View profile

Cropped: Food security fears; ‘Crypto’ carbon markets; Indigenous victories

Welcome to Carbon Brief’s Cropped. 
We handpick and explain the most important stories at the intersection of climate, land, food and nature over the past fortnight.

Conflict is worsening food insecurity, at a time when food prices have climbed to their highest levels since 2011. Millions face starvation in Afghanistan, threats of a Russian incursion into Ukraine are driving up wheat and corn prices, and Ethiopia is reeling under its worst drought in decades and civil war. Indigenous communities in Paraguay and Nicaragua battle malnutrition as a result of record heatwaves and displacement.
A new report found that firms such as Nestlé and Unilever rely on very low-integrity offsets to meet their climate pledges. Climate Home News found that a UK-based crypto firm was selling non-fungible tokens based on false claims of securing government tree-planting contracts. Meanwhile, an $80bn carbon-trading deal to protect Borneo’s rainforest came under scrutiny for its links to businesses named in the Panama Papers.
More than 200 hectares of old-growth redwood forest have been returned to an Indigenous council in California, funded by a utility company’s environmental mitigation programme. The council has committed to conserving and protecting the forest. In Ecuador, a court ruling gave Indigenous groups “a far stronger say” in extractive projects on their lands.
The second part of the UN’s COP15 Biodiversity Summit scheduled to occur in April/May this year in Kunming, China, might be further delayed, reports said at the time of publishing Cropped. 
Key developments
Conflict fans food security fears 
FOOD PRICES: Conflict is taking a toll on global food prices, which climbed to their highest levels since 2011, the New York Times reported. The Washington Post warned that “a major Russian incursion” would affect the flow of supplies from Ukraine, the world’s “breadbasket” and the fourth-largest supplier of wheat and corn. War worries “have already…sent wheat futures to two-month highs”, it reported, noting that Ukraine counts “economically battered, war-torn or otherwise fragile states in the Middle East and Africa” among its biggest importers. These include Yemen, Lebanon and Libya, “where grain shortages or cost surges could not only deepen misery but churn up unpredictable social consequences”. In Afghanistan, more than half the population of the import-dependent country faces food insecurity after its currency plummeted by nearly a quarter since the Taliban seized power, the Financial Times reported. Millions face starvation as essential goods are pushed beyond their means, a crisis compounded by the freezing winter.
ETHIOPIA DROUGHT: Southern and north-eastern Ethiopia are in the grip of a severe drought while civil war rages between Tigrayan rebel forces and government troops, the Guardian reported. Unicef is appealing for £23.7m for essential supplies, with more than 6.8 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, without which “ce sera la catastrophe [it will be a disaster].” According to its estimates, almost 850,000 children will be severely malnourished this year “due to a combination of drought, conflict and economic downturn”, the paper explained. The country has seen the failure of “three consecutive rainy seasons” and a locust invasion, leading to crop failures, livestock deaths and malnutrition. The aid agency’s country director warned that if it did not rain by April, “we will have something that is comparable to what we saw in 1999, or 1993-94”.
HEAT, DISPLACEMENT AND HUNGER: Indigenous communities battle hunger in different parts of the world. In Paraguay, prolonged record-breaking heatwaves have resulted in water shortages and forest fires, with some native communities losing as much as 80% of their crops, Mongabay reported. According to the story, effective aid is yet to reach Indigenous villages, prompting allegations of mismanagement of resources by the government just as Paraguay’s Congress “indefinitely postponed” voting on a bill to declare the drought an emergency. In another story in Mongabay, Indigenous communities in Nicaragua’s north are struggling with malnutrition as increasing “land invasions” by those hoping to profit from gold mining and cattle ranching are making it “harder for locals to access traditional foods”. 
Carbon offsets go crypto
CRYPTO CARBON: Cryptocurrency might be the new frontier for carbon markets in a net-zero age. But scepticism reigns, given the emissions associated with generating “non-fungible tokens” (NFTs), integrity issues in existing offset markets and on-ground challenges of nature-based solutions like tree-planting. A Climate Home News investigation found that a UK cryptocurrency firm Save Planet Earth (SPE) raised $70,000 from the sale of NFTs to plant billions of trees. Tokens generated were based on false claims of having contracts with the governments of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives – the last two being island nations where land to plant trees is scarce. The story reports that SPE was in talks with fossil fuel and mining companies interested in using its carbon credits to offset their emissions. 
