… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

July 4, 2009

Jason Clay and measuring the environmental impact of agriculture

Filed under: aif09 — Ethan @ 2:42 pm

Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund gave a talk yesterday about video and social change, featuring the video below that tries to convince people to think through the impacts of their consumption, and what changes could be made to make use of resources more efficient.

His talk this morning looks at these issues in far more detail, asking hard questions about the sustainability of human life on a single planet in the wake of increasing consumption. This ends up being a conversation primariy about agriculture and food production, which Clay characterizes as the single largest threat to the planet.

Clay tell us that he grew up on a Missouri farm, which he ran for five years before going to college. He tells us that there’s an old midwestern saying: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” In environmental terms, we need to know where we’re going and where we are on the journey.

Ultimately, our population times consumption needs to be sustainable within the footprint of our planet – right now, we’re consuming roughly 1.25 earth’s worth of resources. If China consumes at the rate that the US population does, we need two new earths just for Chinese consumers. Clay asks whether consumers should have a choice about buying sustainable products. His answer – nope. They need to all be sustainable – consumers need to choose based on other metrics.

We need to focus on agricultural sustainability because agriculture is our major threat towards biodiversity. WWF chose 35 key biodiversity locations around the world to protect – the threat to all is human impact, and the threat of agricultural and ranching encroachment is twice as large as any other threat. We currently farm 33% of the world’s terrestrial surface, 57% of non-river and mountain land. An additional 12% of terrestrial land is protected. The fate of that remaining 30% will be determined in the next few years. Right now, we’re seeing agricultural encroachment into forest and wetlands at 0.6% a year.

Agriculture uses 70% of all water on the planet. One crop – rice – uses 14%. Water scarcity means that agriculture is becoming more unpredictable, more variable. This makes it hard for farmers to borrow against their future production. “If American and Brazilian farmers don’t get money to plant, we’re going to starve.”

We waste roughly 60% of the water allocated towards agriculture And we’ve lost half our topsoil in the last 150 years. Agriculture may provide 25-40% of greenhouse gases – we don’t really know because we don’t know how carbon is released from soil. And these ugly numbers all precede biofuels.

By 2050, we’ll have 3 billion more people in the world, and food consumption will likely triple. That’s because people spend money upgrading their diets before anything else, and “better” diets mean more animal protein. In the US, we’ve tried very hard to keep food inexensive – we pay less than 10% of our income for food in the US, eating out about 40% of the time. But we don’t necessarily pay for externalities. If you buy a large burger, the farmer gets paid about $0.25 for the ground beef. Growing that beef could require anywhere from 3000 to 15,000 liters of water – is that really a fair price for water? (Clay quipps, “Water is the new carbon – lack of water will kill you in a couple of days, unlike climate change, which takes decades.”)

The problem with getting a handle on these issues is that even big companies don’t have a huge amount of control over their carbon impacts directly – Coke, Clay tells us, controls less than 15% of their carbon impact directly, and the rest comes from the supply chain. “Generally carbon and water impacts aren’t under control of large brands or retailers – they occur upstream, in primary production of commodities.” That means that improving corporate efficiency doesn’t get the job done – you need to work with suppliers and their suppliers.

When WWF looks for places where they can impact supply chains, they look at these numbers:
– 1.4 billion producers of raw materials
– 6.7 billion consumers
– 15 commodities that represent the most potential for positive environmental impact
– 300-500 companies dominate 70-80% of trade in each of those commodities
– 200 companies represent 50% of 15 commodities, and 100 represent 25% of those 15

WWF’s take: let’s focus on those 100 companies. (Cargill is, by far, the most important of these companies.) The goal is to get them to commit to ensuring that 25% of one of these commodities will be sustainably produced, checked against third-party standards of sustainability, buy 2020. These goals need to be public and transparent to avoid greenwashing. And there’s a ton of interest in doing this – 21 companies have already partnered with WWF, and WWF is trying to bring in 15 more a year.

