News

2015-01-22 |

Earth has crossed several planetary boundaries, study warns

Planet Planetary boundaries (Graphic: F. Pharand-Deschênes/Globaïa)

Human activity has pushed the planet across four out of nine environmental boundaries, according to a new study published in the journal Science. An international team of 18 researchers warns that the planetary boundaries that have been crossed are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change and altered biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles). Lead author, Will Steffen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said “transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries”. Regarding climate change, the scientists argue that carbon dioxide levels should not exceed 350 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere. However, the current level is about 399 ppm, and this is growing by about 3 ppm per year. According to Johan Rockström, who is the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, “this boundary is consistent with a stabilisation of global temperatures at about 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels”. Biodiversity loss and species extinction are also reaching dangerous levels, with rates of extinctions of animals and plants being 10 to 100 times higher than safe levels. The study defines climate change and loss of species as two “core boundaries”, each of which “has the potential on its own to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed”. The researchers also sounded the alarm about deforestation and pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilisers. On the regional scale, even more boundaries have been crossed, such as freshwater use in the western U.S. and in parts of southern Europe and the Middle East. “Implementing methods to use water more efficiently in agriculture can help sort out this dilemma and at the same time increase global food production”, says Dieter Gerten, another co-author. Although it may seem that the paper paints a gloomy picture, the authors wish to emphasise that the findings provide us with the chance to change course. “The world has a tremendous opportunity this year to address global risks, and do it more equitably. In September, nations will agree the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. With the right ambition, this could create the conditions for long-term human prosperity within planetary boundaries,” said Rockström. (ab)

2015-01-19 |

‘We are fed up!’: 50,000 march against TTIP and GMOs in Berlin

Demo2 50,000 take to Berlin’s streets for a better agricultural policy (Photo: Die Auslöser/Flickr)

On 17th January, almost 50,000 people came together in Germany’s capital to call for a change of course in Europe’s agricultural policy. Farmers, consumers and activists took to the streets of Berlin to protest against factory farming, genetic engineering and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement between the EU and the United States. The march was organised by a broad alliance of more than 100 farmers’, environmental, animal welfare and development organisations, known as “Wir haben es satt!” (we are fed up). “The EU-USA trade agreement, the TTIP, only serves global corporations, and will take away the means of existence from many farms here and across the world”, rally organiser Jochen Fritz told the media. Equipped with posters and creative costumes, farmers, consumers, beekeepers and activists joined the march that was led by a procession of 80 tractors and ended in front of Angela Merkel’s chancellery. “Eating is political. Every single decision I make about what to buy determines how animals are kept or what is grown in our fields. And I can make sure that I support the farmers and not the big agricultural industry corporations”, Fritz said. Police downplayed the protest, saying 25,000 people joined the peaceful demonstration. Now in its fifth year, the ‘We Are Fed Up!’ march takes place annually during the International Green Week – Europe’s biggest agricultural fair that has just begun in Berlin. (AB)

2015-01-16 |

The U.S. approves Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant GM soybeans and cotton

Pesticides Pesticide spraying (Photo: Will Fuller/Flickr.com)

Monsanto has received final U.S. approval to introduce soybeans and cotton that have been genetically modified to survive spraying with several herbicides, including dicamba. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced on Thursday that the cotton and soybean plants have been granted “non-regulated” status. This approval follows that of 2,4-D tolerant soybeans and corn, billed as the next generation of herbicide-tolerant crops to tackle glyphosate resistant weeds. The decision was heavily criticised by environmental and consumer groups, saying the use of more herbicides will only increase weed resistance in the long run. Food issue research group U.S. Right to Know Executive Director Gary Ruskin was quoted by Reuters as saying: “This is just the latest in an endless string of favours from our federal government to Monsanto.” According to the Center for Food Safety, a U.S.-based non-profit organisation, the anticipated widespread adoption of these genetically engineered crops would lead to an over 10-fold increase in dicamba use in U.S. agriculture, from 3.8 million lbs. at present to more than 43 million lbs. per year. The organisation says genetic engineering is making American agriculture more chemical-dependent and less sustainable than ever before. Dicamba is a selective herbicide used to kill broad-leaved plants. It has been linked to increased rates of cancer in farmers and birth defects in their male offspring. Monsanto developed the new soybeans and cotton to resist a new herbicide that combines dicamba and glyphosate, which Monsanto is branding as components of the “Roundup Ready Xtend” crop system. “The pesticide treadmill spins on, and that’s great news for Monsanto”, Ruskin told Reuters. The company is still waiting for final approval from the Environmental Protection Agency for the herbicide it designed to be used with the crops, which is currently under consideration. (AB)

