1) Examining agrodiversity in the wake of our global food system challenges
2) Tribal run wildlife conservation proves successful and resilient in Kenya
3) Larry Fink’s annual shareholder letter has landed, and struggles to find a balance between corporate interests and reducing emissions
We’ve touched on this topic a few times but it’s about time we start talking about it more specifically with some supporting data and case studies.
Our global food system is a problem. Environmentally, socially, and in terms of our own health. For the past 75 years, we have rapidly shifted into a world of large scale, mono agriculture across just a handful of foods. This system of agriculture degrades soil, requires augmentation like fertilizer that poisons our water systems, pesticides and herbicides that kill wild pollinators and collapse natural ecosystems, and lead to a lot of our own health problems such as Type II Diabetes.
Here’s some startling data:
- 75% of all the food in the world comes from just 12 plants & 5 animals
- Maize (Corn), Rice, & Wheat contribute 60% of the world’s calories from plants
- Since 1900, 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost
We are not going to save this planet and avoid the larger catastrophes of global warming if we don’t change how we source & grow food and change our expectations as consumers as well.
The solution lies not only in regenerative farming – the practice of putting back what you take in from an agriculture POV, such as composting and maximizing soil health, utilizing cover crops, water efficiency – but also prioritizing agrobiodiversity.
So what is agrobiodiversity and what can the Quinoa craze of the last 15 years teach us?
LEVERAGING GENETIC DIVERSITY WITHIN PLANT SPECIES
When folks mention agrobiodiversity, there are two main factors:
- Embracing “wild grown/harvested foods”
- Embracing genetic diversity within plant species
With the 1st point, it’s important to clarify that human involvement is critical. Some tend to think this means allowing things to grow and foster (be it plants to animals) without any human interference, but studies have shown that the right level of human involvement actually aids in ecosystem health in many cases. Indigenous communities are the best stewards of this and who we should be learning from and empowering to harvest wild foods.
With the 2nd point, well here’s a fun fact. Did you know that in Peru alone, there are over 3,000 species of potatoes? Here is a picture showcasing just a few.
The Andes region in South America fosters the largest number of microclimates of any place in the world. And with it, one of the most agro biodiverse places in the world. Each of these sub species of potatoes comes with a unique nutrient mix and unique flavor profile. Leading to a higher quality diet for locals without the need to augment their potatoes in other ways.
What we mean by this is take our classic Idaho potatoes here in the US. Because we cook with and use fewer potato varieties, we then find ourselves having to customize the same potato in lots of different ways. Good for businesses selling the products that help us do this, but not ideal for the environment which is seeing soil degradation amongst other issues from this type of mono agriculture. Or for our own health!
When we bring that single crop at scale practice to places in the world that have thriving plant diversity, we see negative effects. Let’s take our beloved quinoa.
15 years ago hardly anyone knew about quinoa let alone ate it. It exploded as a superfood around 2006, and derives from the same Andes region as those potatoes, primarily in Peru & Bolivia. The surge in demand for quinoa internationally was great economically for these small scale farmers, and a recent study shows the slight increase in costs that came with it did not adversely impact local communities too much.
However, while there are thousands of natural varieties of quinoa, only 1-2 prevailed as the ones Westerners wanted. As a result, many of these smaller agrodiversity farmers converted to single species quinoa providers. 15 years later, they are seeing the negative impacts.
First, high prices brought into cultivation land that used to be allowed to rest as fallow, resulting in erosion and loss of nutrients. Secondly, farmers who are growing more quinoa, and getting more for it, have reduced their llama herds, so less manure is available as fertilizer and to protect the soil.
Quinoa demand has now started to plateau, potentially shifting to the next superfood craze, and with it, business will decrease for these farmers and they will be left with degraded farmlands that will make it difficult for them to return to their previous lifestyles. For us in the US, we simply move on to the next superfood craze, but we may have upended an entire region of communities and natural ecosystems in the process.
Agrobiodiversity is also critical for climate change resilience. As with more varieties of plant species, it is more likely that some will survive the changes happening to our climate. Losing this puts these communities and ecosystems at increased risk.
“Those varieties, created by Andean farmers, are the future of quinoa, to adapt to things like climate change,” says Stefano Padulosi, a specialist in underused crops and Drucker’s colleague at Bioversity International. He would like to see some sort of global mechanism to reward Andean farmers for their role in creating and maintaining quinoa diversity.