ETH TU: WWF-UK waded into controversy when it announced the sale of NFTs of digital artwork to protect 13 endangered species, Climate Home News reported. Angry subscribers threatened to cancel their subscriptions, but WWF-UK defended itself saying it used Polygon, a “new generation blockchain” that is less energy-intensive than Etherium or Bitcoin. According to the story, WWF-UK calculated that one Polygon transaction has “the equivalent carbon emissions of a single glass of tap water”. However, independent experts said “the [Ethereum][Polygon] network currently has a carbon footprint the size of Sweden”. A piece in New Statesman pointed out that Polygon, while relatively greener, is a “sidechain” that “must eventually log its transactions on Ethereum’s larger system” and use its currency, Eth. Independent experts said “the [Ethereum][Polygon] network currently has a carbon footprint the size of Sweden”. Additionally, it said tying NFTs to populations of endangered animals could “take it into a very dark place”, whereby “the value of a particular animal-linked NFT could, in theory, rise if the species becomes extinct”. 
OFFSET INTEGRITY: A report by NewClimate Institute and Carbon Market Watch found that some of the biggest household and agribusiness firms in the world – such as Carrefour, Nestlé, JBS and Unilever – were using “very low-integrity” offsets against their climate and net-zero pledges. No company in the report’s list of offenders – which includes Amazon and Ikea – used offsets of “high” value, which have benefits to climate as well as biodiversity. Companies were scored and ranked on criteria including setting and reporting on targets, reliance on offsetting and how reliable those offsets are. Nestle and Unilever, the report said, “explicitly distance themselves from offsetting” at parent-company level, but “allow and encourage their individual brands” to do so while selling carbon-neutral labelled products. Nestle, additionally, claimed to offset within its own value chain through a practice it calls “insetting”, which the report’s authors warned could “lead to double-counting of mitigation actions”. Nestlé responded to the report saying it “contains significant inaccuracies”. NewClimate Institute’s Niklas Höhne tweeted that Nestlé had failed to clarify its baselines in its original roadmap. 
BORNEO BUBBLE: An Al Jazeera investigation found that an $80bn carbon-trading deal to protect Borneo’s rainforest was backed by a politician responsible for deforestation and his associate named in the Panama Papers. It found that dividends from state carbon-credit sales would go to a Singaporean shell company with no experience in carbon trading. The deal – ostensibly set to protect 2m hectares of jungle in Malaysia’s Sabah state – was signed by state officials and the shell company Hoch Standard “in absolute secrecy” in October last year, granting Hoch a 30% cut of Sabah’s carbon credit sales. An Australian businessman who allegedly brokered the deal “denied sidestepping Indigenous rights or that he or his company have been involved in carbon trading”. A whistleblower told the outlet that, if done right, “Sabah could [have] become the world leader in the monetisation of…carbon credits, but instead, we created a template other countries can use to pilfer and abuse the system”.
Victories for Indigenous groups
‘REAL BLESSING’: A 215-hectare swathe of California’s redwood forest has been returned to a collection of Native American tribal nations with the aim of “protect[ing] and restor[ing] their traditional coastal forest”, Mongabay reported. The land was donated to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council by the Save the Redwoods League, a not-for-profit organisation. The league believes the council will be able to “permanently conserve and restore” the land, newly renamed Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ, which means “fish run place” in the Sinkyone language. Priscilla Hunter, chair of the Sinkyone Council, called the donation a “real blessing”. Hunter told local radio station KQED: “It’s not often that you get land donated back to the Indians. You know, they’re always taking it.”
CONSERVE AND PROTECT: Together, the league and the council developed a 30-year conservation plan that will protect the endangered species that call the forest home, including the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, Mongabay reported. The outlet noted that these old-growth redwood forests “were logged extensively during the 19th and 20th century” and, today, only 5% of the original forest remains. In order for the transfer to go through, the council agreed to a “conservation easement”, Mongabay wrote, barring “commercial timber operations, fragmentation, development or public access”. KQED noted that the league had made a “similar land transfer” a decade ago of a 66-hectare piece of land north of Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ. The $3.55m purchase cost was “fully covered” by the “environmental mitigation” programme of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), KQED wrote. Mongabay reported that PG&E, one of California’s major utility companies, also gave the council an endowment of $1.3m “to support ongoing stewardship” of the land.