2015-01-12 |

Report: TTIP could weaken regulations for toxic pesticides

Pesticides TTIP: more toxic pesticides? (Photo: jetsandzeppelins/Flickr)

The free trade agreement currently under negotiation between the EU and the U.S. threatens to lower standards of protection from toxic pesticides, according to a new report published last week by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). The study analysed a joint proposal from the American and European pesticide lobby groups CropLife America and European Crop Protection Association. The authors show how the pesticide industry is trying to use the ongoing Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations to reduce environmental standards in favor of looser pesticide regulations. If adopted, the proposal would increase the amount of pesticide residue on food sold to consumers in Europe; allow the use of carcinogens and other substances of high concern; and obstruct efforts to protect bees and other pollinators, the study suggests. “Using words like ‘harmonisation’ and ‘cooperation’ the pesticide industry’s proposal hides its true aim: to weaken, slow or stop efforts to protect people and the planet from exposure to toxic chemicals,” says the report’s co-author Erica Smith. The study contains a list of 82 toxic pesticides, which are currently banned in the EU but allowed to be used in the U.S., including carcinogens, endocrine (or hormone) disruptors, developmental toxins and other extremely hazardous substances. CIEL argues that the TTIP could lead to a reintroduction of these banned pesticides in the EU. In addition, the industry proposal recommends adopting the maximum levels of pesticide residues allowed on food to those permitted in the U.S., which in some cases are hundreds of times higher than those allowed in the EU, the study found. CIEL also warns that the proposal could interfere with current moratoriums by the EU and some U.S. local governments on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides associated with the worldwide decline in bee populations. (AB)

2015-01-09 |

Humans erode soil 100 times faster than nature, new study finds

Erosion Soil erosion (Photo: Olivier Girard, CIFOR/Flickr.com)

Deforestation and intensive agriculture can accelerate erosion so dramatically that in just a few decades as much soil can be lost as would naturally occur over thousands of Deforestation and intensive agriculture can accelerate erosion so dramatically that in just a few decades as much soil can be lost as would naturally occur over thousands of years, according to a new study published online in the February issue of the journal Geology. Scientists from the University of Vermont quantified the rate of erosion for ten large river basins in Southeast U.S.A., collecting sediment samples from the rivers and measuring their beryllium-10 content. The amount of beryllium can reveal rates of erosion in the surrounding landscape. Along the southern Piedmont from Virginia to Alabama, clay soils built up for many millennia. The study suggests that rates of hillslope erosion before European settlement were about an inch (2.5 centimetres) every 2,500 years. Then, in just a few decades of intensive deforestation and cotton and tobacco production, as much soil eroded as would have happened in a pre-human landscape over thousands of years, the scientists found. “Soils fall apart when we remove vegetation and then the land erodes quickly”, says Paul Bierman, a geologist at the University of Vermont and co-author of the study. During the period of peak land disturbance in the late 1800s and early 1900s, rates spiked to an inch every 25 years. “Our study shows exactly how huge an effect European colonisation and agriculture had on the landscape of North America,” says Dylan Rood, a member of the research team. “Humans scraped off the soil more than 100 times faster than other natural processes!” Since the Earth does not create that precious soil for crops fast enough to replenish what the humans removed, it is a trend that is unsustainable if continued, the authors warn. According to the researchers, the results of their study could be used to develop smart environmental policies and regulations that will protect threatened soil and water resources for generations to come. (AB)

2015-01-05 |

U.S. agriculture faces lack of young farmers, loss of local knowledge

Farmer Young farmers wanted (Photo: Robert S. Donovan/Flickr)

