News

2016-04-27 |

Soil microbes may not be as adaptable to climate change as presumed

Microbes Soil microbes (Photo: Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

Soil microbes may not be as adaptable to climate change as expected, according to new research published in the journal PLOS One. The study raises concerns that the tiny bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms that determine soil health and exert enormous influence over the earth’s carbon cycle might struggle to carry out essential ecosystem functions under changing conditions. “Soil is the major buffer system for environmental changes, and the microbial community is the basis for that resilience. If the microbial community is not as resilient as we had assumed, then it calls into question the resilience of the overall environment to climate change,” said one of the authors, Vanessa Bailey of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. In a long-term study, the researchers exchanged soils samples from two differents sites on the same mountain slope in eastern Washington state which both have similar plant species and soil types. The higher location had a cooler, moister climate and 500 metres down the mountainside the climate was warmer and drier. After 17 years, they analysed soil samples in the laboratory as well as control samples from both locations, measuring CO2 production, temperature response, enzyme activity, and bacterial community structure. The scientists found that the microbes in both sets of transplanted soils retained many of the characteristics they had in their “native” climate, including their original rate of respiration - how quickly microbes convert carbon in the soil into carbon dioxide as they break down organic matter. The microbes native to the higher site naturally respire at a higher rate because of the moister climate and larger supplies of carbon in their environment. When they were moved down to the warmer site, they continued to respire at a fast rate other than their colleagues from the lower location. The microbes that were moved up the mountain showed an unusually small response to the temperature change and continued to respire at a slow rate although biological theory and climate models predict a larger change. According to the authors, it is surprising to find that the soils’ native environment continued to exert such a profound influence on microbial activity even 17 years later. This means that we can’t just assume that soils will respond to climate changes in the ways that many scientific models predict, the authors conclude. (ab)

2016-04-25 |

Climate deal signed by 175 nations, agriculture could help fight climate change

India Farmer in India (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

Some 175 countries signed the Paris climate agreement at UN headquarters on Friday in a ceremony timed to coincide with Earth Day. The agreement was adopted in Paris last December by the 196 Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the COP21 conference. Its objective is to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to strive to keep it below 1.5 degrees. The treaty will enter into force thirty days after at least 55 countries, accounting for 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have ratified it. On the occasion of the signing ceremony, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stressed the crucial role agriculture, in addition to reducing poverty and hunger, can play in responding to climate change. Agriculture can help reduce the impact of climate change, thus fostering resilience among communities, Maria-Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General for Natural Resources said in New York. She highlighted that agriculture is also one of the main sectors of the economy that is severely affected by climate change as the recent El Niño phenomenon has clearly demonstrated. Particularly the rural poor and small holder farmers are severely affected by climate change threats, Semedo said. While the Paris agreement recognises “the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the impacts of climate change”, the texts does not mention the contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions as well as its potential to reduce emissions. IFOAM - Organics International, the worldwide umbrella organisation for the organic agriculture movement, highlighted the role of industrial farming as a key source of emissions. In a press release, IFOAM said endeavors to limit global warming will be futile if the world does not switch to climate-friendly agroecological farming practices. “Time is up for business as usual,” said Gábor Figeczky, Advocacy Manager at IFOAM, “transitioning to organic agriculture is necessary to slash emissions from food production, safeguard ecosystems and protect the earth.” Agriculture and forest-related mitigation actions in the land sector could contribute to food security and tackle activities such as the use of harmful inputs that degrade soils, destroy ecosystems and exacerbate climate change. According to IFOAM, organic farming techniques need to be adopted that capture carbon in the soil, nourish ecosystems and reduce emissions to protect the earth and try to keep global warming below 1.5°C. To this end, farmers need to be equipped with the agroecological knowledge. “Failure to pursue actions in accordance with social and ecological considerations will have devastating impacts on farmers and food production, and could push millions into poverty,” Figeczky said. (ab)

2016-04-21 |

Eating less meat key to feeding the world in 2050 without deforestation

Cattle Brazil: Deforestation for cattle (Joelle Hernandez/Flickr.com)

