Unit 4: Environmental Change


Agriculture has been transformed in recent decades.

There has been a shift to mechanised production methods which save labour costs and speed up processes.

Increasing levels of capital are required as agricultural technologies  have increased – HYV seeds, pesticides, fertilisers. Mechanisation & industrialisation of production techniques have increased production levels.  this has come with an environmental cost though.

This has resulted in large corporations dominating the agricultural industry in the U.S. and many other countries.  To maximise efficiency and profit, traditional farming methods have been replaced with a more production line approach.  Cattle are kept in huge numbers (high density), fed on corn rather than grazing on grass and then slaughtered & butchered in large factories before being dispatched to  locations across the country.

The use of chemicals (fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides) has resulted in the leaching of these into groundwater supplies and rivers.  In some cases causing eutrophication and the subsequent decline of the life in the river.


Environmental Impacts of Agro-industrialisation

  • Monocultures: Environmentally unsustainable as they draw from the same narrow band of nutrients from the soil  –  degrading soil quality and requiring additional fertiliser.  They offer little benefit for other wildlife as they provide limited habitat diversity.
  • Crops used to feed livestock: increased pressure on land as the energy loss in between the trophic levels (producer to consumer) to producing meat is vast (around 90%)
  • Disease outbreaks can easily and quickly spread in intensive meat production due to high density and close confinement. E.g. swine flu traced to agro-industrial farm in Mexico for pigs.
  • Deforestation and loss of biodiversity e.g. cattle ranches in Amazonia
  • Freshwater degradation through pollution by chemicals –  affecting rivers and groundwater.

Food Miles

Definition: A measure of the distance food travels from its source to the consumer.  This can be given either in units of actual

Food Miles: New Zealand Kiwi
Food Miles: New Zealand Kiwi

distance or of energy consumed during transport.

In recent decades increasing disposable incomes have led consumers to demand foreign produce in the home countries.  It is now common place to see foreign fruits such as mangoes, bananas, melons in UK & European supermarkets.

Food miles are important as they have a number of implications:

Transporting the food inevitable uses energy – in the form of fossil fuels.  This has well documented environmental impacts through increased levels of air pollution (climate change, acid rain, respiratory diseases).  It also increases the price of the food & with declining oil reserve the price is likely to rise further.

An additional concern with food miles is that food exported (often from primary industry based economies such as many African countries) is no longer available for domestic consumption which can leave the country short of food.  It also prompts farmers to grow crops for export if they can make more money rather than traditional staple crops such as maize.

Farmers in the countries that import the food often cannot produce the food as cheaply as the imported food due to vastly higher labour costs.  This can lead to a decline in food production in these countries which has food security implications, or to subsidising of agriculture by governments which in turn has trade implication.

The issue of food miles is complicated though and very difficult to calculate accurately.  There are arguments that food miles may actually be less environmentally damaging than producing food locally in some cases:

  • Producing food out of season locally in greenhouses requires large energy inputs –  potentially more than the transport from elsewhere.
  • Producing food in the EU and US uses large quantities of fossil fuels to power the machinery, whereas producing in developing countries where labour is the main input reduces the carbon footprint.

case-study-buttonCosta Rica & Fruit Exporting

Costa Rica: Banana exports
Costa Rica: Banana exports

This is an example of a country experiencing environmental damage from agriculture.  Large Multi-national Corporations (Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita) farm pineapples, melons and bananas on the fertile Eastern lowlands.  The produce is exported to North America & Europe by containers on ships out of the nearby port of Limon.  The destination countries receive tropical fruit year round at relatively low prices, whilst Costa Ricas soils and water supplies are increasing contaminated with the large quantities of chemicals used in the production.

The intensive farming of vegetables & fruit in climate controlled greenhouses uses significant amounts of energy.  Growing strawberries and tomatoes year round in the UK are examples of this.  Whilst it reduces the need for imported food and reduces food miles, it has its own environmental impact.

Increasing International demand for Gold

Demand for Gold in recent years has seen its value rise steadily.

case-study-buttonGeita Gold Mine, Tanzania

Located 50km South of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Geita is the countries largest producing gold mine, operated by South African group AngloGold Ashanti.

It is an open pit mine which mean that to reach the gold reserves they have to remove the land above.  This is done by blasting through the rocks and has resulted in entire mountains being removed and new ones built with the loose waste rock and soil.  The initial removal of vegetation was harmful to the savannah ecosystem present there & the new mountains being established are unstable.

As the mine goes deeper to reach new gold deposits they need to pump the water out of the mine pit.  The planned depths mean that this will increase and is likely to reduce the groundwater level for the surrounding area which will have a negative effect of the hydrology of the region.

In addition to these problems there is a major concern over arsenic contamination of local water supplies and ultimately Lake Victoria.  The gold processing uses large quantities of arsenic and this is empties into a tailings dam where it should be broken down by sunlight.  However there are reports of this dam leaking and the arsenic entering local rivers and ground water supplies.

The high value of gold and its existence in the ground in this region has led to many local people extracting gold as artisanal  industries.  Significant quantities of mercury are used to separate the gold from the rock sludge.  The retrieved material is the burnt to separate the gold from the mercury which is released into the atmosphere & cause environmental damage.

Geita-diagramsTrans-boundary Pollution

case-study-buttonChernobyl Nuclear Meltdown, Ukraine

On April 26th, 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power station had a meltdown which released large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.  Significant quantities of this were carried in the winds and contaminated surrounding countries (particularly Belarus).