By no means are we trying to make anyone feel bad for eating quinoa. We eat it ourselves. That’s not the point here. Quinoa at scale is still far less toxic to our environment than industrial livestock farming at scale for example. But we should not be shaming meat eaters either. Given that 75% of all our food comes from just 17 plants and animals, it would be impossible to survive without buying food from the mono agricultural system.
The system itself is the problem. It needs to change.
Regenerative, biodiverse farming with more emphasis on eating locally grown, seasonal foods is the only future version of our food system that is not highly problematic.
When the next exotic superfood craze comes around from a dynamic region of the world like the Andes, we hope all varieties of it will be equally distributed. Sourcing food this way does not increase it’s cost or reduce the supply. The economics show that those famers in the Andes could grow 1 pound each of 100 species of quinoa for the same cost of 100 pounds of 1 species. They just utilize completely different practices. The former requires a bit more labor cost and less costs in buying fertilizers and pesticides, the latter being the opposite.
The key to unlocking this though is an alignment of government, supply chains, local communities and retail/brand marketing all working together to maintain diversity in demand.
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INDIGENOUS PEOPLE LEAD THE WAY IN CONSERVING WILDLIFE & LOCAL ECOSYSTEMS IN KENYA
Kenya has long been sort of a group zero for wildlife conservation efforts. This is because the country is uniquely positioned at the center of many vibrant natural ecosystems, has had a strong history of tourism similar to South Africa, has had an equally strong history of corruption and conflict, and has seen a lot of private, international money and aid flow through it.
In 2013, the Kenyan Wildlife Conservation & Management Act officials declared wildlife conservation as a form of land use, paving the way for an influx of private conservation efforts leveraging wildlife tourism as a way to fund conservation efforts and lift up local communities and protect species and local ecosystems.
The largest example of this being the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which has set up 39 conservancies across 42,000 square kilometers of land in Northern & Coastal Kenya, or roughly 8% of all of Kenya’s land area. The NRT is run by Ian Craig, an heir to an elite white family during British colonialism.
Part of their promise has long been to provide jobs and stability for local communities, to involve them in governance of these conservancies and prioritizing their needs on equal footing to wildlife protection. However, details in a recent study from the Oakland Institute called Stealth Game show that this is not exactly the case. Local communities are not governing the NRT, a board of trustees is, they are losing their land use as pastoralists to larger, more industrialized ranchers, and as wildlife tourism has cratered since the start of the pandemic, poaching has increased as well, to the tune of the Kenya Wildlife Service reporting a 56% increase in seizures of illegally poached wildlife since early 2020.
On the flip side, an Indigenous controlled eco-lodge in Kenya, similar to a conservancy, is showing us there is a better way forward.
THE IL NGWESI VS. THE NRT
Ian Craig’s NRT has the backing of some of the largest Western organizations and NGOs in the world. USAID, the European Union, and The Nature Conservancy or just a handful of the mega Western bodies that have contributed to the NRT. The NRT has also become intimate bedfellows with the Kenya Wildlife Service, exchanging members on their respective Board of Trustees.
This is a classic example of the mindset that the only way to conserve African’s natural ecosystems and wildlife – something key to climate change as well as these areas serve as critical carbon sinks – is to “take over” these lands via wealthy, typically white, foreign ownership with a focus on conservation. That leaving these lands to locals has led only to conflict and a lack of resources, allowing practices like poaching to flourish.
On one hand, there is logic here. Poor, underfunded local communities struggling to survive simply do not have the resources to stop poaching and if anything, end up relying on the income from supporting poaching efforts to make ends meet. And to be fair, the NRT has successfully reduced poaching across their 39 conservancies.
However, these organizations also strip local communities of their land rights and agency. They usher in their model of wildlife tourism and large scale cattle ranching to make these lands profitable. They are effectively shrinking natural roaming land for wildlife and building high-end safari tourism only accessible to other wealthy, elite travelers.
The Il Ngwesi people, an Indigenous, Maasi community who own and operate what is known as an eco-lodge near Mount Kenya, are proving there is a better way forward. And that better way is starting to be met with conflict with the NRT and some of the communities within it.
