News

2016-07-28 |

Report reveals environmental and social cost of EU’s land footprint

Soy Soybean production is eating up land abroad (Photo: CC0)

The European Union uses far more than its fair share of global agricultural land, with high environmental and social impacts in other world regions. According to a new report published on 27 July by Friends of the Earth Europe, the EU requires almost 270 million hectares of agricultural land to sustain its unsustainable food production and agricultural practices. Almost 40% of this land is outside Europe, an area the size of Italy and France combined. The report estimates that average EU per capita cropland consumption is 1.5 times higher than the global average, highlighting an inequitable distribution of global land resources and an overstepping of planetary boundaries. Every EU citizien on averages uses 3100 square metres of arable land although there are only 2000m2 per person available if the total global surface area of arable land of around 1.4 billion hectares is divided by the number of people on the planet. “Overconsumption is eating up ever more land, often with disastrous consequences. It is unjust, irresponsible and unsustainable that we continue to use more than our fair share of global land and are shifting more than one-third of the impacts related to land consumption to ecosystems and communities outside of the EU,” said Meadhbh Bolger, resource use campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. The EU’s demand for land negatively affects the environment mainly through expanding agriculture into areas of nature or previously unfarmed land. This pressurises global ecosystems, drives forest conversions into plantations, lessens forests’ carbon storage capacity, and causes land degradation and biodiversity loss, the report warns. But the EU’s huge demand for land abroad is also provoking land grabs and the unequal appropriation of resources, depriving local communities of their access to land and the right to define their own food system. Animal products like meat and dairy account for over 70% of the overall land footprint of 196 million hectares of land, with the largest portions for meat (30% of the total) and dairy (25% of the total, mostly cheese). The second biggest grouping is vegetable oils, followed by other plant-based products; wheat; fruit, vegetables and spices; alcohol; and coffee, tea and cacao. According to Stanka Becheva, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, we need a radical overhaul in how and where we use land to reduce this inequitable footprint: “Industrialised agriculture and global food chains are swallowing up land across the globe, damaging the environment and rural communities. We rapidly need a just transition to a greener way of farming that works for all people and the planet.” In order to reduce the EU’s unsustainable land footprint, the authors of the report recommend the development of policies and incentives that encourage a reduction in the consumption of land intensive products or products that embody relatively high environmental impacts, in particular animal products. (ab)

2016-07-26 |

Biodiversity falls below ‘safe levels’ globally, scientists warn

Below safe levels Below safe levels (Photo: CC0)

Land use and related pressures have pushed biodiversity loss beyond safe levels in most of the world, threatening key ecosystem functions and long-term sustainable development, an international team of researchers has found. According to a comprehensive study published in the journal Science on July 15, habitat destruction has reduced the variety of plants and animals to the point that ecological systems are at risk of collapsing. Analysing over 2 million records for nearly 40,000 terrestrial species at 18,659 sites, the team modeled how biodiversity in every square kilometre of land has changed due to human activities. They found that for 58.1% of the world’s land surface, where 71.4% of the global population live, the level of biodiversity loss has fallen below levels that define a safe operating space for humanity. “This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists,” explained lead researcher, Dr Tim Newbold from University College London. A site losing more than 10% of its biodiversity is considered to have passed beyond the ‘safe limits’ recently defined by the planetary boundaries framework. Grasslands, savannas and shrublands were most affected by biodiversity loss, followed by many of the world’s forests and woodlands. The team says that the ability of biodiversity in these areas to support key ecosystem functions such as growth of living organisms and nutrient cycling has become increasingly uncertain. The authors warn that levels of biodiversity loss are so high that efforts towards long-term sustainable development could be seriously undermined if the transgression of this planetary boundary is left unchecked. “It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who is one of the authors. “Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences – and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette,” he added. (ab)

2016-07-21 |

TTIP will promote the expansion of industrial meat production, new report

Meat Supermarket meat (Photo: CC0)