Feeding a growing world population in 2050 without the need to clear forests is possible, also with organic farming, if we cut down on meat, new research shows. Scientists at the Alpen-Adra University in Vienna looked at 500 different scenarios taking into account a variety of key factors such as future yields, land-use intensity, various livestock systems, the area needed for farming and grazing, as well as human diets (vegan, vegetarian, modest consumption of meat, current consumption patterns). Human diets are the key factor, the research team reported on April 19 in the journal Nature Communications. “If the world’s population followed a vegan diet, all combinations of parameters, even those with lowest yield levels and low cropland expansion, would be feasible”, explained Karlheinz Erb, the lead author of the study. “With a vegetarian diet, 94 per cent of all of our calculated scenarios would be feasible.” The results of the study show that producing enough food for almost 10 billion people by 2050 without deforestation becomes increasingly difficult the more meat is consumed. Because of the amount of land it takes to raise animals for meat, only 15% of the scenarios with typical meat-heavy Western diets were feasible – and only with intensive levels of agricultural management as well as massive expansion of cropland into areas now used for grazing. Whereas the vegan diet require less cropland than in the year 2000, meat-based diets would lead to a cropland demand of up to 23.5 million square kilometres, 52 per cent above the current levels. Going vegetarian would allow for an area around the size of India to return to nature. The scientists stress that it is not even necessary to give up meat completely to preserve forests since almost two thirds of the scenarios would still be feasible if meat consumption was reduced to levels in line with public recommendations for a healthy diet. Livestock farming can also produce positive effects, they argue, For instance, livestock can use areas that are not suitable for any other agricultural use except extensive grassland management and increase food availability. However, this benefit is lost if animals are fed with concentrated feedstuff based on cereals grown on arable land. According to the study, feeding 10 billion people in a zero-deforestation world is also possible with lower-yielding agriculture such as organic farming if paired with a vegetarian or vegan diet. While they assumed lower yields for organic farming in industrialized systems compared to business-as-usual trajectories they wrote that regions with little industrialized agriculture would not be affected by yield reductions. Another important factor is the reduction of food waste. The reseachers concluded that if current trends of meat consumption continue, feeding the world in 2050 without clearing forests and converting grasslands into arable land will not be possible. However, their findings illustrate that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of protecting forests and the climate are compatible with the aim of achieving food security for a growing population if we reduce meat consumption and tackle food waste. (ab)

2016-04-19 |

Area planted with genetically modified crops declines in 2015

Soy Soybean field (Photo: United Soybean Board/Flickr.com)

The global area planted with genetically modified crops has decreased for the first time since the commercial introduction of GM crops in 1996. The worldwide acreage reached 179.7 million hectares in 2015, down by one per cent from 181.5 million hectares in 2014. These figures were published on April 13 by the GMO-friendly organisation “International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA)”. According to their annual report, the main reason for the drop was a reduction in total plantings of maize and cotton, two of the main GM crops, driven by low commodity prices. The organisation argues that this caused farmers to switch to other less demanding crops like pulses, sunflower and sorghum. The report highlights that the global hectarage of GM crops has increased 100-fold over the past 20 years. But a comparison of the organisation’s annual reports shows that year-to-year growth has slowed down recently. Following years of double-digit growth, in 2012, the global hectareage of GM crops only increased by 6 per cent compared to the previous year. In 2014, it only increased by 3.6 per cent. The cultivation of genetically modified crops is still concentrated in just a few countries. The US is the leading producer with 70.9 million hectares or 39 per cent of the global area. Brazil ranks second with 44.2 million hectares, followed by Argentina with 24.5 million hectares. India ranked fourth with 11.6 million hectares and Canada was fifth at 11.0 million hectares. Other GM producing countries include China, Paraguay, Pakistan, South Africa and Uruguay. Genetic modification is still largely restricted to four main crops: Soybeans are grown on half of the area planted with GM crops, followed by maize, cotton and rapeseed. Insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are the only two traits that have been developed and cultivated on a large scale. 53 per cent of GM crops grown in 2015 were herbicide tolerant, 14 per cent were insect resistant and 33 per cent had a combination of both traits. The report states that genetically modified crops were grown in 2015 by up to 18 million farmers, 90 per cent of which were resource-poor small-scale farmers in developing countries. This has helped alleviate hunger and poverty for up to 16.5 million small farmers and their families annually totaling about 65 million people – at least according to ISAAA, which is sponsored by agrochemical giant Monsanto and CropLife International, the association of agricultural biotechnology companies. According to the FAO, the global agricultural area amounts to 4.9 billion hectares and arable land to 1.4 billion hectares. This means that the 179.9 million hectares planted with GM crops in 2015, as stated by the ISAAA, only make up roughly 3.6% of the total agricultural area and 13% of arable land. (ab)

