Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Baby formula shortage takes toll on families 

Logan Police Department via AP

An ongoing shortage of infant formula has pushed retailers to limit purchases — leaving families scrambling to find food for their babies. 

The empty shelves are in large part a result of a February baby formula recall by Abbott Laboratories — implemented after several babies fell ill with bacterial infections and caused two deaths, The Washington Post reported.

Combined with existing inventory problems, supply-chain backups and ingredient shortages brought on by the pandemic, the recall has exacerbated an industry-wide shortage, the newspaper reported. 

Walgreens and CVS are restricting formula purchases to three per transaction both in store and online, while Target is limiting online purchases to four units per item. Walmart and Kroger are also rationing some formula purchases. 

“Unfortunately, shortages encourage some people to buy in bulk and hoard, which further contributes to availability issues,” Neil Saunders of GlobalData Retail told the Post. “This is why some retailers have put in place quantity restrictions.”

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Today we’ll explore the impacts of the lack of water in the West and the threat these conditions pose to California’s massive farming industry. Then we’ll look at political unrest and a rise in malaria cases in the Amazon. 

Drought jeopardizing $50B agricultural sector: report 

California’s farms are the largest food producers in the nation, but ongoing drought conditions are wreaking havoc on this $50 billion sector, a new policy brief has found. 

Crop revenue losses, combined with groundwater over-pumping and upstream supply-chain impacts, may have slashed the state’s agricultural revenue as much as $1.7 billion in 2021, according to the brief, published by the Public Policy Institute of California

Drought last year also contributed to the loss of 14,600 related jobs, amounting to about 3 percent of a sector that employs more than 420,000 people, the authors stated.  

‘Modest’ impacts are about to get worse: While the economic effects of the 2021 drought may have only been “modest statewide,” the authors warned that persistent dry conditions in 2022 will likely exacerbate such impacts. 

Over-reliance on irrigation: California’s farms have become increasingly productive, as they’ve shifted to crops that produce more profit and jobs per unit of water, while also strengthening dairy and beef output, according to the brief. 

But the state’s reliance on irrigation amid decreasing water availability remains “an enduring concern,” the authors wrote. 

Despite improvements in irrigation efficiency, both climatic conditions and regulatory constraints have restricted the availability of surface water, and over-pumping of groundwater has dried up wells, the brief explained. 

‘Precipitation whiplash’: “Climate change is making California’s variable climate even more volatile, with increasingly dramatic swings between wet and dry conditions—or ‘precipitation whiplash,’” the authors wrote, citing a 2018 Nature article that coined this phrase. 

“At the same time, California is experiencing a megadrought along with much of the West, with chronic low precipitation and higher temperatures,” they added. 


As a result of the ongoing drought, surface water deliveries to farms in the state’s Central Valley and North Coast dropped by 41 percent in 2021, in comparison to the 2002-16 average, according to the brief. 

Increased groundwater pumping raised farmers’ energy bills by about $184 million, while water shortages led to 395,000 excess acres of “idled land” — or land that is left unplanted — in 2021, the report found. Most of that idled land was in the Sacramento Valley. 

Making do with the minimum: To subsist with limited supplies, many farmers resorted to watering below the actual needs of their crops — a process known as “deficit irrigation,” which results in lower crop yields, the report explained. 

Across affected regions, the authors estimated that crop revenue losses and increased pumping costs amounted to about $1.1 billion, with about 8,700 jobs lost. 

But the real impacts are bigger: “Crop losses do not occur in a vacuum,” they warned, noting that suppliers also suffered as a result. 

The brief therefore estimated that the 2021 drought’s true economic impact was as much as $1.7 billion in revenue losses and 14,600 in lost jobs. 

What do the authors suggest going forward? They suggested that groundwater agencies incentivize farmers to avoid over-pumping by paying for alternative solutions like replacing at-risk wells. 

The authors also called for an acceleration of demand management strategies and “land repurposement” — such as a reorganization of perennial and annual crop mixes. 

‘Getting more water into the ground’: Lastly, they stressed the importance of improving water storage in underground recharge basins and upgrading conveyance infrastructure. 

“Getting more water into the ground can help recharge groundwater basins and build up critical reserves,” the authors added. 

To read the full story, please click here

Inflation fuels mining tension on Brazilian reserves 

High rates of inflation in the U.S. are driving up demand for gold, which is contributing to political unrest and higher malaria rates in the Brazilian Amazon, a recent report found.  