TTIP will promote the expansion of industrial meat production, lower standards that protect public health, and undermine governments’ ability to create essential labour, environmental and animal welfare reforms in the future. This is the warning of a new report launched by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) Europe, Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft, Compassion in World Farming and PowerShift on July 13, which analyses public negotiating positions, leaked negotiating texts, and industry documents. The report documents how the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) empowers the global meat industry and undermines family farming at a time when civil society is demanding the opposite – meat produced humanely, locally, free of harmful substances and benefiting rather than degrading the environment. The authors warn that TTIP will accelerate corporate concentration and expand industrial meat production or “factory farming” by increasing the power of meat-producing transnational corporations. One of the report's key messages is that liberalizing tariffs will make EU meat products even less competitive, increasing pressure in the EU to adopt even cheaper, industrialised practices that will take a heavy toll on the environment and public health. “A TTIP deal would hand over Europe’s animal farming sector on a silver platter to transnational meat corporations – through tariffs and quota expansions, but definitively through the sweeping de-regulatory changes the industry hopes to win through the accord,” says IATP Europe’s Director and co-author of the report, Shefali Sharma. She argues that TTIP will disincentivise new regulations that seek to discipline the industry’s worse practices, particularly if these rules raise the cost of production. “The U.S. simply lacks essential rules that should curb the industry’s worse practices that cost taxpayers millions in environmental and public health costs. With TTIP, the EU industry will ensure that pending decisions on critical issues such as cloning, glyphosate and factory farms’ methane emissions are made with trade ‘competitiveness’ in mind and not the public interest,” Sharma adds. According to Sharon Treat, lead author and former U.S. state legislator, “the analysis clearly shows that regulatory processes for key issues that the European and American public care about – from climate change, GMOs, country of origin labelling or future rules on technologies such as gene editing – will be affected.” Therefore, TTIP should be recognised for what it is, she argues: “a multi-pronged strategy promoted by global agribusiness concerns on both sides of the Atlantic that will establish an ongoing mechanism for deregulation and meat industry consolidation.” The report concludes that TTIP is undemocratic; the policies it promotes are unsustainable; and that it must be rejected by anyone who cares about good food and farming, human and animal rights and the future of our planet. (ab)

2016-07-18 |

Half of US food produce is thrown away, new research shows

Möhren Discarded carrots are left to decay (Photo: CC0)

Vast amounts of fresh produce grown in the United States is being thrown away because of unrealistic cosmetic standards for food according to research released by The Guardian. Due to retailers’ and consumers’ demand for perfect fruits and vegetables, still edible high-value and nutritious food is left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or sent directly from the field to landfill. The Guardian interviews with dozens of farmers, packers, truckers, researchers, campaigners and government sources suggest that the actual amount of food waste might be larger than official figures document. A government study found that about 60m tonnes of produce worth about $160bn is wasted by retailers and consumers each year – about one third of all foodstuffs. But the Guardian reports that this refers just to “downstream” food waste while the waste that occurs “upstream” is a major problem: “scarred vegetables regularly abandoned in the field to reduce the expense and labour involved in harvesting. Or left to rot in a warehouse because of minor blemishes that do not necessarily affect freshness or quality.” The researchers estimate that when added to the retail waste, food waste amounts close to half of all produce grown. “It’s all about blemish-free produce,” Jay Johnson, who ships fresh fruit and vegetables from North Carolina and central Florida, told The Guardian. “What happens in our business today is that it is either perfect, or it gets rejected. It is perfect to them, or they turn it down. And then you are stuck.” Wayde Kirschenman, whose family has been growing potatoes and other vegetables near Bakersfield, California, estimates that “at times there is 25% of the crop that is just thrown away or fed to cattle. Sometimes it can be worse.” These large amounts of food waste inflict a heavy toll on the environment and are a direct challenge to fight hunger and poverty. Food waste on the consumer side also causes high costs for households. The average family of four, for instance, wastes about $1,600 worth of food a year. For farmers, the power of the retail chains creates fear along the supply chain because their produce is frequently rejected on the basis of some ideal of perfection. The farmers and truckers interviewed by The Guardian said they had seen their produce rejected on flimsy grounds, but decided against challenging the ruling with the US department of agriculture’s dispute mechanism for fear of being boycotted by powerful supermarket giants. “They are never going to buy from you again. Are you going to jeopardise $5m in sales over an $8,000 load?” said the owner of a mid-size east coast trucking company. (ab)

2016-07-13 |

Farm input subsidy programmes fail Africa's small-scale farmers, study finds

Farmer FISPs don"t benefit African small-scale farmers (Photo: CC0)

