News

2015-05-22 |

Organic farming benefits biodiversity, study finds

Mohn Poppy in organic wheat field (Photo: Michelle Jones/Flickr)

New research suggests that organic farming increases the biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B- Biological Sciences shows that organic fields have a higher diversity of wild plants, offsetting the loss of biodiversity on surrounding conventional farms. The researchers at Swansea University compared organic and conventionally farmed fields sowed with winter wheat in the Poitou-Charente region of France. They found that the presence of organic farming in the landscape led to higher local weed biodiversity also for conventionally farmed fields, and even reached a similar biodiversity level to organic fields in field margins. While weeds may induce crop yield loss, they represent the basic trophic component in agricultural food webs. “Wild plants are important for birds, bees and other farmland species. Organic farming has advantages in maintaining these,” said Dr Luca Borger of the Department of Biosciences at Swansea University. However, the intensification of agriculture has led to a loss of biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. Wild plants are strongly affected by the application of herbicides and fertilisation. As organically farmed fields in general harbour more insect-pollinated plants, forbs and rare or threatened weeds, their presence in the landscape could mitigate the negative effects of conventional agricultural management. „Even a mixture of organic and non-organic farming in an area can help maintain this biodiversity. Even only 25% of fields being organically farmed can make a difference”, said Dr Luca Borger. Land-sharing between organic and non-organic farms could have benefits for both crop production and biodiversity. According to the researchers, very few studies have investigated how the biodiversity of a field is affected by the presence or density of organically farmed fields around them. They said further studies are needed but they hope their research will contribute to the debate on the environmental benefits of organic farming over conventional methods. (ab)

2015-05-19 |

New report links universal access to water with food security and nutrition

Water In Mauritania women spend hours collecting water (Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam)

Water is key to food security and nutrition. However there are many challenges in the wider context of the nexus between water, land, soils, energy and food, given the objectives of inclusive growth and sustainable development. This is the main message of a new report, launched on Friday by the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) for the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS). The report explores the relations between water and food security and nutrition, from household level to global level, and calls for coherence on these issues at all levels of policymaking and water management. In an article for The Guardian, Professor Lyla Mehta, the team leader of the report, writes that, “Policies and governance issues on land, water and food are usually developed in isolation. Against a backdrop of future uncertainties, including climate change, changing diets and water-demand patterns, there has to be a joined-up approach to addressing these challenges.” She argues that since there are competing demands over water from different sectors such as agriculture, energy and industry, policymakers need to prioritise the rights and interests of the most marginalised and vulnerable groups, with a particular focus on women, when it comes to water access. The authors describe the growing influence of corporate actors, which compete with agricultural smallholders, fishers and poor households for access to water. Lyla Mehta notes that, “Smallholder farmers produce more than 70% of the world’s food but often lack recognition of their land and water rights in formal legal systems. Women and girls frequently spend several hours a day collecting water but lack decision-making power when it comes to water management.” States and other relevant stakeholders should therefore ensure that policy and legislation give women and men equal access to water and make sure to avoid negative effects on the the food security of the urban and rural poor in any reform in water management. In a foreword to the report, the Chair of the HLPE Steering Committee, Per Pinstrup-Andersen, concludes, “Safeguarding water for the dignity, health, food and nutrition security of everyone on the planet is one of the biggest challenges that humanity currently faces. It is a fundamental dimension of the sustainable development agenda. We hope that this report will help policy makers and actors around food, agriculture, water and all concerned sectors worldwide to overcome this challenge.” (ab)

2015-05-15 |

Monsanto-Syngenta merger could further consolidate seed monopoly

Maize Maize seeds (Photo: World Bank Photo Collection/flickr)

