farms
2) As big private money continues to invest in faulty and unreliable carbon offsets, we examine the better and more effective ways to protect our forests
3) Scientists at Virginia Tech have taken a key first step in proving the potential of select food waste being used as an alternative to graphite anodes in batteries
Butterfly species have been on a steep decline across the world, and this is a really big problem as they are critical wild pollinators that keep ecosystems healthy and strengthen the food web. They also provide a natural form of pest control, and are indicator species, meaning they help show us signs of ecosystem degradation early on while we still have time to act.
Butterfly collapse has been especially intense in Europe. 20% of all European butterfly species are threatened. The Netherlands has lost 50% of butterfly species since 1990. The Krefeld study in Germany in 2017 found that the overall abundance of insects in nature reserves has fallen by 75% in the last 27 years. And in Catalonia, Spain, grassland butterfly species have dropped by 71% in the last 25 years.
A recent study points to a really interesting insight into grassland species loss that speaks to the importance of human activity, albeit the right kind of human activity. Farming.
A REMINDER THAT THE RIGHT KIND OF HUMAN ACTIVITY IS GOOD FOR THIS PLANET
With the advent of industrial agriculture, most of the smaller, “old-fashioned” farms across Catalonia have gone out of business and disappeared. As these farms get abandoned, the grassland ecosystems that were created by humans and nature together are left to nature only and change. The result: woodland butterfly species are stable, but grassland butterfly species have collapsed, which then creates downstream biodiversity loss, which impacts everything from water quality to the ability of these once powerful grasslands to sequester carbon.
It is true that industrial agriculture is horrific for this planet and ecosystem health. Single crop planting breeds use of pesticides which breeds nutrient-low soil which breeds fertilizer usage which breeds more mowing and tillage which breeds more machinery and so forth……everything suffers, including our own health as we are left to eat things like empty calorie modified corn instead of nutrient-rich wild vegetables.
However, zero agriculture can also be harmful to species diversity and overall output and strength of ecosystems, as this study shows in Catalonia.
Traditional, diverse, regenerative farming requires very little mowing, leaves space for wild plants and animals, leverages natural pest control from species such as wasps, utilizes the right amount of grazing animals to keep grasslands strong.
As a reminder, the earth was a far more volatile place prior to the arrival of early humans. Humans are also an essential part of biodiversity. Our hunting and gathering and farming efforts prior to the industrial revolution were really key to thriving ecosystems and producing some cooling elements in the atmosphere. The issue is we have long since blown past that stabilizing threshold into a highly destructive era, and even with that, most of it is concentrated with the advent of burning fossil fuels and the introduction of industrial agriculture post WWII – far and away the two most destructive elements of them all.
So when someone tells you the earth would be better off without humans at all….that’s not really correct. Although we understand why it sure feels that way at times!
So what can we do about this? We really need to help existing farms and rancher operations learn how to revert back to some of the traditional farming methods, support and subsidize them in making those traditions, and get behind smaller, local farming efforts and ween off larger corporate farming.
A great case study in this is a group called Paisates Vius, a non-profit that is working with local farmers to adopt practices to help the critically threatened Alcon Blue butterfly in Catalonia. First of all, these are really cool butterflies that have a parasitic relationship with ants. They trick the ants into essentially adopting their young caterpillars over the winter. Remember our podcast episode on why parasites are valuable? The video below is quite remarkable so take a look!
The organization is setting up partnerships with local farmers and ranchers to help them reduce mowing, compensating them for doing so with hay, collect and disperse wildflower seeds to create butterfly habitat, and really be partners in working with them to strengthen their farms in an environmentally rich way that fosters the return of the Alcon Blues.
As a reminder, one of the bigger shifts we think we will see across the world in the decades ahead is a return to smaller, vibrant local farming as we have no choice but to ween off large scale industrial, single crop farming. If we can pull that off, the butterflies and the entire ecosystems they support will thank us.
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WE ARE GOING ABOUT SAVING OUR FORESTS ALL THE WRONG WAY
In the last several months, there has been a ton of activity from big private money purchasing up depleted agricultural or other deforested land around the world with the goal of reforestation in order to cash in on the craze of the carbon offset markets, where prices per ton have climbed 181% since January. As well as a lot of scattered tree planting projects around the world looking for the same thing….selling those credits to companies looking to offset their emissions.
