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'Natural Resources Protect Us:' UVM Study Maps How Changes To Nature Could Overwhelmingly Impact Communities Of Color

bee on yellow flower
Crop pollination is one of the ecosystem services researchers studied in a new study published this month in the journal Nature Communications.

A new study from the University of Vermont finds that over the next 80 years, people of color and lower income communities will be disproportionately impacted by the loss of natural resources.

The study, which was published earlier this month in the journal, Nature Communications, mapped how changes to three environmental benefits — air quality, crop productivity and natural disease control — might change, as areas of the country convert nature to cities and farmland.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with two of the co-authors of the study, Taylor Ricketts, director of UVM’s Gund Institute for Environment and Natalia Aristizábal, a PhD candidate at the Gund Institute and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, as we look toward the next 80 years, which you looked at in this study, let's start with what would be causing the loss of natural resources? Why would we see that?

Taylor Ricketts: So, what's causing the loss of natural resources is mainly land use conversion, from forests and wetlands and grasslands, to things like housing and cities and farms. So, it's converting natural ecosystems to human-developed ones that is causing the loss of these natural benefits.

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Natalia Aristizábal: And so, we see that the projected places where most of this land conversion will happen is where marginalized communities live. And so that's why they would be the ones disproportionately impacted by them.

Henry Epp: And so, your study looked at three natural benefits, in particular. Can you tell us about the three benefits that you chose to model?

Natalia Aristizábal: We looked at crop pollination, air quality, and vector-borne disease control. Specifically, we looked at the West Nile virus.

Henry Epp: And so, what in particular did you find, in terms of how those three things will evolve over the next 80 years?

Natalia Aristizábal: So, we found that, in general, where urban populations are expected to grow, there's going to be a loss of air quality services and disease control. And in areas where cropland is expected to expand, we actually see steep declines in crop pollination. Where the demand for these benefits is growing, we see actually a decrease in the supply.

Taylor Ricketts: Yeah, just to amplify that — I think that's one of the main findings of this paper, is that we find these mismatches — reductions in benefits exactly where they will be increasingly needed.

Henry Epp: And so, just to put a pin on it: What's at stake if these ecosystem services decrease?

Taylor Ricketts: What's at stake in general is our wellbeing, and specifically various parts of our health. So natural ecosystems protect us from infectious disease, so we can expect to get those more. Natural ecosystems purify our air, in this case, and water as well. Impure air and water can cause health problems in people. And on the pollination side, a smaller pollination service to crops is going to cause food supplies to be less secure, crop production to be less constant, probably food to be more expensive.

Henry Epp: And you found pretty striking numbers when it comes to how communities of color will be impacted by poor air quality, poor crop pollination and more insect-borne disease. But your study also found that for white populations, there could be some modest benefits over the next 80 years. Natalia, what exactly is going on there in that finding?

Natalia Aristizábal: Depending on the land conversion, or depending on how we lose these ecosystems, the benefit that they provide also changes. And so sometimes you can find that there will be more supply of the benefit than there is demand. In areas where that happens, we found that it's mostly where white communities or high-income populations live. And so, in those instances, they would actually see slight increases in these services.

Henry Epp: This is not necessarily a new concept. We know already that people of color are disproportionately impacted by things like air pollution, that fossil fuel infrastructure is often placed in communities of color. What were you hoping to add with this research?

Natalia Aristizábal: So, the study highlights that these striking differences that we see projected for the future are just worsening inequalities that exist in place right now. And so, as you said, it's not a new concept that these inequalities are already happening, but just that if we don't take any action, they're just going to be worse.

Henry Epp: You broke down your findings to county level throughout the United States. And I'm curious, looking particularly here in Vermont, were there areas of the state that could face worse outcomes than others?

Natalia Aristizábal: For Vermont, I think there are, like, two tendencies that are important to think about. So, if Vermont, for example, remains a rural state with expanding cropland, we can expect to see actually some slight increases in air quality and vector-borne disease control, but steep declines in pollination services or pollination benefits. And so, in a state where farming is so important, and so many livelihoods depend on it, especially for crops that are highly dependent on pollinators, like blueberries and apples, this is something to take into consideration.

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And on the other hand, if Vermont urbanizes, like most of the New England region is expected to, then we can see declines in air quality and vector-borne disease control.

Henry Epp: In the study, you mentioned that land use policy is really required to deal with some of these inequalities that are already around in the U.S. What kind of land use policy changes do you think are needed to perhaps avoid some of the outcomes that you predict in this study?

Taylor Ricketts: I'm glad you brought that up because I think we have an opportunity here to build equity intentionally into policies on land use and decisions about land use and conservation.

One example is where to establish new parks, or reserves or open space. We have traditionally done that to target rare species or lovely vistas or something, but we can expand that targeting to include where we can provide most benefits to disadvantaged groups. That's something that hasn't been really taken into account — about where, and how and how much do you restore nature?

Natalia Aristizábal: If I can add to that — so going back to your question of Vermont — at the policy level, for example, there's a lot of interest in Vermont in restoring wetlands and floodplains, to control for floods and future, more frequent hurricanes or big storms. This is an opportunity to think about where to do those conservation policies or efforts. And so, not only taking into consideration and protecting expensive properties, but where the populations and the marginalized communities are that need it the most.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Brittany Patterson joined Vermont Public in December 2020. Previously, she was an energy and environment reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource. Prior to that, she covered public lands, the Interior Department and forests for E&E News' ClimateWire, based in Washington, D.C. Brittany also teaches audio storytelling and has taught classes at West Virginia University, Saint Michael's College and the University of Vermont. She holds degrees in journalism from San Jose State University and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of California, Brittany has fallen in love with Vermont. She enjoys hiking, skiing, baking and cuddling with her rescues, a 95-pound American Bulldog mix named Cooper, and Mila, the most beautiful calico cat you'll ever meet.
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