A proposed merger of agribusiness giants Monsanto and Syngenta could further advance the global concentration of the seed market, consolidating the power of a handful of companies over our food system, according to Canada-based civil society organisation ETC Group. If Monsanto succeeds in buying its Swiss rival Syngenta, the very basis of food production could be threatened by a new level of monopoly over seeds. In a report released on Friday, ETC Group warns that if Monsanto and Swiss seed giant Syngenta are allowed to merge, the new company will control 54% of seed sales and a third of the world’s pesticide market. The two companies are currently in negotiations. Last week, Syngenta’s board rejected a $45 billion takeover bid from Monsanto, saying the offer undervalued the Swiss seed giant and did not fully take into account regulatory risks. “This tiny group of companies is attempting to tighten its grip on the global food supply, and the new way of justifying that is pushing the need for climate smart agriculture,” said Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group. “For the private sector, ’climate-smart’ implies a patent rush on genetic traits for abiotic stress-tolerance (e.g., drought, heat or salt resistance). But this rush is recent. The big companies’ multi-decade focus on herbicide tolerance has meant that they have neglected or negated much more important stress-tolerant traits and have actually undermined plant resilience“, the report warns. Whatever the result of the current merger machinations, farmers and consumers will be the losers. The organisation believes that farmers who have bred and nurtured seeds for 12,000 years will be forced to pay patent royalties and sign contracts that prohibit them from saving their own seeds. “The agribehemoths claim that only the biggest can feed the world,” said Veronica Villa from ETC Group’s Mexico office. “They’ve been big for decades, and more than 800 million people are still hungry and many more are badly nourished.” (ab)

2015-05-11 |

Food supplies at risk as depletion of soil accelerates, scientists warn

Soil Soil fertility is decreasing (Photo: Eric Huybrechts/flickr)

Soil erosion, combined with the effects of climate change and the loss of agricultural land to urban sprawl, will threaten global food security unless drastic action is taken to preserve the fertility of the world’s farmland, warns a paper published on May 7th in the journal Science. Soil provides the basis for agriculture, improves water quality and stores carbon. However, human activities are depleting Earth’s soil resources. According to the authors, unsustainable farming practices have accelerated the loss of soil through erosion and nutrient removal. Agriculture is therefore a major game-changer for the long-term health of soil - the “living epidermis” of the planet. Lead author Ronald Amundson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that “Ever since humans developed agriculture, we’ve been transforming the planet and throwing the soil’s nutrient cycle out of balance.” People are often not aware of the geological transformation because the changes happen slowly, he explained. Soil erosion has increased since the “green revolution” with its intensive use of chemicals and fertilisers. Although these methods helped to significantly increase crop yields, the ability of soil to support the growth of our food supply is now reaching a peak. The authors note that most of the Earth’s fertile soils are already in agricultural production. In addition, urbanisation is eating up productive farmland. Between 1970 and 2000, an area of agricultural land the size of Denmark became urbanised. Over the next 20 years, 1.5 million square kilometres of land, an area the size of Mongolia, will be converted to urban areas, the scientists warn. The supply of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous, the three main fertilisers, could also become a major political challenge and lead to uncertainties. The nitrogen synthesis process is energy-intensive, making its supply dependent on fossil fuels. Phosphorous and potassium come from rocks and minerals which are not equitably distributed throughout the world. The authors point out that the United States has only 1 to 2% of global potassium reserves and its phosphorous reserves are expected to run out in about three decades. “Morocco will soon be the largest source of phosphorus in the world, followed by China,” Dr Amundson said. „These two countries will have a great deal of say in the distribution of those resources. Some people suggest we will see the emergence of a phosphorus cartel.” The authors call for a better management of soils. One proposal is to recycle nutrients captured in waste treatment facilities in the same way that paper and plastics are recycled from domestic waste, Dr Amundson said. “The nutrients lost can be captured, recycled and put back into the ground. Additionally, more efficient management is needed to reduce losses from soil. Excess nitrogen, for example, is considered a pollutant, with the runoff sapping oxygen from the nation’s waterways, suffocating aquatic life and creating dead zones in coastal margins. (ab)

2015-05-08 |

WHO warns of looming obesity crisis in Europe

Obesity Obesity is on the rise (Photo: Kyle May/flickr.com)