We’ve already written here on Animalia quite extensively on why carbon offsets are NOT the solution, and at best, a small percentage of them are a viable bridge to companies actually drastically reducing their emissions or losing their business to new entrants who can.
However, there is another challenge to point out here…..that the way the market is going about this is not actually ideal for the forests or our global economy. At face value – a private equity firm committing to reforesting 1,000 hectares of forest and protecting it for 100 years from any form of agriculture, mining or drilling sounds about right.
There is a better way…..
THE CRITICAL UN REPORT MOST PEOPLE HAVEN’T READ
Earlier this year, The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published a telling report about just how much healthier, stronger and more prosperous tropical forests are under indigenous control vs. those being actively protected by NGOs, governments, and now private enterprise.
Between 2006 and 2011, Indigenous territories in the Peruvian Amazon reduced deforestation at twice the rate of projected areas. They also emitted half as much carbon as those protected areas, and 10x less carbon than protected areas.
Across the Bolivian, Brazilian, and Colombian Amazon, land with Indigenous title ownership emitted 42 to 60 million less metric tons of carbon compared to non-indigenous ownership between 2000 and 2012. That’s equivalent to 9 to 12.6 million less cars on the road. The non-electric variety. That is worth $25 to $34 billion in value from lowered emissions, meaning those Indigenous owners should have earned as much as $3 billion per year in payment if we are properly paying for pollution and reductions accordingly.
You may think the explanation is the fairly obvious one where non-protected lands typically deforest for the sake of industrial agriculture whereas protected and indigenous owned lands do not. And yes, that is part of the story here, but not the entire one.
Because agricultural practices, particularly the growing industry in agroforestry (harvesting locally wild fruits and plants in a regenerative way) can very much be part of a vibrant and healthy forest ecosystem, as Indigenous communities have shown for thousands of years.
Let’s take the Nimmie-Caira wetlands in Australia as an example. In 2018, backed by the Nature Conservancy, the Nari Nare tribe, who had inhabited these lands some 50,000 years, won the right to govern these wetlands. They introduced a new, more natural irrigation system vs, the highly industrial system that was being used, and vegetation held strong while species such as golden perch and southern bell frogs, along with spoonbills, egrets, black swans and other birds, grew more abundant. The Nari Nari were also able to hunt the invasive species that were also harming the ecosystem and leave all native species alone. Those wetlands are healthier, sequestering more carbon, & producing more output in a regenerative way. All it took was turning the keys over to an Indigenous community.
THE FAULTY PROMISES OF CORPORATE FORESTATION
There is just absolutely no way any corporation or outside figure could care for a forest like an Indigenous group can. Especially if you want to both maintain it & harvest yield. For example, many of the forestation projects are approaching execution with the same monoculture mindset that has proven hazardous with industrial agriculture – they are planting rows and rows of single tree species without careful attention to all the surrounding plant biodiversity they need to thrive.
This is not about a trade-off between Indigenous forest ownership & economic progress via agriculture. That is a classic false dichotomy. There are plenty of ways to harvest sustainably from forests if we turn those decisions over to those who know how to do it.
Wildfires are another major issue with corporate/non-indigenous management, as local communities know how, when, and where to set controlled burns that keep wildfires from spreading.
So how do we solve this? Here is a handy checklist:
- Give tropical forest land rights back to Indigenous communities. Not management rights, but actual land ownership.
- Provide Indigenous communities greater access to climate finance. Last year just 1.7% of global climate funds went towards Indigenous groups.
- Compensate Indigenous communities for their environmental services, per the note above about the $3 billion in value created in the Amazon
- Make regenerative agroforestry the only type of agricultural practice going forward
- Protect tribal cultures, because as we erode these cultures we take with it their knowledge and systems
Finally, in a recent article in the Atlantic, David Treuer, a Native American, citing the litany of forced removal and broken treaties that enabled the creation of U.S. national parks, advocated for giving a consortium of Native American tribes the ownership and management responsibility — with binding covenants to protect natural values — for all 85 million acres of the national park system, as reparations in kind for land that was stolen from them. These are the type of meaningful, progressive ideas we need. Everybody wins.