“Since I’ve heard of miners, I live in distress,” one Indigenous woman told the authors of the report titled Yanomami Under Attack! and put together by the Hutukara Yanomami Association. 

Yanomami is one of the largest communities in the Amazonian rainforest, spread throughout northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. 

All that glitters: Despite a dip on Thursday, gold prices are a four-week high, propelled largely by concerns over U.S. inflation rates and uncertainty around the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to MarketWatch. 

While only about 1 percent of U.S. assets are held in gold, a small change in price can mean a huge change in global demand.  

The Brazilian Amazon is one key source: High gold prices and complicit local authorities have enabled about 20,000 illegal gold miners to invade Brazil’s largest Indigenous reserve — nearly as many as the 29,000 Indigenous Yanomami people who live there, Bloomberg reported. 

The miners have destroyed 3,272 hectares of forest on the reserve since 2018 — a 46 percent increase this year over last year, according to Bloomberg. 

Across the Amazon, miners, farmers and cattle ranchers have cleared 363 square miles of forest since January 2022 — 64 percent over last year, CNN reported

Why so much destruction? The gold in the Amazon is bound up in the soil, and to access it, miners need to remove the forest. Only then can they filter the mud beneath for particles or flakes of gold, which they then refine using highly toxic mercury, which they mostly dump back into the rivers, according to Reuters. 

‘They destroy everything’: Miners extract about 30 tons of gold a year from the Amazon, which is worth about a billion dollars a year, according to Reuters

But in digging up the soil, miners leave holes the size of soccer stadiums, Yamomami health council head Junior Hekuari Yanomami told Reuters.  

“They destroy everything: trees, rivers, every single thing,” he said. 


Gold rushes have long meant malaria in the Brazilian Amazon, as the holes the miners leave behind fill with water and provide ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry tropical diseases. 

Cases of malaria in Yanomami territory have increased from about 966 per year in 2014 to nearly 12,000 — a twelvefold increase, Reuters reported

Malaria — and gold — are only the beginning: The expansion of mining operations, and the “groups of armed men” that carry them out, are pushing off fish and game and otherwise threatening the Yanomami people’s ability to use land for farming, hunting and fishing, a Brazilian anthropologist told Reuters. 

There are also persistent reports of miners committing sexual violence against Yanomami women, according to a summary of the Yanomami Under Attack! Report. 

Bolsonaro wants more: Brazil’s right-wing president — who relies on the support of the country’s rural caucus — has used the ongoing war in Ukraine as justification for a broad expansion in the federal government’s ability to issue mining permits on Brazilian indigenous reserves, according to The Washington Post. 

What’s the justification? Brazil’s agricultural sector is dependent on potassium fertilizers mined in Russia, a supply farmers are now feeling a lot more uncertain about, the Post reported. 

“This crisis is a good opportunity for us,” Bolsonaro said in March, according to the Post. 

One problem: Most of Brazil’s potassium fertilizer lies outside of the Amazon and 89 percent outside Indigenous land, the Post reported.  

That fact, in addition to the potential damage such mining would do to Brazil’s international reputation, have caused the country’s mining industry to oppose it, according to the Post. 

A political opening: In his bid to replace Bolsonaro, on Tuesday former left-wing president Lula da Silva visited the camps in Brasilia where 7,000 Indigenous Brazilians have gathered to oppose the bill, according to Al Jazeera. 

“Everything this government has decreed against Indigenous people must be repealed immediately,” da Silva said. 

And if not? Indigenous peoples “will have to confront the issue physically,” said leader Katu Pataxó. “We’re on the edge of civil war.” 

Thursday Threats

Official says oil waste pits kill birds, EPA says formaldehyde causes cancer and Russia tells Sweden and Finland NATO membership will mean a nuclear Baltic. 

Oil industry opposes Biden administration rule to protect birds

  • The American Petroleum Institute is balking at a proposed Biden administration rule that would institute new regulations and steep fines to protect migratory birds — hundreds of thousands of which die every year in pits used by the oil industry to dispose of drilling fluids, The Wall Street Journal reported. 

Highly anticipated EPA draft says formaldehyde causes cancer 

Russian ex- president threatens NATO-curious neighbors with nuclear arms race

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. Equilibrium will be off on Friday for the holiday weekend — we wish you and yours an enjoyable Passover or Easter, if you are celebrating. We’ll see you on Monday. 



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