Mars has committed to making 100% of their cocoa sustainable. That’s important because they buy more cocoa that any other companies. Clay theorizes that 25% of the market is what it takes to “flip” a market – producers realize the economic benefits of sustainable production through higher prices and longer contracts and other producers will follow their lead in the hopes of reaching these markets.

WWF is focusing on cotton, palm oil, soy, sugar, bananas, pineapple, cocoa, coffee, wild fish, farmed salmon and shrimp, beef, pulp and paper, timber and biofuels. Bananas, pineapple, cocoa and coffee are critical to a number of regional economies, while the other are key global commodities. (Clay pauses to wax lyrical on aquaculture – it now produces more fish than wild caught, and the production goes in strange places. Turns out that Mars vastly more fish than WalMart… to make cat food.) Around each of these products, WWF convenes a roundtable to discuss global standards for impact, creating 4-8 key, measurable impacts that can be tracked and measurably reduced.

Once we start setting standards and monitoring impacts, we’re able to answer tricky questions, like whether we’re better buying local or not from a greenhouse gas point of view. It turns out that transport is only a tiny component in the carbon footprint of most products – 85% of greenhouse gas is attributable to production. So we’ve now got good studies that demonstrate that it’s far smarter from a carbon impact to raise lamb in New Zealand, freeze it and ship it to the UK than to grow locally.

This sort of analysis turns into uncomfortable news for environmentalists. Tesco looked into building more small stores and encouraging people to walk to them, rather than big stores with parking lots. They discovered that the carbon impact of the food people eat to power their walk to the store outpaces the gains from reduced car usage! The analysis of a grande latte – in the video above – shows that a company like Starbucks uses almost no water in producing a beverage, a few liters in producing a cup and lid, and hundreds in growing the coffee. You can bring a recyclable cup, and you’ll save some water… but if you really want to save water, you need to address the supply chain.

Clay looks closely at China’s increased consumption of pork – China has more pigs than the rest of the world combined. As China eats further up the food chain, they’re buying massive amounts of soy from Brazil. That soy is grown on former rain forest. Brazil is basically exporting soil and water to China in the form of soy, cotton and sugar.

We’ve got to find some way of increasing productivity if this trade is going to continue. There are eight key crops in the world which are responsible for 50% of the world’s calories. We need a 3% growth rate in production to meet our food needs – the two most critical crops, wheat and rice (which provide 80% of the globe’s calories), have less than a 1% growth rate. None of the crops with a growth rate over 2% grow in the tropics.

So we may need to get tricky. Mars discovered that 20% of cocoa trees were responsible for 80% of their suppliers’ crops. And they discovered that providing water during the dry season doubled production. Between careful irrigation and sequencing genes to discover the most productive cocoa strains, Mars predicts that their producers can grow 300-400% of their crops on 30-40% of currently farmed land. The rest can grow trees to sequester carbon, act as grazing land or as watershed. And it’s possible these techniques could be applied to oil palm and cassava, critical food crops in cocoa producing regions.

As meat consumption moves to the developing world, so does meat production. For meat to be 10% of the world’s calories, we can raise meat using nothing more than agricultural waste. But to bring meat production to 20% of calories, we need to double world grain production, which is just not possible. So we need to get more efficient. The humble fish stick is a miracle of engineering – it allows us to use 60-70% of the weight of a fish, and the remainer can go towards aquaculture feed. Fish will soon replace poultry, which was the previous miracle protein. (Think tilapia or catfish. Not much flavor, but the goal is to create a protein-rich substrate for spices.) Poultry efficiency – in terms of converting grain calories into protein ones – has doubled in efficiency every eight years over the past century. Now we need to look at other metrics. Producing a kilo of chicken requires 32 liters of water… Brazilian farmers figured out how to bring the numbers down to 16 liters. But the grain to feed the chicken requires 2500 liters per kilo – if we can reduce that 10%, we’ll see an amazing impact.