2016-04-13 |

Joint opposition against Syngenta's patent on conventionally bred tomato

Tomface No patents on life: Opposition to Syngenta"s tomato patent (Photo: Randi Boice/Flickr.com)

In 2015, Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta was granted a patent on a tomato derived from classical breeding but a broad coalition of organisations has now started a joint opposition in an effort to achieve the revocation of the patent. The European Patent Office (EPO) granted Syngenta a patent for a tomato with a higher content of compounds called flavonols. Flavonols are known for their health benefits and are said to help prevent cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers. Patent EP1515600, which was published in the August 12th issue of the European Patent Register, covers the tomato plants, seeds and fruits. The “invention” is described as “flavonol expressing domesticated tomato and method of production”. However, the tomato was simply developed by crossing wild tomatoes from Latin America with domesticated varieties and is thus not genetically engineered. Although European patent law prohibits patents on plant varieties and classical breeding methods, the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the EPO ruled in March 2015 in a controversial decision on the precedent cases of broccoli and tomato, that plants obtained by “essentially biological processes” are patentable. The EPO has already granted about 180 patents on plants derived from conventional breeding and about 1400 such patent applications are still pending. The coalition “No Patents on Seeds!”, which is supported by many non-governmental and farmers’ organisations from all over Europe, strongly disapproves of this practice which they consider an unacceptable interpretation of European patent law. In their oppositon against Syngenta’s patent they argue that it is a well known fact that lines of wild tomatoes can be crossed with commercially traded varieties. Thus, the processes covered by the patent and the resulting plants are not an invention. The organisations warn that the patent would provide a monopoly on all plants with the respective characteristics, the seeds and even the fruits and food derived thereof. They regard the patent a case of biopiracy. The signatures against the tomato patent will be collected and then handed over to a patent lawyer who will file a joint opposition. With this appeal, the organisations of "No Patents on Seeds!"also want to send a strong political signal against all patents on life in general, especially on plants and animals. (ab)

2016-04-11 |

Reducing food waste could cut emissions from agriculture by 14%, study shows

Food Reducing food waste can help mitigate climate change (Photo: Starr/Flickr.com)

One tenth of global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture could easily be avoided in the future by putting an end to food loss and waste, scientists said on Thursday. The new study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) provides food loss estimates at national and global level while also calculating the associated emissions. Each year, one third of global food production is lost after harvest or wasted in retail and households. “Currently, 1.3 billion tons of food per year are discarded,” explains Jürgen Kropp, co-author and deputy chair of Climate Impacts and Vulnerabilities at PIK. While food losses occur mostly in developing countries due to less efficient agricultural infrastructures, food waste is mainly a problem in industrialised countries. And the amount of food wasted will increase dramatically if more countries adopt western food habits. “As many emerging economies like China or India are projected to rapidly increase their food waste as a consequence of changing lifestyle, increasing welfare and dietary habits towards a larger share of animal-based products, this could over proportionally increase greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste – at the same time undermining efforts for an ambitious climate protection,” Kropp warns. According to the researchers, emissions from agriculture are expected to rise by up to 18 gigatons of CO2 equivalents by 2050. Over the same time, emissions linked to food waste could increase from currently 0.5 to 1.9-2.5 gigatons of CO2 equivalents per year, the study shows. “Thus, emissions related to discarded food are just the tip of the iceberg,“ explains co-author Prajal Pradhan. “However, it is quite astounding that up to 14 percent of overall agricultural emissions in 2050 could easily be avoided by a better management of food utilisation and distribution,” he added. The scientists found that over the last five decades food availability has rapidly increased while global average food demand per person has remained almost constant. Richer countries tend to consume more food than is healthy or simply waste it, they said. At the same time, hunger and malnutrition are still a problem in many developing countries because many people do not have access to food or because food loss occurs. “Avoiding food loss could pose a leverage to various challenges at once, reducing environmental impacts of agriculture, saving resources used in food production, and enhance local, regional, and global food security,” Kropp said. (ab)