Europe will face an obesity crisis of enormous proportions by 2030 unless immediate action is taken, according to latest projections released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday. At a congress in Prague, the WHO’s Regional Office for Europe presented the results of an obesity forecast which was undertaken with the UK Health Forum. The experts looked at data from all European countries and compared 2010 figures with projected levels for 2030. Being “overweight” is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 25 and 30 and “obese” by a BMI of 30 and above.They present a worrying picture of rising obesity across Europe. Ireland leads the trend - 91% of men and 85% of women in the country are expected to be overweight by 2030. The overweight category also includes obese people. Almost 57% of Irish women are likely to be obese in 2030, compared with 23% in 2010. In the UK, 73% of men and 63% of women are forecast to be obese in 2030. One third (33%) of women will be obese in 2030, compared with over one quarter (26%) in 2010, while obesity figures for men will rise from 26% to 36% over the same period. Dr Laura Webber, of the UK Health Forum, warned there was “a worrying picture of rising obesity across Europe“. She said: “ Policies to reverse this trend are urgently needed. Although there is no ‘silver bullet’ for tackling the epidemic, governments must do more to restrict unhealthy food marketing and make healthy food more affordable.“ Other countries facing growing obesity problems include Greece, Spain, Austria and the Czech Republic. An estimated 77% of Greek men is forecast to be overweight by 2030 compared to 66% in 2010, while the proportion of obese Greek men will more than double from 20% to 44% over the same period. Obesity levels for Greek women are predicted to jump from 20% in 2010 to 40% in 2030. Even Sweden, where there has traditionally been a low prevalence of obesity, will see significant rises. Only the Netherlands seems to be doing slightly better than their neighbours. Only half of Dutch men will be overweight and just 8% obese by 2030. For Dutch women, the proportion of overweight will remain stable and the obesity rate is predicted to fall from 13% to 9% during this period. (ab)

2015-05-04 |

Climate change threatens one in six species, new study

Frog Amphibians are at risk (Photo: Yamanaka Tamaki/flickr)

New studies suggest one in six animal and plant species on the planet could face extinction if nothing is done to mitigate climate change. A study published Thursday, in the journal “Science” found that, extinction risks will accelerate with rising temperatures. Dr Mark Urban, an ecologist at the University of Connecticut, performed a meta-analysis of 131 published scientific studies on the risk of extinction from climate change. He found that extinction risks were highest in South America, Australia and New Zealand. These regions harbour many species that have adapted to live in habitats not found elsewhere. North America and Europe were characterised by the lowest risks. The majority of studies Dr Urban analysed were from Europe and North America, whereas only four studies focused on Asia. This means that poorly studied regions might face even higher risks but more research is needed for better insights. Endemic species with smaller ranges are predicted to face greater extinction risks, while risks do not vary significantly by taxonomic group. “Many species will be able to shift their ranges and keep up with climate change whereas others will not, either because their habitat has disappeared or because they can’t reach their habitat anymore,” Dr Urban explained. He evaluated how extinction risk varied depending on future global temperature increases, taxonomic groups, geographic regions, as well as on the different models and assumptions. Current predictions about extinction risks range from 0 to 54%. Overall, Urban found that 7.9% of species were predicted to become extinct from climate change. However, the rate of biodiversity loss is likely to accelerate with rising global temperatures. If future temperatures rise by 2 degrees compared with pre-industrial times, which most experts believe is no longer achievable, global extinction risk will rise from 2.8% at present to 5.2% in the future. With an increase of 3°C, 8.5% of species would become extinct. But under the scenario where global warming continues on its current path and temperatures rise by 4 degrees, 16% of species face extinction. “If the world does not come together and control greenhouse gas emissions and we allow the Earth to warm considerably we will face a potential loss of one in six species,” said Dr Urban. Commenting on the research, Prof John J Wiens of the University of Arizona, said the global extinction risk might be even higher than 16%, as the majority of studies analysed were from Europe and North America, where extinction risks are lower. (ab)

