News

2015-07-01 |

UN report: 2.4 billion people worldwide lack access to sanitation

Water Clean drinking water (Photo: Barefoot Photographers/flickr)

The world has made little progress on sanitation and drinking water, leaving 2.4 billion people without access to improved sanitation facilities. According to a new report, released Tuesday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), the lack of access to sanitation threatens to expose the world’s poorest to preventable health risks. One in three people on the planet, or 2.4 billion, still use unimproved sanitation facilities and one in eight people (946 million) defecate in the open. The report tracks access to drinking water and sanitation against the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Although 2.1 billion people have gained access to improved sanitation facilities since 1990, the MDG target for sanitation will be missed by almost 700 million people. Moreover, one in ten (663 million) people still lack improved drinking water sources, including 159 million who depend on surface water. Eight out of ten people still without improved drinking water sources live in rural areas. Worldwide, 2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved drinking water source since 1990 but the WHO underlines that ‘improved sources’ are not necessarily safe. At least 1.8 billion people use drinking water that is contaminated with faeces. “Until everyone has access to adequate sanitation facilities, the quality of water supplies will be undermined and too many people will continue to die from waterborne and water-related diseases,” said Dr. Maria Neira, Director of WHO's Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. Contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. Some 842 000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhoea as a result of unsafe drinking-water, sanitation and hand hygiene. And the practice of open defecation is also related to a higher risk of stunting, or chronic malnutrition, which affects 161 million children across the globe, leaving them with irreversible physical and cognitive damage. “To benefit human health it is vital to further accelerate progress on sanitation, particularly in rural and underserved areas,” says Dr Neira. (ab)

2015-06-23 |

Wild bees are worth billions to farmers worldwide, study finds

Bee European honey bee at work (Photo: autan/flickr.com)

Wild bees provide crop pollination services worth billions to the food system, according to a new study published last week in the journal Nature Communications. Pollination by wild bees contributes on average $3,251 per hectare per year to crop production, while pollination services by managed honeybee colonies are worth $2,913 a hectare. The international study team, which included researchers from the University of Reading, used data from 90 studies and 1,394 crop fields around the world, monitoring the activities of nearly 74,000 bees from more than 780 species. The scientists estimated the overall value of the bees by examining how heavily food crops depend on their pollination services to grow. They then looked at how much the sale of these produce contributes to the UK economy. They found that bees contribute £651 million (around $1 billion) to the UK economy a year, £150 million ($236 million) more than the Royal Family brings in through tourism. The figures show that the overall economic value of bees has increased by 191 per cent between 1996 and 2012. Almost 85% of the UK’s apple crop and 45% of strawberry plants rely on bees. Professor Simon Potts, director of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research (CAER) at the University of Reading, said “Putting a cash value on ecosystem services is helpful to highlight to politicians and farmers just how important nature is to the bottom line.“ But he added that “thinking purely about today’s profits is pointless if it comes at the expense of the future sustainability of our countryside and our food supply.“ The scientists also found that most of the pollinating work was done by a handful of common species. Only 2% of wild bee species visited about 80% of bee-pollinated crops worldwide. However, conservation efforts should be targeted at a wider number of species - even those that currently contribute little to crop pollination - in order to maintain biodiversity and ensure future food security. “The few bee species that currently pollinate our crops are unlikely to be the same types we will need in the future,” said Professor Potts. „Human history is full of examples of food crises caused by an over-reliance on a single crop or a dwindling number of species.” (ab)

2015-06-16 |

France to ban Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller from garden centres

Roundup Roundup in a garden centre (Photo: Mike Mozart/flickr.com)