We get even bigger impacts through rehabilitating abused and abandoned land. In Brazil, farmers are buying land at 10 cents on the dollar and letting it grow grasses for five years. They’re able to borrow against the land, because when it’s rehabilitated, it’s more productive than agricultural land in use. In Borneo, farmers are buying land that was abused and planting oil palms – Clay says they’re selling carbon sequestration and palm oil simultaneously.

Business models that have multiple impacts at the same time are Clay’s obsession. He talks about conversations he’s had with Dupont about capturing sulphur from coal-burning energy plants. His idea – Dupont should capture nitrogen and sulfur and give it away to fertilizer producers. They’ll retain the rights to trade NOx and SOx credits. He predicts the model is so profitable that Dupont will be compelled to put the technology in for free in Indian and Chinese coal plants.

Making these systems work requires monitoring the commodities produced. When agricultural standards emerged, they came into play to allow people to make purchases sight unseen, defined by specifications – a bushel of #2 corn was a certain color, a certain quality and a cerain moisture. We’re now asking to buy products with values that aren’t verifiable through careful analysis. Was this organically produced? Does it contain GM materials? What’s the water usage? Is it fair trade? Was child labor involved? We don’t sell cocoa and child labor separately – we sell cocoa that’s free of child labor. We can – and need to – sell commodities bundled with cerain water and standards as well.

This won’t necessarily add cost – we’re capable of being more efficient with water and carbon footprints. But it will require third-party verification. Clay wants to see market standards emerge, before government standards come into play, because he believes markets will set a higher bar. He also believes we need to get over the idea of having completely separate supply chains. “You don’t buy green energy. You buy the bragging rights about green energy.” As long as a company is producing a certain amount of energy sustainably, you don’t care if your electrons come from coal or water. Perhaps a similar blurring can take place in agricultural markets.

I thought that this was one of the most revolutionary talks I’ve heard in a long time. Clay argues that, while consumers can have a modest impact on the environment, the real change needs to happen at corporate supply chain levels. This calls into question lots of well-meaning green orthodoxy. If it doesn’t matter all that much if you bring a recyclable cup to the coffee shop – at least in comparison to the coffee production – what other “truths” do we need to examine more closely?

One questioner asks whether we wouldn’t benefit from small, polyculture farms throughout the world. Clay administers “tough love” in response – polyculture’s great to feed a family, but it probably won’t get it out of poverty in the same way that selling commodities will. And small farmers have the biggest impact per ton of any on the planet. It’s not a scaleable way to produce food and address these issues of carbon and water.

I raised the concern that some of the well-meaning green efforts are paradoxically bad for the environment, citing Tesco’s “carbon count”… which encouraged consumers to buy less sustainable produce from Britain than more sustainable from Kenya. It turned an environmental good faith gesture into a retrograde action in green terms, as well as a damaging form of protectionism. On the other hand, people clearly want to do the right thing as environmentalists – they just don’t know what it is.

Clay suggests that it’s an and, not an or – we can take actions in our lives, but we need good data to make the right choices. But we also need to take actions as citizens. We can become informed on these issues and put thoughtful pressure on large corporations to change. He suggests letters to the Cokes and Nestles of the world, suggesting that a dozen letters is worth far more than thousands of Greenpeace postcards.

I was thrilled to see Saul Griffith – who gave the other best talk on these subjects I’ve attended in recent years – in the audience. That talk, at last year’s ETEch, looked closely at global power production and consumption and each of our personal footprints. Talking with Saul afterwards, I noted that he’d responded to his research by making massive personal changes in his life – travelling less, becoming mostly vegetarian. Clay’s talk seemed to suggest that the real impacts come at a corporate level, while Saul wondered whether there’s a moral responsibility that comes from understanding this sort of calculus. Saul assures me that the perspectives are compatible – I’d love to continue the conversation with them both to see whether the answer is that we should apply pressure for big changes at a corporate or government level, or whether we need personal change as well.


  1. I’m just an amateur at this stuff, but I don’t think this is that revolutionary. It’s good information along an already established line of thought.