Across the United States, farmers are getting older and fewer young operators are entering the agricultural workforce than in the past, according to a new study published in the December issue of the journal Rangelands. The authors write that the family farms that once dotted the landscape and employed nearly half the U.S. workforce have been replaced by large, often mechanised, operations that employ just 2% of the country's workforce. As long-time farmers grow older, it is becoming increasingly difficult to pass on the family farm. As a result, the number of farms has dropped 63% since 1900 and farm size has increased by 67%. The researchers looked at demographic trends among farm and ranch operators in Wyoming to see if and how the agricultural community was ageing. Based on their results, they paint a gloomy picture: At the current pace of agricultural ageing, there won’t be any farmers under the age of 35 by 2033. By 2050, the average age will be 60, and 34% of all farm and ranch operators will be of retirement age (65 and older). Even if their children and grandchildren show an interest in agriculture, farmers often cannot afford to keep their land and equipment. In addition, the draw of more profitable enterprises, often in urban areas, is a source of migration away from rural landscapes and farming. According to the authors, the demographic trends in Wyoming mirror those seen across the United States. They conclude that the loss of farmers, ranchers and their land is accompanied by the loss of local wisdom. “Agricultural wisdom, often built over generations, is irreplaceable once lost. Grazing practices finely tailored to the individual pasturelands, knowledge of local disease and pest cycles, water conservation strategies that work in tandem with local flora or geologic features - these are forms of place-based knowledge whose subtleties are carried by local operators and which might begin to fade if professional managers begin to dominate”, the study warns.

2015-01-02 |

British supermarket chain to sell 'odd' fruit and vegetables

Carrot Oddball carrots (Photo: Larry Krause/flickr.com)

Britain’s second-biggest food retailer, Asda, has agreed to sell misshapen but perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at a discounted price in an effort to reduce food waste. The new ‘Beautiful on the Inside’ range will be sold in stores for a third less than perfect produce, in a bid to support farmers who might otherwise have to throw produce away, the Guardian reports. The initiative was sparked following an investigation into food waste by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and farmer Jimmy Doherty for a TV programme on Channel 4. The first show featured British farmers complaining that they were unable to sell thousands of tonnes of their fresh vegetables to supermarkets because they are oddly shaped. The pair asked the supermarket chain to carry out an in-store trial to see if customers would be willing to buy “crooked carrots, knobbly pears and wonky potatoes” at a discounted price. The survey showed that two-thirds of customers would be open to buying wonky produce, while 75% would ‘definitely’ do so if it were cheaper. The campaign and dedicated range will be launched in selected stores on 26 January, with the aim of rolling it out nationwide if it proves successful. “If most Brits had half an idea of the amount going to waste, they’d be snapping up ugly veg by the trolley load,” Jamie Oliver said. “There’s no difference whatsoever in taste or nutritional value. This is perfectly good food that could and should be eaten by humans. When half a million people in the UK are relying on food banks, this waste isn’t just bonkers – it’s bordering on criminal.”

2014-12-29 |

Nicaragua: Banana workers to receive payment for pesticide exposure

Banana Pesticide application (Photo: Scot Nelson/flickr.com)

After 40 years, the U.S. corporation Dole Food Company has agreed to compensate more than 1,700 former banana workers from Nicaragua who were exposed to the banned pesticide Nemagon, suffering severe health problems. “The payments will be made soon”, said Humberto Hurtado, Dole spokesman, in a statement on Friday. Between 1973 and 1980, Dole used the agrochemical dibromochloropropane (DBCP), also known by the brand names Fumazone and Nemagon, in plantations in Central America to control soil-dwelling nematodes that fed on the roots of banana plants. The chemicals caused serious health problems including infertility, cancer, miscarriages and skin diseases. The amount of the settlement was not revealed but the attorney for the workers said that it would be distributed according to the severity of the damage suffered by each worker. The 1700 workers belong to a group of 4150 former Nicaraguan banana workers from different departments of the country who sued Dole for physical and psychological damages. “I hope the whole group will receive compensation”, said the lawyer for the workers, Antonio Hernandez Ordeñana. He said that the settlement should serve as an incentive for further cases against chemical companies that produced DBCP, including Dow Chemical and Shell Oil Company.