Farm input subsidy programmes in Africa have failed to ease rural poverty and benefit small-scale farmers, new research shows. According to a report released by the African Centre for Biodiversity on Monday, ten African governments alone have spent more than US$ 1 billion, almost 30% of their agricultural budgets, on large-scale farm input subsidy programmes (FISPs) since 2000. These programmes, which provide subsidies for fertilisers and seeds (especially hybrid maize), have mainly supported better-off farmers with larger holdings, resulted in an overuse of fertiliser and deteriorated soil quality in the region, the study has found. The paper reviewed farm input subsidy programmes in countries belonging to the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) by exploring the re-adoption of input subsidies after the food crisis of 2007/2008. The authors write that instead of building resilient, sustainable farming and food systems and supporting Africa’s rural poor, these subsidy programmes are largely ineffective, social transfer schemes that create dependency. They argue that FISPs do not help small-scale farmers (particularly the most vulnerable, such as women) who are often side-lined as beneficiaries by district officials and village chiefs. The rural poor often cannot afford to pay the balance of the subsidy or the membership fees of farmer organisations. In addition, they frequently do not meet the criteria of government programmes, such as a minimum land allocation for planting subsidised maize, or provide proof of land tenure. Input suppliers such as seed and agrochemical companies benefit the most as they are awarded large contracts, with guaranteed markets at public expense, the study found. Despite some programmes stretching back more than a decade, rural poverty has not been reduced significantly. In Malawi, for example, there is a net transfer away from rural households using Green Revolution inputs because the additional cost is not always recouped from the sale of the harvest. According to the report, FISPs are also used as tools to gain political favour. This is the case especially in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia and evidence suggests that significant amounts of inputs are diverted or leaked onto secondary markets by politicians or wealthy elites. In Tanzania, an estimated 60% of all inputs are lost in this way, representing a significant loss of public funds. The programmes also have a negative impact on soil health, the authors warn. The focus on hybrid maize seed has led to increased maize cultivation. In order to get subsidies, farmers expand cultivation onto marginal or fallow land. Instead of practicing sustainable soil fertility management techniques, they are offered incentives to use nitrogen-based fertilisers, which are not appropriate to many of Africa’s agro-ecological zones. The report concludes that FISPs divert resources that could be directed towards localising soil science, research and development and improving extension services and rural infrastructure - public goods with lasting benefits. The report calls for “a transition to agro-ecology to bring about the sustainable food systems of the future, formed through the collective, inclusive and democratic co-generation of the knowledge held by farmers, consumers and African governments, who are meant to serve the interests of their (farming) populations.” (ab)

2016-07-08 |

Sub-Saharan Africa to be home to one third of global hungry by 2025

Cereal Low cereal prices will not automatically reduce hunger (Photo: CC0/Pixabay)

Agricultural commodity prices will remain relatively stable in the coming decade, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and OECD said on Monday. According to their “Agricultural Outlook 2016-2025”, increased productivity, weakening demand growth due to overall economic slowdown, lower oil prices and abundant stocks will keep prices low. However, the two organisations underline the need to be vigilant as the probability of a major price swing remains high. In sub-Saharan Africa – the focus of this year’s Outlook – agriculture will face many challenges, such as rapid urbanisation and increased commercial interest in Africa’s resources and farmland. As the region faces rapid population growth, agriculture will continue to be the single largest source of employment for many young people. The Outlook projects that Sub-Saharan Africa’s net imports of food commodities will grow over the next decade, because demand for food is expected to grow at more than 3% over the coming decade, while total agricultural production is projected to rise by only 2.6% a year, despite improved productivity. The authors warn that undernourishment in Sub-Saharan Africa will remain high. Although the rate of undernourishment is projected to decline from an estimated 23 to 19 percent, because of rapid population growth, the region would still be home to a rising share of the world’s hungry. In ten years, Sub-Saharan Africa will account for more than one third of the global total of undernourished people, compared with just over a quarter today. According to OECD/FAO estimates, the global proportion of people who are undernourished will decrease from 11% to 8% over the next ten years, with the total numbers of undernourished declining from 788 million to less than 650 million. “This implies that without decisive steps to move away from business-as-usual, hunger would not be eradicated by 2030 as a global target,” the report concludes. In 2015, world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global agenda consisting of 17 goals designed to end poverty and hunger by 2030. Goal 2 aims at ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture. (ab)

2016-07-06 |

Organic outperforms conventional agriculture in the tropics

Luethi Measuring the length of a maize cob (Photo: Peter Lüthi, Biovision)