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TWO SCIENTISTS SHOW HOW FOOD WASTE COULD UNLOCK BATTERY POTENTIAL
A couple of research scientists at Virginia Tech have taken a key first step in proving the potential of select food waste being used as an alternative to graphite anodes in batteries. This is a big deal on multiple fronts:
- Battery use is skyrocketing and will only keep going up as we move to renewable electricity, increase data centers, shit towards electric cars and so forth.
- Battery anodes primarily use graphite, which is mostly derived of fossil fuels, to act as the carbon material needed to create the negative terminal in a batter
- Food waste is becoming an increasing issue. Nearly 40% of all food in the US goes to landfills which themselves produce 33% of the world’s methane emissions
The biomass of certain foods – apple cores, walnut shells, grain feedstock and to be determined others as they expand their research – can be processed to pull out key components such as cellulose hemicelluloses, and lignin and then put through thermal treatment to produce the same carbon material needed for a battery anode.
It’s a pretty clever innovation that has the potential to offer a truly regenerative solution for helping us build batteries, which are an absolute must if we are ever going to clean up our energy and emissions, since the intermittence of clean energy like solar and wind need better storage tools to increase their adoption. They need…..batteries 🙂
Batteries are made up of cathodes and anodes to house the negative and positive charges. The most popular form of batter today are lithium-ion batteries. This is what you’ll find in everything from a smartphone to an electric car, albeit with some slight differences for each application.
There are multiple key metals that make up battery cathodes. Two key ones are nickel – which have high energy density but is quite unstable – and cobalt – which kind of acts as the stabilizer to prevent wear and tear so to speak, allowing the lithium ions to freely float between the anode and cathode.
The anode is typically made of graphite. And that is what this research team at VT is trying to replace. This is important because guess where graphite comes from? Primarily superheated coal or petroleum coke, the very fossil fuels that batteries are trying to help us move away from! Oh the twisted irony and complexity of it all 🙂
So by replacing battery anodes with biomass from food waste instead of graphite, we are sort of killing 2 birds with….ok wait, we don’t like this phrase because ya know, bird murder is not our thing. We legitimately looked up some alternatives and they were quite entertaining. Our favorite…..tickle two tummies with one finger. It’s both disturbing and oddly fascinating to imagine how to pull it off. Ok back to our regular programming…..the two benefits of this innovation:
a) Further lowering use cases of fossil fuels
b) Putting our food waste to further work. And the more we do this, the more infrastructure investment we will see in properly collecting food waste, composting, and so forth.
But wait, there’s more! The battery of choice for these researches also stood out to us.
EXCUSE ME LITHIUM, BUT SODIUM HAS ARRIVED
Another interesting decision from the VT team is that they are focusing their new food waste generated anodes on Sodium-Ion batteries instead of Lithium-Ion.
While Lithium has been the dominant battery to date, and will likely remain so in smaller forms ranging from smartphones to electric vehicles, Sodium-ion batteries are starting to really emerge as the ideal choice for large scale applications – think data centers and the electricity grid. This is because they have a much lower energy density. However in larger spaces where you can make up for the lack of density per battery with size and volume, Sodium-Ion has a lot of benefits.
For one, there is over 1,000x more sodium on Earth than lithium, and it costs less to extract and purify. For another, sodium cathodes use more plentiful metals such as iron and manganese. Whereas Lithium uses cobalt. Cobalt has a host of issues. Not only is the supply much more limited which is shooting up prices, but it’s mining practices are very problematic. Over 70% of all cobalt mining is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A lot of radiation and toxic elements come with cobalt mining, and the workers on the ground are often not protected, underpaid, and are utilizing child labor to race to fill demand. It’s a problem.
It will take time still for alternatives to Lithium-ion to develop for smaller applications, but for large scale, Sodium is the better choice and that is why the team at VT is focusing their innovation there.
As we talk about the energy transition to renewables, batteries are going to play a major role. They are going to allow us to move faster to intermittent sources like wind and solar, are key for getting off Diesel engine cares, and much more. It’s not enough to just say “lets stop using fossil fuels”…we need to invest in the technology that enables this to happen.
So if we can move some of our key battery components from fossil fuel derived materials like graphite to renewable components like food waste, that’s powerful.
And while yes, this might conjure up some images of Doc Brown feeding food scraps into the DeLorean to send Marty back to the future, it looks like that notion may not be all that far-fetched.
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