    Maybe it’s that the “reusable cup” approach to saving the planet doesn’t seem like environmental orthodoxy to me. I’m happy to see people making these kinds of personal choices – I think it has some practical benefit, and a larger consciousness-raising effect. But I don’t think it’s enough. And I see plenty of debate about this stuff between environmentalists. The orthodoxy, I think, is commercial – it’s Starbucks and Whole Foods and Toyota telling us the way to solve problems is by buying things.

    So I bring my own cup to the cafe because I think it’s better than throwing away all that paper – but I’m not kidding myself it’s going to end global warming. So I also patronize a cafe that thinks about the environmental and social impact of its supply chain. And I donate to organizations, and vote for candidates, who I hope will bring about large-scale change. Like the man said, it’s an and, not an or.

    (Also, Obama: “Well, the truth is, Brian, we can’t solve global warming because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house.”)

    Although I’m not so revolutionized, it sounds like a great talk – I wish I could have seen it.

    I’d love to examine the assumptions behind some of the factoids, though. Like, Tesco found that it takes more carbon to walk to the store than to drive. But what if you combine your walkable store with a low-carbon diet? What if being able to walk to stores lets you not buy the car? What if not having the parking lot means you can fit more shops and residences within walking distance of each other? This talk encourages us to look at the big picture – but is the picture Tesco looked at big enough?

    Likewise, the claim that it’s better to raise lamb in New Zealand and ship it than to raise it locally in England. What makes raising lamb in New Zealand more sustainable than raising it in England? Can it be improved in England? And if not, maybe the solution isn’t “ship your lamb” but “eat something else”? I don’t know the answer, but that’s my point.

    Anyway, I’m glad I’m glad people thinking about all this and trying to provide the data and find the solutions. The more the better. If that Clay/Griffith summit happens, I look forward to reading your report.

    Comment by Erik Ostrom — July 4, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

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  3. Sounds like Jason Clay is making some sense at telling at least part of the story. The other parts that are not politically correct enough for an organization like WWF are the significance of increasing population along with future decreases in death rates from the biotechnology revolution that is just starting and the requirement of producing GMO plants and animals to obtain the required production efficiency increases. The WWF opposes GMO products including aquaculture product in the specification that the are working on for certification of tilapia and other product.

    It is strange that he apparently discussed tilapia production but not shrimp (an area where he spent considerable effort in attacking shrimp aquaculture while ignoring the more environmentally destructive bottom trawled wild shrimp). In the real world, shrimp have greater potential for converting waste into protein than tilapia and they use saltwater, not fresh water. Their ability to handle single cell protein sources in the form of bacteria grown on waste products is excellent.