France has announced a ban on over-the-counter sales of Monsanto's weedkiller Roundup at garden centres after glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was classified as potentially harmful to human health. French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal told France 3 television on Sunday, “France must be on the offensive with regards to the banning of pesticides”. “I have asked garden centres to stop putting Monsanto’s Roundup on sale” in self-service aisles, she said. Royal did not specify how she would enforce a ban. Glyphosate was introduced by Monsanto in the 1970s under the brand name Roundup and is the world’s most widely sold herbicide used by farmers and amateur gardeners alike. In March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. That prompted calls from public officials, health experts and consumers worldwide for a ban on the pesticide. Some retailers across Europe have already started to remove Roundup from their shelves. German retail giant REWE Group announced in May that its 350 ‘toom Baumarkt DIY’ stores would no longer be selling products containing glyphosate by 30 September 2015 at the latest. In Switzerland, supermarket chains Coop and Migros both have removed glyphosate products from their product range. The French move is part of a wider effort to reduce the country's pesticide use. The French parliament earlier adopted a law which would restrict self-service sales of plant protection products for domestic gardeners from 2018. Sales would be limited to certified vendors, a full ban on pesticides in home gardens would take effect from 2022. France, the EU’s largest agricultural producer, had the ambitious goal of cutting pesticide use by half from 2008 to 2018. In late January, however, French Minister of Agriculture, Stéphane Le Foll, prolonged the deadline to 2025. (ab)

2015-06-09 |

Most Americans could be fed entirely by local farms, research shows

Radieschen Union Square Farmers Market NY (Photo: ceiling/flickr.com)

Most Americans could be fed entirely by food grown within 100 miles of their homes, according to new research published last week in the science journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. The study, led by professor Elliott Campbell from the University of California, Merced, mapped the potential of every U.S. city to obtain food through local food networks. The researchers found that most areas of the U.S. could feed 90% of the local population with food grown or raised within 50 miles, making agriculture more sustainable. Campbell said the popularity of “farm to table” has increased significantly over the past few years as people become more interested in supporting local farmers. “Farmers markets are popping up in new places, food hubs are ensuring regional distribution, and the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill supports local production - for good reason, too,” Campbell said. “There are profound social and environmental benefits to eating locally.” Campbell and his students used data about land productivity from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and looked at the farms within a local radius of every major population center in the country. By comparing the potential calorie production to the population of each city or town, they arrived at the percentage of the population that could be supported entirely by locally grown food. Although local food potential has declined over time due to limited land resources and growing populations and urbanisation, particularly in some coastal cities, the researchers were surprised at how much potential still remains. Most areas could still sustain between 80% and 100% of their populations with food grown or raised within 50 miles. New York City, for example, could feed only 5% of its population within 50 miles, but as much as 30% within a radius of 100 miles. The greater Los Angeles area could feed half the population within 100 miles. Plant-based diets can also make a difference. San Diego, for example, could feed 35% of its population based on the average U.S. diet, but as much as 51% of the population if people switched to plant-based diets. According to the study, local food systems may facilitate agroecological practices that conserve nutrient, energy, and water resources. “One important aspect of food sustainability is recycling nutrients, water and energy. For example, if we used compost from cities to fertilise our farms, we would be less reliant on fossil-fuel-based fertilisers,” Campbell said. “But cities must be close to farms so we can ship compost economically and environmentally. The scientists hope their maps will provide the foundation for discovering how recycling could work. (ab)

2015-06-02 |

Study finds organic agriculture can be more profitable to farmers

Apple Organic apples (Photo: Jeff Kraus/flickr.com)

Organic agriculture can be much more profitable than conventional agriculture, according to new research published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study by two Washington State University professors shows that the profit margins for organic agriculture are significantly greater as long as farmers can charge higher prices than their non-organic counterparts. “The reason we wanted to look at the economics is that more than anything, that is what really drives the expansion and contraction of organic farming – whether or not farmers can make money,” said David Crowder, from WSU’s Department of Entomology. The scientists analysed the financial performance of organic and conventional agriculture from 40 years of studies covering 55 crops grown on five continents. Out of 129 initial studies, 44 were included in the meta-analysis. The study also included profit data for multiple crops grown over several seasons to better reflect how farmers profit from agriculture. The researchers found that premiums paid to organic farmers ranged from 29 to 32% above conventional prices. Organic farming practices require farmers to spend 7 to 13% more on labour, while other costs were not significantly higher. Even with organic crop yields being 10 to 18% lower, the breakeven premiums necessary for organic profits to match those of conventional farmers were only 5–7%. “That was a big surprise to me,” said Reganold, a soil scientist and organic agriculture specialist. “It means that organic agriculture has room to grow; there’s room for premiums to go down over time. But what we’ve found is that the premiums have held pretty steady over the 40 years represented in the study.” According to the study, farmers converting to organic face many problems and uncertainties as the transition period for organic certification exposes farmers to financial risk when their yields drop but they are not yet receiving premiums. The authors suggest that government policies could further boost adoption of organic farming practices, especially during the transition period, often the first three years. The study neither forecasts the effects of a major shift to organic production, which could result in lower prices due to increased supply nor does it account for the environmental costs or ecosystem services from good farming practices. But according to the authors, organic farming with its multiple environmental benefits can contribute a larger share in sustainably feeding the world. (ab)