2015-04-28 |

France gives doggy bag a chance in an effort to tackle food waste

Plate2 French households waste €400 worth of food every year (Photo: hupdiggs/flickr.com)

France is to adopt new measures with the goal of cutting food waste in half by 2025. In a report presented to the French government on April 14th 2015, Socialist MP Guillaume Garot put forward 36 proposals to prevent the mass disposal of food. His suggestions could soon be transposed into national law. The ideas include promoting ‘doggy bags’, which would allow restaurant-goers to bring their leftover meal home with them. According to the report, wasted food costs the average French household €400 a year, and the country up to €20 billion. The Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy estimates food waste to amount to 7.1 million tonnes. Mr Garot suggests prohibitions for supermarkets and retailers to throw away edible food, making it compulsory for supermarkets to donate unsold food to charitable associations. In addition, special “against waste” sections in supermarkets are to offer products which are nearing their expiration dates at a discounted rate. Another proposal is to replace the term “best before” and inform consumers about the various definitions of “expiry dates" in order to avoid misunderstandings. The report also includes the suggestion that restaurant owners should encourage customers to take leftovers home in so-called ‘doggy bags’ - until recently an unthinkable practice in French restaurants. Mr Garot admits that, “most customers don’t dare ask for the remains of their meal, and restaurateurs can see it as ‘degrading’ their dishes”. However, wastage has reached such levels that French diners need to overcome this “cultural obstacle” to prevent edible food from ending up in the bin, Garot adds. In an effort to make the doggy bags more palatable, hotel and restaurant industry union UMIH have signed a deal with one provider to “generalise the practice of the doggy bag in France”, calling them “le gourmet bag” instead. (ab)

2015-04-23 |

U.S. award stirs up controversy over genetically modified Golden Rice

Golden Golden Rice compared to white rice (Photo: IRRI Photos/flickr)

Environmentalists and farmers’ organisations have heavily criticised the White House’s decision to award a humanitarian prize to the scientists who invented vitamin-enriched “Golden Rice”, describing it as a “hoax”. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) announced Professor Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg in Germany as the winners of the “Patents for Humanity Award“. The scientists invented the genetically modified rice after a decade of research and granted Swiss agro-chemicals company Syngenta the rights to develop the technology. Golden Rice has been genetically modified to provide beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, one of the essential micro-nutrients. Vitamin A deficiency causes between 2 and 3 million deaths each year, as well as approximately 500,000 cases of blindness among children. The GM rice is being developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Preliminary results were mixed. In 2014, IRRI announced that more research would be needed before Golden Rice can be commercialised due to its very low yield performance compared to local varieties used by farmers. Biodiversity experts Vandana Shiva, laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, described the White House ‘award’ to Golden Rice as a desperate attempt to promote failed GMOs. Shiva commented: “Golden Rice is the Emperor who has no clothes. Since 1985 the promoters have been promising the miracle, but it is still far from introduction. In any case it is hundreds of percent less efficient than biodiversity alternatives in providing Vitamin A. Because the malnutrition crisis is so severe, we cannot waste time and resources on false promises.” Filipino farmer-scientist group MASIPAG believe that GM rice will not solve malnutrition: “Poverty and hunger are the main culprits in malnutrition cases. Therefore to address Vitamin A Deficiency, we should address the lack of resources to ensure that people have access to proper nutrition,” said Dr Chito Medina, National Coordinator at MASIPAG. The organisation has been pushing for agroecology and sustainable agriculture to improve food security in Asia. According to Medina, “Global and international studies such as the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food have recognized agroecology and other farmer innovations as a means to address food security and rural development. Contextually appropriate technologies will better serve the farmers and consumers of developing countries, rather than a potentially harmful technology such as Golden Rice.” (ab)

2015-04-21 |

Fertile soils key to food security and sustainable development

Soil A handful of fertile soil (Photo: Pat Dumas/flickr.com)