2016-04-05 |

New UN Decade aims to eradicate hunger and malnutrition

Child2 Child nutrition is at the heart of the new UN decade (Photo: Steve Evans/Flickr.com)

The UN General Assembly has proclaimed a ‘Decade of Action on Nutrition’ that will run from 2016 to 2025 in an effort to reduce hunger and malnutrition. World governments adopted a resolution in New York on April 1. The decade has the aim of providing an umbrella for a wide group of actors and initiatives working together to address nutrition issues over the next ten years. “Clearly, not enough is being done to ensure the basic right to food,” said Brazil's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota. It was simply unacceptable for chronic hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity to occur in a world that produced enough food for all of humanity, he said. Worldwide, almost 800 million people are chronically undernourished and over two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. At the same time, about 1.9 billion people are overweight, of whom 600 million are obese. The resolution also focuses on the 159 million children under the age of five who are stunted, being too short for their age, and the 50 million children who are wasted, being too low in weight for their height. “Children can’t fully reap the benefits of schooling if they don't get the nutrients they need; and emerging economies won't reach their full potential if their workers are chronically tired because their diets are unbalanced. That's why we welcome the Decade of Action on Nutrition and look forward to helping make it a success,” said José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Together with the World Health Organisation, FAO is to lead the implementation of the Decade. “This resolution places nutrition at the heart of sustainable development and recognizes improving food security and nutrition are essential to achieving the entire 2030 Agenda,” Graziano da Silva added. Goal 2 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aimes at ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture. (ab)

2016-04-04 |

Biofuels lead to increasing competition for land and water, study warns

Biofuel 40% of the U.S. corn supply is used to produce ethanol (Photo: mrobenalt/Flickr.com)

The growing production of biofuels is leading to increased competition for land and water that could otherwise be used for food production, new research shows. According to a study published in March in the Nature journal “Scientific Reports”, the arable land and water now used for the production of bioethanol and biodiesel could produce sufficient food to feed about 280 million more people. “We are investigating and evaluating the effects of biofuels on food security – the food-energy nexus – and its link with the global appropriation of land and water,” said Paolo D’Odorico, a professor at the University of Virginia who co-wrote the paper with colleagues from Italy and the US. “The land and water resources claimed by biofuel production have been poorly quantified, and we are trying to gain better understanding to help inform public policy.” The researchers based their analysis on biofuel data by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and other sources and estimated the water and land footprints per unit of biofuel energy. Their findings show that first generation biofuels (i.e. produced from food crops) in 2013 claimed an area of about 41.3 million hectares, which accounts for about 4% of the global surface of arable land. In addition, biofuel production consumed 216 billion m3 of water, which corresponds to about 3% of the global water consumption for food production. The researchers determined that these resources, if used for the cultivation of food crops, would be sufficient to feed about 280 million more people – about one third of the undernourished people in the world. However, the authors stress that this is not the number of people that would likely get access to food should biofuel use be reduced to zero since the availability of food alone does not ensure that poor people will have enough to eat. The findings suggest that with the world’s population projected to grow to about 9 billion by the middle of the century, the need for food and fuel could increasingly be at odds. The study shows that if biofuel production for transportation were to be increased to 10 percent of the total fuel used by the transportation sector – in line with recent policy and business patterns that encourage renewable energy production – the planet could meet the food needs of only about 6.7 billion people. “These results clearly show the extent to which biofuels are competing with food for the limited land and water resources of the planet, and are becoming an additional obstacle to bringing food production in line with the increasing needs of the human population,” D’Odorico said. According to the authors, first generation bioethanol is still the major contributor to the global biofuel supply while the production of second and third generation biofuels from cellulosic plant tissues or algae or new technologies relying on agricultural waste are overall still negligible. (ab)

2016-04-01 |

More effort needed to protect wild relatives of food crops, study finds

Beans Variety of beans in a gene bank (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