STRONGER SAY: Indigenous communities also scored a victory in Ecuador last week when the country’s highest court ruled that these communities “must have a far stronger say over oil, mining and other extractive projects that affect their lands”, the New York Times reported. Amazon Frontlines, a not-for-profit organisation that works with Indigenous groups to defend their ancestral territories, called the ruling “one of the most powerful legal precedents in the world” for the rights of Indigenous peoples. The New York Times called it a “blow to the ambitions” of Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso, “who had planned to double oil production and expand mining in coming years”. The original lawsuit stemmed from the A’i Kofán community of Sinangoe, who opposed gold-mining concessions along the Aguarico River in northeastern Ecuador. But the constitutional court’s ruling applies to the country’s 14 recognised Indigenous groups, whose “lands include 70% of the Ecuadorian Amazon”, the Times wrote.
News and views
SOIL STRATEGIES: Agriculture ministers from 68 countries around the world “agreed to contribute to climate protection and biodiversity conservation by protecting agricultural soils” at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in late January in Berlin, reported EurActiv. The meeting “emphasised” the role that healthy soils play in protecting the climate, and the ministers also agreed to “avoid further soil degradation by promoting agroecological” and other sustainable farming practices. EurActiv noted that the resulting plan is aligned with the “key priorities” that the EU has set, including its flagship soil strategy, “which has outlined plans for a soil health law by 2023 to bring soil on the same legal footing as air and water”.
CUBAN WATERS: Cuba announced a new marine protected area (MPA) off its northwestern coast, boosting its MPA coverage to nearly 30% of its shallow off-shore waters, Mongabay reported. The new MPA spans more than 700 square kilometres and includes several important coastal habitats, including “mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral reefs”. The area is home to a “range” of marine species, including groupers, crocodiles, manatees and two species of endangered sea turtles. One-third of the area will be fully protected from fishing, while the remainder “will allow fishing under certain conditions”, Mongabay wrote. The site also reported that local fisherfolk support these regulations, “as they understand that a no-take zone helps replenish local fish stocks”.
WETLAND WATER CRISIS: “Massive deterioration” of Zimbabwe’s wetlands since 2019 requires “urgent and decisive intervention”, wrote the country’s Herald newspaper. The capital city of Harare has been “facing a prolonged water crisis” and more and more citizens are turning to groundwater as a result. The paper reported that there has been a 50% reduction in wetland extent between 2008 and 2019, with much of the remaining wetland “heavily degraded”. South Africa’s Daily Maverick also wrote about the “critical state” that its own wetlands are facing. Only 11% of South Africa’s wetlands are protected, but those ecosystems “play a role” in sustaining two-thirds of the country’s economic activity, 70% of its irrigated agriculture and 90% of urban water users.
FOOD FEUD: Who feeds the world: peasants or agribusiness? Eight civil society groups confronted the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) with the reversal of its position on this and other questions in a 2021 report. Groups including GRAIN, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa and the Landworkers Alliance wrote an open letter to the FAO director, asking the organisation to explain its “statistically confusing” and contradictory positions that make it seem like agribusiness, and not “peasants”, contributes more to global food security. In the report, activists say the FAO credits farmers with contributing only a third to the world’s food security, reversing its definitions of who is a small or “family farmer”, measuring productivity solely by market value while arguing that large farms “receive disproportionately less attention from policymakers”. 
BUDGET BLUES: India’s first national budget after the historic farm-laws protest pushed drones as a means to cut down fertiliser and pesticide use and announced a “natural farming” drive in key election states, Mint reported. While fertiliser and food subsidies were slashed, fisheries and animal husbandry received a massive hike, according to the Print. Rural employment guarantee schemes with the potential to promote climate-resilient adaptation had their budgets slashed, reported Down To Earth. However, private agroforestry received a fillip as a means to decarbonise the economy, reported the Times of India. The National Biodiversity Authority faces funding cuts, with experts pointing out that biodiversity conservation is in line to receive a 10th of the funds allocated for palm oil plantations. 
Extra reading
New science
In the diary
New on Carbon Brief
Guest post: Does renewable energy threaten efforts to conserve biodiversity on land?
Last refuges for coral reefs to disappear above 1.5C of global warming, study finds
Coffee, cashew and avocado growers will be ‘seriously affected’ by climate change
From the archives
Cropped is researched and written by Dr Giuliana Viglione, Aruna Chandrasekhar and Daisy Dunne. Please send tips and feedback to
In order to unsubscribe, click here.
Manage all your newsletter subscriptions here.
If you were forwarded this newsletter and you like it, you can subscribe here.
180 Borough High Street, London, SE1 1LB, United Kingdom