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Researchers say food prices don’t reflect environmental costs
Agriculture is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse emissions, but who pays for these environmental costs?
- A new study shows that food products fail to include their environmental costs in their price.
- If meat products included the cost of their carbon footprints, their prices would more than double.
- Policies to factor in these costs could change food consumption in ways that lower carbon emissions.
When people think of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions, they often tend to picture urban sources. Images of coal-burning factories, giant sport utility vehicles backed up in endless traffic jams, and energy-guzzling McMansions immediately come to mind.
This conception is not entirely correct, as a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions come from rural areas and agricultural production. Globally, a quarter of all such emissions come from agriculture. In the United States, 10 percent of all emissions have an agricultural source, roughly equal to the amount that comes from commercial and residential sources.
A new study from Augsburg University in Germany published in Nature Communications considers the carbon cost of food. Its findings could have serious ramifications for the environment, your wallet, and your diet.
The real price of what you eat
Many times, the costs of a product aren't fully reflected in the price paid for it. This is the case for the carbon footprint of many foods, as the cost of putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as part of their production isn't featured in the price at all, but is instead shifted onto the environment, society as a whole, or future generations. Suggestions that these external costs should be pushed back on the producers have been floating around for some time. In a way, this is done with various products, such as taxes on gasoline.
This study expands on previous efforts to find out what those external costs are when food is concerned.
Using life-cycle assessment (LCA) tools, the researchers determined when emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane occurred in the food production process. The effects of land use, including deforestation, related to food production were also incorporated.
The results were striking. Meat and dairy products are incredibly undervalued according to this measure. Pricing in the climate damage caused by their production would raise their prices by 146 percent and 91 percent, respectively. The prices of organic plant products would also rise, but by a mere 6 percent. Organic foods, in general, saw lower price increases than conventionally produced food products.
These findings are in agreement with (though larger) than the findings of previous studies. Study author Dr. Tobias Gaugler, an economist at Augsburg, expressed surprise at the magnitude of the results:
"We ourselves were surprised by the big difference between the food groups investigated and the resulting mispricing of animal-based food products in particular."
What would happen if the prices were corrected?
If adjusted, the prices of conventionally produced meat and animal products such as eggs and milk would skyrocket. Organic products would see their costs increase as well, though this would mostly result from having to ship more food around, as organic practices lead to lower crop yields per unit area. The cost difference between organic and non-organically produced food would narrow.
Study author Amelie Michalke of the University of Greifswald argued that more honest pricing would lead to changes in consumption habits:
"If these market mispricing errors were to cease to exist or at least be reduced, this would also have a major impact on the demand for food. A food that becomes significantly more expensive will also be much less in demand."
Particular food products are thought to be governed by the standard laws of supply and demand; if the price of one type of food rises, people will switch to another. If this is true, then a more accurate pricing of these products would presumably lead to significant changes in food consumption habits.
The authors have expressed their desire to continue investigating the environmental effects of agriculture, perhaps following this study with a dive into nitrogen emissions.
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An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.
Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.
- A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
- The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
- Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.