2015-05-29 |

UN hunger report: 795 million still chronically undernourished

Rice Most of the world’s hungry live in Asia (Photo: ILO/Joaquin Bobot Go)

About 795 million people in the world, or one in nine, suffer from hunger, according to new estimates published on Wednesday by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP). The vast majority of the world’s hungry - 780 million – live in developing countries. Numbers only declined by 10 million in comparison with last year’s report. While some regions have made significant progress in the fight against hunger, others continue to lag behind. Latin America has been able to reduce the prevalence of undernourishment to 5.5% of the population. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, one in four people remain chronically undernourished and the numbers have even increased to 220 million over the past years. Two thirds of the world’s hungry, 512 million people, live in Asia. Although 55 countries will not achieve the Millennium Development target of halving the proportion of the chronically undernourished, FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva remains optimistic: “The near-achievement of the MDG hunger targets shows us that we can indeed eliminate the scourge of hunger in our lifetime.” According to the FAO, inclusive economic growth, agricultural investments and social protection, along with political stability and political will are preconditions for the elimination of hunger. But in recent years, progress towards fully achieving the 2015 food security targets was hampered by extreme weather events, natural disasters, political instability and civil strife. The report estimates that around 19% of the world’s undernourished live in countries enduring protracted crises. In order to meet the MDG hunger target, the prevalance of undernourishment in developing countries would have needed to halve compared to 1990 levels. The proportion declined to 12.9% of the population, down from 23.3% a quarter of a century ago, also due to the fact that the world population has increased since then by 1.9 billion. The more ambitious World Food Summit target of halving the absolute number of undernourished people to 500 million remains out of reach. Today, there are only 216 million fewer people who are suffering from hunger than in 1990-92. In addition, much of the progess made in fighting hunger can be attributed to China where the number of undernourished people fell by 155 million in this period. “If we truly wish to create a world free from poverty and hunger, then we must make it a priority to invest in the rural areas of developing countries where most of the world’s poorest and hungriest people live,” said IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze. (ab)

2015-05-27 |

France to ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food

Food France wants to ban food waste (Photo: USDA/flickr.com)

Supermarkets in France will be forced to give away unsold food to charities in an effort to tackle food waste. On Thursday, the French national assembly voted unanimously to pass the legislation which forms part of a larger environmental bill. Under the new law, supermarkets measuring 400 square metres or more would be forced to give any unsold, but still edible, goods to charities or to farms for use as animal feed or compost. This includes products which would be thrown away because they are damaged or because their best-before dates are approaching but are not dangerous to eat. Big supermarkets will have to sign contracts with charities by July next year or face penalties including fines of up to €75,000. The bill was proposed by Guillaume Garot, a Socialist deputy and former food minister. “It’s scandalous to see bleach being poured into supermarket dustbins along with edible foods,” he told The Guardian. The legislation also includes education programmes about food waste in school cafeterias and businesses. The overall bill will need to go to the senate for final approval. Environmental groups welcomed the vote, but warned that it could also send out all the wrong signals while failing to address the wider issue of overproduction and wastage in food distribution chains. The French measures are part of an effort to halve the amount of food waste in the country by 2025. The Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy estimates food waste to amount to 7.1 million tonnes. According to official estimates, wasted food costs the average French household €400 a year, and the country up to €20 billion. Similar rules could also be put in place in the UK and other countries in Europe. A report earlier this year showed that in the UK, households threw away 7 million tonnes of food in 2012. An online petition started last week is urging the British government to adopt the French proposal. Posted on the 38 Degrees campaign website, the petition is calling for supermarkets to hand over all unsold food to charities and suggest the introduction of a voluntary payment to be added to all online orders to fund a delivery service to those in need. By Wednesday morning, the petition had been signed by more than 123,000 people. (ab)

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)

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