Wild relatives of vital food crops, which have useful traits that could help farmers adapt to climate change, are poorly represented in seed banks, new research shows. In a paper, published in the journal Nature Plants on March 21, an international team of scientists warns that more needs to be done to collect and conserve wild relatives of plants for future generations. “The world's food supply is in a precarious position of depending on too few crop plant species,” said co-author Colin Khoury, a scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. The researchers mapped more than 1,000 crop wild relatives of 81 essential food crops, and found that for 29.1% of total taxa associated with 63 crops, no samples exist, and a further 23.9% of crop wild relatives are represented by fewer than ten accessions in gene banks. According to the study, more than 70% of wild plants considered high priority for collection are underrepresented in gene banks. These included the gene pools of crops important for agricultural production, for example sugarcane, sugar beet and maize as well as important regional staple crops, such as banana and plantain, cassava, sorghum, yams and cowpea. High priority was also assigned to the gene pools of crops important for smallholder income generation in the tropics (for example, cacao and papaya) and minor crops increasing in popularity because of their nutritional qualities such as quinoa. “Over the history of agriculture - from Neolithic times onwards - farmers have been whittling down the diversity available in wild plants to focus on a particular subset of that diversity that we call the domesticated crop,” explained co-author Luigi Guarino, director of science and programs at the Global Crop Diversity Trust. “This domesticated crop is just a selection from a much wider diversity of genes, traits and adaptations that are out there still in the ancestors and relatives of the crops we use today,” he added. The wild relatives of domesticated crops possess characteristics such as drought and heat tolerance or increased pest and disease resistance that could be used for breeding more resilient crop varieties. But there are lots of threats to genetic diversity, such as land-use change, urbanisation, deforestation and climate change itself. The assessment also shows that over 95% of crop wild relatives are insufficiently represented in regard to the full range of geographic and ecological variation in their native distributions. The most critical collecting gaps occur in the Mediterranean and the Near East, western and southern Europe, Southeast and East Asia, and South America. The scientists conclude that a systematic effort is needed to improve the conservation and availability of crop wild relatives. But they stressed that it is also important to conserve this diversity in nature itself, allowing it to continue evolving. “This is difficult to do, especially under climate change which is already causing movement of species polewards and to higher elevations,” Luigi Guarino told BBC. (ab)

2016-03-23 |

Italian parliament passes new law to fight food waste

Fruits The law will make it easier to donate unsold food (Photo: myfruit.it/flickr.com)

The Italian parliament has approved a new law aimed at reducing food waste. The bill, which was passed on Thursday with an overwhelming majority of 277 votes in favour, will make it easier for supermarkets and farmers to donate to charities. “The main objective of the new law is to give incentives to save food and to double the amount of food that is donated to charities,” Maria Chiara Gadda, the Democratic Party MP who introduced the bill, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. The new law will cut red tape which is currently making it difficult for food stores, supermarkets or restaurants to donate excess food since donations must be declared five days in advance. Under the new rules, retailers would only have to declare all their donations by the end of the month. Italy is now the second European country after France to pass a food waste law. But unlike the French law, which introduced heavy fines of up to €75,000 for supermarkets that throw away unsold food, the Italian approach is to incentivise surplus product donations by lowering the bureaucratic burden of food donations and offering tax cuts. “We are making it more convenient for companies to donate than to waste,” Italian agriculture minister Maruizio Martina told La Repubblica. According to food producers’ organisation Coldiretti, Italy throws away 5.6 million tonnes of food every year worth an estimated €12.5 billion. Most food is thrown away in private households, while restaurants account for 21%, food retailers for 15%, agriculture for around 8% and processors for 2%, according to a study by the university Politecnico di Milano. The bill will also make it possible for businesses to give away food which is past its 'sell by' date, if it is still edible. Italy will also invest in a campaign to promote the use of 'doggy bags' in restaurants, encouraging diners to take their leftovers home. The bill also includes provisions for collecting and transporting produce left in fields by farmers after harvest. The recovered food will be passed on to the six million Italians who rely on food donations from charities to eat. “We currently recover 550 million tonnes of excess food each year but we want to arrive at one billion in 2016,” said Maurizio Martina. “Today’s vote confirms the that Italy is at the forefront in the fight against food waste.” The bill now needs to pass the Italian Senate to become law. (ab)

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