An eco-lodge is a sort of Indigenous governed and controlled equivalent to a conservancy, granted by the Kenya government. The challenge with them historically is how the rules can quickly change with changes in Kenya politics and leadership.
The Il Ngwesi have 40,000 acres of land. And they have designated 20,000 to pure conservation, and 20,000 for their community and agriculture, namely livestock. Their system of agriculture however is much more regenerative, with open grazing on the grasslands that benefit wildlife and cattle, vs. the more commercialized cattle operations in parts of the NRT.
The steep drop in wildlife tourism from the pandemic that has crippled a key source of income for the NRT has hurt the Il Ngwesi as well, as they had a thriving, more accessible and affordable tourism program running that involved not just wildlife experiences but opportunities to experience and immerse in their unique culture as well. But they have show much more resiliency during this difficult period than the NRT.
Whereas poaching is way up across the NRT as the shutdown of tourism led to the shut down of some of their rangers and staff to protect the bottom line, this has not been the case with the Il Ngwesi. This is because their ranger work is not a for-profit operation (even though the NRT is a non-profit, it is still very bottom line driven ), it is done by their community directly as a way of living. A critical part of their lifestyle and culture. They have been able to make ends meet via their more regenerative cattle operations and weather the storm of this economic downturn while still warding off poachers and protecting wildlife. And because their mode of tourism is more accessible to local African people, not just high flying world travelers, it too has been able to maintain better than that of the NRT.
And now, local communities within the NRT such as the Samburu, are stirring up conflict with the Il Ngwesi. They are a bit desperate after being drunk on the fruits the NRT offered for years. With some of that now cutoff due to the downturn in tourism, they are trying to expand their grazing operations into Il Ngwesi territory and are using force instead of permission to get there.
“The problem started when the Il Ngwesi lodge refused the Samburu access to the lodge for grazing,” one Il Ngwesi ranger told Jacques Pollini of McGill University, Canada, who was researching local land politics for a 2017 report with Karmushu. Another ranger said that in the old days, during severe droughts, [the Samburu] used to move in a disciplined way… They sought permission. They would pay … Now they are not disciplined. They are armed, and they feel they can do what they like.”
Those arms have been provided by the NRT as well.
As we have in cases in South America, we will continue to highlight the benefits of Indigenous governance in protecting our most critical natural ecosystems and wild species.
There is just no getting around the fact that local communities who have lived sustainably off lands for hundreds if not thousands of years are much more equipped to protect them than private, wealthy elites and governments and big NGOs. So when the case studies come out that support this, we will continue to share and point to them.
The key is not just giving Indigenous communities governance, but also the resources to succeed. If big environmental NGOs are willing to donate millions of dollars to a conservancy such as the NRT, why would they not be equally if not more willing to donate these funds to Indigenous communities? To help them buy back land and have the funds to ensure their lands and ecosystems are protected.
In South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia in particular, the best path forward for protecting our wild forests, grasslands, and coastal marine ecosystems is to empower local communities in doing so. To offer the funding and support, but getting the hell out of the way on governance and operations.
We may start to see this model here in the US soon too in the form of giving control of our remaining natural parks, such as Glacier or Yellowstone, back to Native American communities. Something we support with two thumbs up.
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LARRY FINK’S ANNUAL LETTER POINTS OUT THE CHALLENGES OF DECARBONIZING OUR SOCIETY
Every year, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, writes a shareholder letter in January pointing out super high level priorities on where he thinks companies can succeed. Many people listen and for good reason, because BlackRock is the largest money manager in the world, managing over $10 trillion of assets. Larry himself may be the most powerful voice in the global financial sector, and some would argue more powerful than any political leader given his words quite literally move markets.
Since 2020, this annual letter has dedicated an entire section to climate change, and the role of finance, CEOs, and board members in moving the needle in the right direction. Therefore, since 2020 we’ve been covering it here at Animalia.
The 2020 letter framed climate change as an investment risk, pointing out that companies who choose to de-prioritize reducing emissions and getting to net zero will likely pay for it economically in the years ahead. Larry prides himself on always approaching this topic from a pure profits and capitalism POV, not political or social. He cares about making money, not helping people, and honestly that part is ok because he is honest about it and we know money makes the world go round, so we need private capital supporting things like the clean energy transition. Altruism sadly is not nearly enough to save this planet.