    Comment by Dallas — July 5, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

  4. For the record, in response to Dallas:
    1. WWF has a carry over policy from the late 1990s on GMOs. We are in the process of rewriting it but with such a large multi-national group (especially many in Europe) this is a very contentious issue–more based on ideology and assumptions than science.
    2. I said in the talk that we need to be open to all genetic work, technology neutral and focus on results. Thus we have taken a position to be open with regard to different agricultural productions systems, e.g. conventional, organic, GM, IPM, no-till etc. or any combination of the above. The real issue is what is the result, the measurable performance.
    3. That said, I am personally opposed to GM aquaculture species because the chance of them escaping is simply too high. If we were talking about closed containment then I might reconsider, but that is not the case now. There are always escapes.
    4. I spent 18 months in the mid 1990s comparing wild caught vs aquaculture produced shrimp. I concluded at the time that while both had significant impacts, wild caught technology was not improving whereas aquaculture could. This review was widely distributed (1800 copies were commented on by a wide multi-stakeholder group) and it is why WWF has worked with shrimp aquaculture producers ever since. The FAO recently published a report on the impacts of wild caught shrimp trawls which used this report not only as the starting point, but also the outline for the report. In the late 1990s, I created a consortium with FAO, NACA and the World Bank, along with WWF to build consensus around shrimp aquaculture?s key impacts, what better producers were doing to reduce them, and what could be done globally to improve performance. Some 140 researchers were supported in 20-25 countries to produce 45 different case studies on issues that were both global and local. This work is still generally considered by all (including the industry) to be the most up to date and unbiased info on shrimp aquaculture.
    5. I am the one person from a major environmental NGO who has worked with the shrimp aquaculture industry over the past 15 years?and the only NGO rep ever to have given the keynote address at the World Aquaculture Society?often to the chagrin of my NGO colleagues.
    6. Both WWF and I see aquaculture as the future of seafood. According to most stats, humans consume directely more seafood produced from aquaculture than from wild caught fisheries. It’s a good thing, because some 75% of wild caught fisheries are fished at or beyond capacity. It’s also about time for this shift–we no longer hunt wild game or gather roots and tubers for food why should we still depend on fishing for seafood. But, that is precisely why it is so important that we get aquaculture right. Unlike agriculture, we don’t have the luxury of 6,000 years to improve performance.
    6. As I look forward, I think tilapia, catfish and pangaseus will produce the bulk of protein. It is true that shrimp can be produced in brackish water, but this can have unacceptable impacts in fragile coastal areas. While siting has improved tremendously, there are limits to growth in these coastal areas. Tilapia and other species can be produced in a wider range of areas (tilapia can now be produced in brackish water too) and are less dependent for fast growth on fish meal and fish oil inputs in their feed. They also can produce more MT/ha/year than shrimp because they can utilize more of the water column. In fact the value of these three finfish, in addition to the protein, is that they are each net producers of fish meal and oil which can be used to feed other species. However, to the extent that shrimp can be produced more sustainably, than this is not an either/or issue. There is room for both and that is why WWF is working with the different aquaculture industries to develop transparent, multi-stakeholder, performance based standards for 12 species produced from aquaculture. The standards will be finished by the end of 2010 when WWF and others will launch the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

    Hope this clears up some issues.


    Comment by Jason Clay — July 7, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  5. I don’t buy the idea that polycultural small holdings can’t feed the world. China got themselves out of abject poverty by encouraging small holdings over large coop commodity farms.

    And anyone who thinks you can’t get out of poverty on a polycultural small holding needs only look at how much productivity and money Polyface Farm’s Joel Salatin is making on his land, while building topsoil and sequestering huge amounts of carbon.

    Comment by Dawn Gifford — August 30, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

  6. […] Jason Clay and measuring the environmental impact of agriculture. [EthanZuckerman] […]

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  7. […] Jason Clay and measuring the environmental impact of agriculture (ethanzuckerman.com) […]

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  8. wpw. what a great article and a new way of looking at sustainability for the world’s markets and how they are all connected. i like how he talked from the standpoint of water and how great an impact that really does have on our livelihoods. i also enjoyed how he emphasized that we need to solve this problem through markets, not rely on government. the market knows what they need.

    Comment by kat — May 11, 2010 @ 10:24 am

  9. […] more than an hour long and, obviously, was able to cover more territory than an 18 minute TED talk. Here are my notes on that longer talk, which Clay was kind enough to vet and […]

    Pingback by Green Design » Blog Archive » TED Global 2010: Jason Clay and a Sustainable Future through Corporate Collusion — July 19, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  10. […] more than an hour long and, obviously, was able to cover more territory than an 18 minute TED talk. Here are my notes on that longer talk, which Clay was kind enough to vet and […]

    Pingback by FutureEmergency.com — July 19, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  11. […] more than an hour long and, obviously, was able to cover more territory than an 18 minute TED talk. Here are my notes on that longer talk, which Clay was kind enough to vet and […]

    Pingback by TED Global 2010: Jason Clay and a Sustainable Future through Corporate Collusion | test title — July 19, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

  12. Thanks for giving a straight-up talk on sustainability and thanks for mentioning the BS of carbon count or carbon credits or whatever it is they’re trying to con people with these days.

    Comment by Martha Roth — December 29, 2010 @ 10:46 am

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