Organic agriculture in the tropics not only generates comparable yields, but also produces more income and health benefits for farmers than conventional methods. These are the findings of a long-term study by the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Kenya, that has been conducted since 2007 together with local partners such as the International Centre of Insect Physiology & Ecology (icipe) and Kenyatta University. The Farming Systems Comparison in the Tropics (SysCom) project does not compare apples with oranges but rather conventional and organic high input systems that use external inputs (e.g. biopesticides for organic) and irrigation, as well as conventional and organic low input systems that depend on farm-owned resources. “Our findings show that yields of maize – an important staple and cash crop – under organic production are similar to that under conventional production in high-input systems representing commercial scale farming,” said Dr Noah Adamtey, a coordinator of the project. Also at low input levels, maize yields were similar in both systems, especially under intercropping regimes and there were no differences for pest and disease incidence and damage. Only under maize sole cropping, conventional methods won over organic farming at the project site in Thika. The study shows that organic farming starts to deliver substantial economic advantages as soon as the initial conversion period is over since input costs for organic agriculture are lower while prices on the markets are higher for organic produce. According to Dr Adamtey, “the profitability was similar in both systems from the third year in the absence of premium price, but when premium price was considered, organic farming was more profitable starting from the fifth year.” In the sixth year, organic farmers in Kenya reached a 53% higher benefit. Parallel studies in India and Bolivia on the production of cotton and coffee respectively showed similar positive results for the organic methods. The research also documented the benefits of organic farming methods to soil fertility: “Our results show that soil fertility improved significantly in calcium, magnesium, potassium and soil pH (acidity) levels under the organic approach”, Dr Adamtey confirmed. In addition, the non-use of chemical inputs in organic farming systems also has a positive impact on farms’ ecosystems and the health of people. According to the research team, the organic approach is a viable strategy in the tropics but knowledge dissemination and training in organic farming will require greater attention and support. (ab)

2016-06-30 |

European Commission extends glyphosate license for 18 months

Glyp Glyphosate will remain on the market (Photo: CC0/Pixabay)

The European Commission has extended the license for the controversial weedkiller glyphosate by another 18 months. After member states failed to achieve a qualified majority in favour or against the approval, the Commission gave the green light in a last-minute decision one day before the license would have expired. By the end of 2017, the European Chemical Agency, the competent EU agency for the assessment of dossiers for the classification of chemical substances, is expected to publish its opinion. Glyphosate is the world's most widely used weedkiller and the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand of herbicides. In March 2014, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organisation, classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. The Commission’s decision was heavily criticised by NGOs and environmentalists. Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg said: “The EU has decided to extend the use of glyphosate without any meaningful restriction, despite WHO warnings that it is a probable cause of cancer. This reckless decision was driven by a Commission that has lost touch with European citizens, quietly backed by many national governments. Heidi Chow, a campaigner with Global Justice Now, said the ruling “means another 18 months of hundreds of thousands of tons of a ‘probably carcinogenic’ chemical being sprayed on our parks, our farms and in our gardens.” The Commission said the decision was taken because “EU Member States failed to take responsibility for the decision on glyphosate extension.” Neither Monsanto was happy with the decision since the authorization was only temporarily extended. The company urged the Commission “to present without further undue delays a proposal for a full renewal under the regulatory framework”. Monsanto announced plans to engage over the coming months with all relevant stakeholders in “productive conversations about glyphosate and the vital role it will play in sustainable agriculture for many years to come.” Civil society and environmental organisations have been campaigning against the use of glyphosate in Europe since the use of pesticides is not in line with their definition of “sustainable agriculture”. On Wednesday, Slow Food called on the EU to “no longer ignore the externalization of the real costs of agroindustry that relies on substances like glyphosate at the expense of human health, animal health, biodiversity and soil health.” Instead, the principles of agroecology should be introduced into agricultural production systems, they said in a press release. Given the 18-months extension, Slow Food called on Member States to set clear restrictions on the use of glyphosate so as to minimize human exposure. This includes a ban for amateur use in gardens and homes, the use in public parks, roadways and railways as well as a ban on spraying food crops just before the harvest in order to avoid high levels of residues. (ab)

2016-06-28 |

Oxfam calls on food companies to reduce emissions in their supply chains

Rice Flooded paddy fields - a major source of methane (Photo: Sandy Hartmann)