In this year’s letter, he made a point to stand by the fossil fuel industry and support them in investing more in renewables rather than divesting from them all together, and that has stirred up a lot of discussion and conflicting views on the role of private capital & finance in the fight to save this planet.
You can read his full letter here.
CONTEXT FRAMING LARRY’S POSITION
There are a few contextual frameworks that are important to keep in mind when evaluating Larry’s position.
We already touched on Larry being a capitalist in the purest sense of the word. Which shouldn’t be a surprise coming from a billionaire who has made his fortune buying and selling shares of companies to the tune of $10 trillion in total assets.
To be clear, we are pro capitalism and think open markets are critical to tackling climate change, we just may differ on the amount and substance of regulation and standards that come with it. We’ll touch on that a bit more in the final section of this story, but let’s introduce a couple other key pieces of background information.
Since coming out and talking about the importance of decarbonizing our society and reaching net-zero by 2050, something Larry has been firm about, he’s been met with criticism from both sides of the climate issue.
Those on the progressive end of the climate debate who see the need for big, fast changes have called for BlackRock to divest of their support of the fossil fuel industry. 2.91% of BlackRock’s assets are oil, natural gas and coal providers. While that seems like a small percentage, it’s $291B of assets. But when you include the connection to fossil fuel across other aspects of the portfolio – be it materials manufactures making the equipment for those plants or synthetic fiber textile mills or financial firms also invested in fossil fuels BlackRock owns a stake in, the % of the portfolio tied to fossil fuels may be as high as 10-20%, representing trillions in assets.
Those against prioritizing climate change (notice we are purposely not labeling this as liberal vs. conservative, as we all need to break that habit and start including the conservative voices who take climate change seriously), have called out BlackRock for even committing to a net-zero goal by 2050 and supporting the global climate agenda. As an example, the state of West Virginia, a state heavily reliant on gas and coal plants, announced this year their state investment board will not use BlackRock anymore for asset management purely because of Larry Fink’s climate change agenda. In Texas, they passed a law last year requiring pensions to divest from any companies that support fossil fuels.
So it seems Larry is trying to perform a bit of a balancing act here. Because he has financial interest on both sides of the decarbonization movement. That was the main talking point of his 2022 letter on the front. Being clear that BlackRock is both:
a) Committed to decarbonizing our society and hitting net-zero by 2050
b) Absolutely not divesting from fossil fuels and supporting the role of those companies in transitioning to clean energy
He went as far as to call out natural gas and hydrogen specifically as critical components of decarbonization. Moving us away from even dirtier polluters like coal while continuing to invest in areas like wind and solar that are not quite ready to handle all of our energy needs.
There are a few things that we find to be true and important that we feel can and should coexist, even if some feel they cannot:
- Free market capitalism is a critical lever to solving the climate crisis given the technology and innovation it fosters
- Traditional fossil fuel companies should be held to higher standards on the energy transition and given they have clearly been unable to hold themselves accountable here, regulation & policy need t play a role
- It is more paramount to get off of oil and coal faster than natural gas, but there are better options to aid us in the transition to pure renewables, such as nuclear
- Companies need to prioritize how they are impacting the larger systems that are warming our planet and leading to biodiversity collapse with equal weight to which they hold their own net-zero plans, something not mentioned by Larry Fink
Ultimately, there is a lot of work particularly on climate communications. Larry’s struggle to find the right balancing act is representative of our struggle in communicating the climate agenda as a society. It should not be framed as capitalism vs. anti-capitalism. Or lowering emissions vs. carbon capture. We keep finding ourselves in these false dichotomy debates because of the polarizing, partisan nature of our media businesses and the consume—>reactive nature of social media without much critical thinking behind it.
To be fair to Larry, he’s on the more progressive end of his billionaire peers on Wall Street when it comes to climate, and that’s a good thing. He’s right to frame decarbonization as something in the economic interest of companies. But he’s probably trying a bit too hard to have his cake and eat it too when it comes to his support of fossil fuel companies. Yes, they are a really critical part of this transition and we need them to get it done. However, there must be more urgency in getting off not only coal and oil but natural gas as well. We can’t just cut it off like that – billions of people still need them today for power and electricity at affordable rates – but we need folks like Larry being more definitive that these sources must be phased out, not phased down, and holding companies accountable for having plans to do so, even if those plans will take years to come to fruition.
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