The accident occurred during a test procedure aimed at making sure that the cooling system for the reactors would work even if the station lost mains power.

Environmental consequences of the accident include:

  • Woodlands, land and rivers being contaminated in large areas of Ukraine.  The radiation is passed up through the food chain & so affects animals, fish and humans.
  • Belarus has 10% of its land that is unusable due to the fall out.
  • Scandinavia and the Northern UK registered radioactive traces in livestock which resulted in trade restrictions.


Initial responses were to stop the fires and try to clean up some of the radiation.  Soviet authorities did not release much information and it was months before a concrete casing was constructed around the reactor to contain the leaking radioactivity.  Many of the people involved in the clean up effort died due to radiation exposure or contracted long-term fatal illnesses.

The accident promoted stricter international safety standards for nuclear reactors although in 2011 the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan suffered a significant leak after the cooling systems failed.

The Effect of Transnational Manufacturing & Services

Many TNCs have relocated their production processes to less developed countries.  There are several reasons for this such as:

  • cheaper labour costs & more relaxed working condition regulations.
  • In some cases more relaxed environmental regulations (land for construction, factory emissions & chemicals/materials used in production processes).
  • Less enforcement of environmental regulations that do exist.  May be due to lack of funds/technology to monitor and check breaches of the law, or difficulties of challenging large TNCs & the risk of them relocating elsewhere.

Cleaning up production techniques and disposing of waste in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way costs money and causes firms to either raise prices or have reduced profit margins.  So moving to countries where they can avoid these changes often makes economical sense for them.

TNCs often outsource parts of their production process to other firms in developing countries.  In this way they can reduce their responsibility for the methods used or the monitoring of the environmental damage.
Civil Society groups and media organisations have increasingly been researching the implication of TNCs relocating their operations to other countries.  High profile companies such as Apple have been in the spotlight over their Asian production techniques and standards.

One of the major concerns at present is the disposal of e-waste in Asian countries where it is dismantled and valuable components are recovered.  Much of it is burnt to separate the metals but this releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.

Another example is ship dismantling.  Decommissioned ships tend to have many toxic residues in them and require specialist and expensive dismantling to avoid human and environmental damage.  Bangladesh has established itself as a destination for decommissioned ships because it is cheap.  The ships are usually pulled & cut apart by workers with no protection or equipment for storing the toxic wastes.  This is causing significant environmental pollution.

case-study-button Trafigura & The Ivory Coast

Trafigura is a Multinational Company, largely involved in oil trading.  In 2006 it had a ship containing large amount of toxic waste that it was intending to dispose of in the Netherlands through the Amsterdam Port Services.  Due to the nature of the waste they drastically increased the fee that they wanted.  Trafigura then sent the ship to the Ivory Coast, Africa where they paid a fraction of the price to a local company to dispose of the waste.  The toxic waste (hundreds of tonnes) was illegally dumped in landfill sites around the capital city.  Soon after, thousands of residents became ill and a number died.  Trafigura deny that they intentionally caused these illnesses and deaths but agreed a compensation  deal after lengthy court battles.

Role of an International Civil Society

Civil Society: Any organisation or movement that works in the area between the household, the private sector and the state to negotiate matters of public concern. Civil societies include non‑governmental organisations (NGOs), community groups, trade unions, academic institutions and faith‑based organisations.



Established in 1971 Greenpeace initially protested against nuclear testing in Alaska.

Gained widespread recognition through the activities of its boat the Rainbow Warrior which publicised whaling practises and ocean waste dumping.  Gained fame when protesting against French Nuclear testing after the French authorities blew it up.

Environmental Focus Areas:

  • Climate change: promoting renewable energies.
  • Forests: monitoring and campaigning against deforestation.
  • Oceans: monitoring fish stocks & campaigning or sustainable fishing/ monitoring ocean pollution, monitoring the effects of warming oceans.
  • Agriculture: reducing use of chemicals and agro-industrialisation & promoting more sustainable farming methods.
  • Toxic Pollution: campaigning for reduction in e-waste and promoting greener electronics.
  • Nuclear: campaigning against nuclear power.

Homogenisation of Landscapes

Globalisation has undoubtedly increased the homogenisation of urban landscapes, but many cities have a substantial wealth of architecture and urban design that precede current trends and keep them distinctive.

CBDs have become homogenised in the sense that many of them include common MNC branches (HSBC, Barclays, Citibank, McDonalds, Burger king, Starbucks etc).  Often these companies occupy existing building and therefor homogenise the dressing of the architecture rather than the architecture itself.

An aspect in which urban landscapes have become very homogenised is the out of town shopping mall.  These tend to follow similar designs and have the same or equivalent stores and zoning.  Free, extensive car parking, climate control, food courts, and a cinema seem universal in these structures.

Industrial zones and retail parks also follow very similar designs in many parts of the world.

Infrastructure is another area of urban landscape homogenisation.  Many of the worlds major cities have mass transit systems, often  in the form of tram or underground rail systems.  These are similar in nature around the world due to the layout of urban areas and the difficulty of implementing them in any other functionally effective & cost effective way.

It can be argued that new developments in cities tend to follow similar building designs, often tall, square and clad in nondescript materials.  However many cities continue to promote the construction of distinctive buildings (Petronas Towers: Malaysia, The Shard: London,  Burj Al Arab: Dubai).