2014-12-19 |

Open letter: Africa doesn't need genetically modified bananas

Banana Human trials with GM bananas instead of animal tests (Photo: Kit practicalowl/Flickr)

Civil society networks and farmers' organisations have submitted an Open Letter to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Iowa State University expressing fierce opposition to human feeding trials involving genetically modified, beta-carotene-enriched bananas intended for Africa. The letter was published last week by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a Pan-African platform working towards food sovereignty. More than 120 organisations from around the world, as well as 26 individual scientists, support the letter, including the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, FoodFirst, La Via Campesina North America and Dr. Vandana Shiva. They are strongly opposed to the GM banana human trials that are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and carried out by Iowa State University under the leadership of Dr. Wendy White. The GM bananas are currently being given to 12 young students. The so-called ‘super-banana’ was developed by scientists at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, with funds from the Gates Foundation. It has been genetically modified to contain extra beta-carotene, a nutrient the human body uses to produce vitamin A. The trials are designed to support the release the GM bananas into Ugandan farming and food systems, and later to other East African countries. “As AFSA, we are vehemently opposed to GM crops. Africa and Africans should not be used as justification for promoting the interest of companies and their cohorts. We do not need GM crops in this changing climate. What we need is the diversity in our crops and the knowledge associated with them,” commented AFSA Coordinator Dr. Million Belay. The letter states that GM crops divert resources away from more locally appropriate agricultural solutions to nutritional concerns. “If indeed the aim of those involved in the promotion of the project is truly to combat vitamin A deficiency, then surely they should be advocating for the consumption of more diverse fruits and foods, such as sweet potatoes that are rich in vitamin A and found in abundance in Africa. Ironically, the promotion of a GM food staple high in vitamin A risks perpetuating monolithic diets, the very cause of vitamin A deficiency in the first place”, reads the letter. AFSA stressed that progress to overcome vitamin A deficiencies has been made in the Philippines through government programmes that provide supplements and improve access to vitamin A rich foods - without the massive costs or unknown long-term impacts on health, the environment and agriculture associated with GM crops.

2014-12-16 |

USDA greenlights Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant soybean and cotton

Spraying a soybean field Spraying a soybean field (Photo: United Soybean Board)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has paved the way for the introduction of Monsanto’s dicamba-tolerant cotton and soybeans. On Friday, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service published its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on varieties of cotton and soybeans that have been genetically modified to survive spraying with several herbicides, including dicamba, concluding that both should be fully deregulated. The decision was heavily criticised by health and environmental groups. “Monsanto’s genetically-engineered dicamba-resistant crops are yet another example of how pesticide firms are taking agriculture back to the dark days of heavy, indiscriminate use of hazardous pesticides, seriously endangering human health and the environment,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety (CFS), a U.S.-based non-profit organisation. CFS estimates that the anticipated widespread adoption of these GE crops would lead to an over 10-fold increase in dicamba use in U.S. agriculture, from 3.8 million lbs. at present to more than 43 million lbs. per year. Dicamba is a selective herbicide used to kill broad-leaved plants. It has been linked to increased rates of cancer in farmers. According to CFS, Monsanto has developed dicamba-resistant crops “as a quick fix” to the epidemic of glyphosate-resistant weeds generated by the massive use of that herbicide with the company’s first generation of genetically modified crops. However, the use of dicamba with the new GE cotton and soybean varieties could give rise to weeds resistant to both dicamba and glyphosate. “Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant crops are the latest fruits of a pesticide industry strategy to increase sales of their toxic herbicides,” said CFS Science Policy Analyst Bill Freese. Monsanto welcomed USDA’s decision that moves them one step closer to the introduction of their new crop varieties. The last step is now the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) registration of the trait’s corresponding herbicides. In October, the EPA approved Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist Duo herbicide, only two months after USDA issued its final EIS for the corresponding Enlist corn and soybean traits.

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