Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Predator fish penetrate last precarious preserve

A virulent and voracious species of invasive fish has penetrated the ecologically delicate waterways of the lower Colorado River, The Associated Press reported. 

The presence of smallmouth bass below the critical barrier of the Glen Canyon dam means an existential threat to chub, an ancient native fish, according to the AP. 

Wildlife biologists have long dreaded the day when the bass — a sport fish introduced into the freshwater lakes of the West — would make it through the dam to attack the threatened chub, as we reported in June. 

Now with the devastating Western drought dropping reservoir levels along the Colorado, it’s easier for predator fish like the bass to get sucked through the turbines, presenting survivors with a vulnerable new world to inherit, according to the AP. 

So far, the National Park Service is relying on containing the downriver bass colonists in the eddy where they were found.  

“Unfortunately, the only block nets we have are pretty large mesh, so it will not stop these smaller fish from going through, but it will keep the adults from going back out,” Park Service biologists Jeff Arnold told the AP. 

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

Today we’ll look at the rising global food crisis and how U.S. biofuels programs contribute to it. Then we’ll look at a Southern city with forever chemicals in its water and a foreign-backed attempt to consolidate New England’s fishing industry. 

US biofuels a geopolitical liability in global food crisis

Africans are turning back to traditional grains to fight the sudden food shortages looming over much of the lower-income world — a result of the combination of climate change and disruptions from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

As prices rise across Africa and Asia, Russia is looking for ways to blame the crisis on the West, European and U.S. government officials warned Bloomberg. In many ways, Russia’s accusations aren’t far off.

Old grain is new again: Scientists, farmers and development workers are calling for Africa to re-embrace traditional grains like fonio as a means of feeding a growing population in an era of heightened drought, The Guardian reported on Thursday. 

  • Many such crops — like cassava and sorghum — were pushed aside by colonial and post-independence plantation farming systems that prioritized cash crops like sugar and coffee, according to The Guardian. 
  • Meanwhile populations came to depend on foreign grains like wheat and rice, which grow poorly in much of Africa, Edie Mukiibi of nonprofit Slow Food International told The Guardian. 

Vulnerability to disruption: This left the continent vulnerable to price spikes as the Russian invasion of Ukraine trapped 25 million of tons of grains from the 2021 winter harvest inside the country, Reuters reported in May. 

President Volodomyr Zelensky warned in June that 75 million could be trapped in Ukraine by this fall, Reuters reported. 

That would put 323 million people at risk of starvation, Group of Seven leaders warned last week, according to reporting collective FERN. 

Breadbasket battleground: Nearly five months into the war — and the growing season — much of Ukraine’s 2022 harvest is likewise trapped in the fields. 

  • “I have 1,000 hectares [2,471 acres] of winter wheat and barley, that I don’t know how to harvest. I’ll probably just light it on fire,” farmer Mykhailo Liubchenko told NPR, adding that artillery shells in the field meant tractor “drivers could be blown up. 
  • Ukraine’s Agriculture Ministry expects this year’s harvest to be half last year’s, NPR reported. 

The Russian military has begun supervising the harvest and export of Ukraine’s grain — with some farmers accusing them of theft or paying coercively low prices, the independent Moscow Times reported.

BIOFUEL DRIVE FUELS CHINESE PROPAGANDA CAMPAIGN

China has also sought to place blame for the crisis on the West. A key long-term driver behind ever-more-unaffordable food prices across the world is the U.S. and European quest for biofuels, Chinese Communist Party-owned China Daily charged this week. 

  • U.S. support for corn-based ethanol helped drive the spiking early-2010s grain prices that led to the wave of unrest across North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, NPR reported in 2011. 
  • Based on U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, China Daily calculated that the U.S. burns more corn as biofuel than the 1.39 billion people of Africa eat as food. 

China has its own biofuel program, though it produced less than 10 percent as much as the U.S. in 2021, according to data from the USDA and Energy Information Agency. 

The problem of government-driven biofuel demand driving up food prices has been long studied and is known as the “Food vs. Fuel” problem, as in this 2008 paper from the National Institute of Health. 

Replacing Ukraine: Cutting U.S. use of ethanol by 50 percent would effectively replace all of Ukraine’s grain supplies in the global market, Princeton University ecological economist Tim Searchinger told the New Scientist in March. 

“I legit thought that when this Ukraine war started that this would be the death knell to ethanol because of food prices,” Yale economist Austin Frerick wrote to Equilibrium. 

Instead, Frerick said, “we doubled downed to benefit a few Iowa land barons and Big Ag companies.”  

Cutting these subsidies would also wind down a program critics have long charged is a faux-solution that wastes energy, land and money, as U.K. environmentalist George Monbiot argued in an op-ed for The Guardian this week.

“What can you say about governments that, in the midst of a global food crisis, choose instead to feed machines?” Monbiot asked. 

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Forever chemicals found in Alabama water supply

The city of Mobile, Ala., has warned residents that potentially toxic forever chemicals are present in their water at levels above government recommendations.  

The levels discovered are above the nearly undetectable levels the EPA ruled safe in June, our colleagues at Nexstar station WKRG reported on Thursday. 

What are forever chemicals? A huge and constantly growing class of thousands of novel chemicals used for decades to combat fire and repel oil and water in products from firefighting foams to nonstick pans, as we have reported. 

  • Technically known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, they are known as forever chemicals because their chemical stability — the very thing that makes them so industrially useful — means they do not break down over time. 
  • Exposure can lead to health problems from birth defects to liver and immune problems or cancer, WKRG reported. 

What to do: The Mobile water authority suggested concerned customers consider installing filters, and an EPA fact sheet suggests steps people can take to reduce their exposure. 

Private equity buys up New England fishing industry

European private equity-backed fishing company Blue Harvest is buying up small fishing outfits, vessels and permits all across New England. Critics claim it is pushing fishing families into a position akin to serfdom, an investigation by ProPublica has found.  

  • “Tell me how I can catch 50,000 pounds of fish yet I don’t know what my kids are going to have for dinner,” fisherman Jerry Leeman told ProPublica, adding that it felt like “a nickel-and-dime” game to pay for renting fuel, gear and use of a Blue Harvest fishing boat. 
  • “What we’re seeing is a fundamental transformation of the fishing industry,” Seth Macinko, an ex-fisherman and University of Rhode Island professor, said to ProPublica. 

Case study: Over the last decade, the number of employers in the fishing town of New Bedford, Mass., have fallen by nearly a third, with nearly half of fisherman reporting working days of more than 18 hours, up from a third a decade ago, according to federal surveys. 

And over the past five years, private equity firms have doubled their share in mergers in the fishing industry — a sign of how large financial interests are driving a consolidation, Macinko told ProPublica. 

“Labor is getting squeezed and coastal communities are paying the price,” he said. 

What does the company say? Blue Harvest president Chip Wilson emailed ProPublica that he was too busy to talk, but not to trust the “rumor mill.”  

“I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to employees scared to the core for themselves and their families due to unsubstantiated rumors about our company,” Wilson wrote. 

Thursday Threats

Alaska faces a bad wildfire summer, a global food crisis risks unleashing an epidemic of aggression and Arizona faces historic drought with historic investment.

Another record fire season ahead for Alaska 

Scientists find evidence of ‘hanger’

In Arizona, big spending to head off droughtpocalypse

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you tomorrow.


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