The top five food commodities (rice, soy bean, maize, palm oil and wheat) together cause more greenhouse gas emissions than any country’s individual footprint, new research presented by Oxfam shows. According to the report “Feeding Climate Change”, emissions from the production of these key food commodities are only surpassed by the footprint of China and the US. If the Paris Agreement’s goals to reach “net-zero” emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is to be reached, more sustainable agricultural practices need to be adopted. For food and beverage companies this means undertaking efforts to make drastic emissions cuts, especially in the agricultural supply chains that are responsible for the bulk of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “The Paris Agreement was a big step forward, but we can’t meet its goals without further urgent action,” said Oxfam International’s food and climate policy lead, Tim Gore. “Business and industry leaders (...) must show that Paris is a springboard for deeper emissions cuts and do more to help farmers on the front lines of climate change. The food and beverage sector should be leading the way,” he added. The report identifies emissions from farm soils as a major contributor to climate change. For example, methane produced by flooded rice paddies and nitrous oxide from the use of fertilizers are some of the “super-pollutants” produced by farm soils. Together, these soil emissions are as damaging to the environment as those produced by deforestation to create new farmland. According to the report, rice production is the main culprit of the five key crops. Rice has a significant carbon footprint because of the methane emitted by flooded rice paddies, which contributes about 1.5 percent of global GHG emissions and a significant proportion of agricultural emissions. However, there is no shortage of farming approaches that minimize emissions while supporting adaptation and improving the productivity and food security of small-scale producers, the report says. One innovation that could play a vital role in cutting the massive emissions from rice production while also benefiting small-scale producers is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). SRI increases farmer’s yields by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients. Instead of continuously flooding fields to prevent weed growth, plants only receive the ideal amount of water and the soil is temporarily kept dry. SRI therefore produces more rice with less water, agrochemicals and seeds while studies have also shown that this method produces less GHG emissions per kilogram of rice compared with conventional rice production. Oxfam calls for a change in how these crops are produced in a way that supports small-scale farmers and helps to build their resilience to climate shocks. The private sector must therefore respect farmer-led innovations such as SRI. According to Gore, “food companies not only need to outline science-based emissions cuts in their supply chain and work with small-scale farmers to implement them, but also help these farmers thrive in the face of the changing climate by guaranteeing them a living income. If food companies fail to act, it’ll be impossible to keep the promises of the Paris Agreement,” he said. (ab)

2016-06-23 |

New report shows agroecological solutions can feed the world

Reis Small-scale farmers are key to feeding the world (Photo: CCO/Pixabay)

Agroecology offers humanity essential tools to address climate change, environmental destruction and world hunger. This is the message of a new Friends of the Earth report released on June 21. The report “Farming for the Future: Organic and Agroecological Solutions to Feed the World” busts three common myths about world hunger and details the science that demonstrates that organic and agroecological farming are key to feeding all people sustainably. The authors warn that “today’s dominant industrial food system is rapidly depleting and degrading the world’s soil, water and biodiversity; intensifying climate disruption; consolidating wealth and power over food-related resources; and accelerating world poverty and hunger.” However, agribusiness, philanthropic and international institutions and policymakers defend this system justifying policies, research and markets that propel destructive agricultural practices and concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few. The most famous myth is that we must significantly increase food production to feed the world. Although modern agriculture is producing more food per capita than ever before, approximately 800 million people are still affected by hunger. Scientists estimate that farmers already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people - far more than the current population of 7.3 billion. “Research consistently demonstrates that world hunger is not a problem of supply, but rather of poverty, lack of democracy and unequal access to land, water and other resources,” the authors write. Another pervasive misconception debunked by the report is that organic and agroecological farming cannot produce enough food. The authors draw an a rich body of research demonstrating that agroecological farming systems, including organic agriculture, can yield more than enough food to feed a growing population while generating significant economic, health and environmental benefits. The authors also refer to the IAASTD report: “Investing in regional sustainable food systems can be a win-win for small-scale food producers, families and local economies by spurring jobs and economic growth. By producing a variety of foods for local processing and marketing, farmers generate local employment and expand community economic activity,” is their summary of the IAASTD. Friends of the Earth conclude: “To feed the world while also confronting multiple environmental crises, we need policies, incentives and public investments that promote agroecology, diversified organic farming and small- and mid-scale farmer livelihoods. Solutions must focus on reviving rural economies, advancing food sovereignty and democratizing governance and power in the food system.” (ab)

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