Healthy soils are the foundation of global food production and ought to become a top priority on the political agenda. This was one of the key messages of the opening pannel at the Global Soil Week, which started in Berlin on Monday. „If humanity’s overarching need for food security and nutrition, climate change mitigation and sustainable development is to be met, soil resources have to be given the global attention they deserve,” said Moujahed Achouri, Director of FAO’s Land and Water Division, in his opening address. However, the level of soil degradation is alarming in many countries. „Every year, 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil is lost: through erosion, development, flooding, mining - or through intensive agriculture,“ says Jes Weigelt of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Germany, which organises the conference together with partners such as FAO, UNEP or the European Commission. Global Soil Week brings together more than 550 land and soil management experts from 78 countries. Under the slogan „Soil. The Substance of Transformation“, this year’s meeting highlights the importance of land and soil in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals, to be adopted by the UN General Assembly in autumn, will succeed the Millennium Development Goals and form the political foundation for sustainable development in both developing and industrialised nations. But a new IASS research paper released on Monday shows that the land demands made in the SDGs exceed the world’s existing land resources. Twelve of the proposed SDGs relate to the sustainable use of natural resources and several depend on the use of additional land resources, e.g. Goal 2 on food security and sustainable agriculture, as well as the goals on energy supply (Goal 7), production and consumption (Goal 12) and the sustainable use of ecosystems (Goal 15). IASS Executive Director Klaus Töpfer concluded: “The 17 SDGs are therefore not consistent. The demands for biomass and land that they make are far more than we can possibly meet. We need to set priorities, for example, where food security is concerned.” According to the publication, consumers play an important role as well. “The choices we make are of great importance: not only our decisions on what to consume, but also our decision to buy food in a way that it does not end up being wasted.” (ab)

2015-04-16 |

Brazil’s Cancer Institute cautions against massive use of pesticides

Brazil Pesticide application (Photo: Claus Isenberg/flickr.com)

Brazil’s National Cancer Institute (INCA) has called for a substantial reduction in the use of pesticides, blaming the cultivation of genetically modified crops for the skyrocketing use of agrochemicals in the country. The institute, which is under the direct administration of the Ministry of Health, published a document last week, warning against the serious health effects of the massive pesticide use. The statement comes a few days after the World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency announced that glyphosate, the world’s most widely used weed killer, is likely to cause cancer in humans. Brazil is the biggest consumer of pesticides in the world; agrochemical sales reached $8.5 billion in 2011, up from $2 billion in 2001. National pesticide consumption is equivalent to 5.2 litres per person per year. The report describes the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops as the main reason for this sad record: “Importantly, the release of transgenic seeds in Brazil was one of the factors responsible for putting the country in first place in the ranking of agrochemical use since the cultivation of these modified seeds requires large quantities of these products.” The INCA points to the risks to human health from exposure to pesticides, particularly its relationship with certain types of cancer. Professor Luiz Felipe Ribeiro Pinto said, “we have to keep in mind that pesticide use sykrocketed over a period of just ten years. If we consider that cancer develops sometimes as long as 20 to 30 years after exposure, the consequences of this rapid increase in pesticide use will be felt in about 15 or 20 years time.” The report explains that acute pesticide poisoning is mainly affecting those directly exposed to chemicals as in the case of farm workers. Possible symptoms can be skin irritations, itching, vomiting, diarrhea or respiratory problems. However, chronic poisoning could also affect large parts of the population due to pesticide residues in food and the environment. Since the effects of chronic exposure such as: infertility, impotence, abortions or cancer, do not appear immediately, it is difficult to link them to the agent. The latest tests of Brazil’s health agency Anivsa revealed pesticide residues above the maximum permissible limit in many samples, as well as the presence of pesticides that are not allowed in the country. According to INCA's statement, the main focus must be on combating the use of pesticides, which contaminate all vital resources, including food, soil, water, breastmilk and air. The INCA therefore calls for a stronger regulation of pesticides and the promotion of agroecological alternatives to the dominant agricultural model with its dangerous dependence on GMOs and pesticides. (ab)

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