News

2014-12-16 |

USDA greenlights Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant soybean and cotton

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

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

2014-12-12 |

Organic farming is more productive than previously thought

Carrot Diversity can increase organic yields (Photo: cyclotourist/Flickr)

A new study comparing organic and conventional farming shows that organic yields are much higher than previously thought. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that organic crop yields were only 19.2% lower, on average, than those from conventional crops. Using agricultural diversification practices such as crop rotation and multi-cropping (growing several crops together on the same field) could further reduce the yield gap to 8% and 9% respectively. According to the study, published on Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, there were no significant differences in yields for leguminous crops, such as beans, peas and lentils. “In terms of comparing productivity among the two techniques, this paper sets the record straight on the comparison between organic and conventional agriculture,” said the study’s senior author, Claire Kremen, professor of environmental science at UC Berkeley. The researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 115 studies containing more than 1000 comparisons in 38 countries and for 52 crop species – a dataset three times greater than in previous papers. “Our study suggests that through appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management and in breeding cultivars for organic farming systems, the yield gap could be reduced or even eliminated for some crops or regions,” said the study’s lead author, Lauren Ponisio. The study stresses the need to look more closely at organic farming, because aside from the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, the ability of synthetic fertilizers to increase crop yields has been declining. “Increasing the proportion of agriculture that uses sustainable, organic methods of farming is not a choice, it’s a necessity. We simply can’t continue to produce food far into the future without taking care of our soils, water and biodiversity”, Professor Kremen said. With regard to the question whether organic farming can feed the world she said: “It’s important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet. Eradicating world hunger requires increasing the access to food, not simply the production.”

2014-12-08 |

Fighting climate change with food sovereignty

Peru Farmer in the Andes (Photo: Alfredo Miguel Romero)

A global effort to give small farmers and indigenous communities control over land is the best way to deal with climate change and feed a growing world population, according to two new documents released by La Via Campesina and the non-profit organisation GRAIN for the occasion of the UN Climate Change Conference currently underway in Lima. Small farms of less than five hectares represent 78% of all farms in Peru, but occupy only 6% of the country’s agricultural lands, reflecting the global situation. Analysis of official data carried out by GRAIN suggests, worldwide, small farms account for 90% of all farms yet occupy less than a quarter of the agricultural land. The organisations argue that the dispossession of peasants and indigenous peoples of their lands has laid the basis for destructive resource extraction and an industrial food system that is responsible for 44-57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. However, the food and agricultural sector has an enormous potential to tackle climate change. GRAIN estimates that a worldwide redistribution of lands to small farmers and indigenous communities, combined with policies to support local markets and cut the use of chemicals, could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by half within a few decades and significantly curb deforestation. Simply by rebuilding the organic matter that has been depleted by decades of industrial agriculture, small farmers could put a quarter of the excess carbon dioxide that is now in the atmosphere back into the soil. Both organisations warn against false solutions, such as carbon markets and REDD+ projects that would allow the “worst offenders to avoid cuts in emissions by turning the forests and farmlands of peasants and indigenous peoples into conservation parks and plantations.” In their view, the only effective solution is a shift from a globalised, industrial food system governed by corporations to local food systems in the hands of small farmers.

2014-12-04 |

World must cut down on meat to curb climate change, report says

Cattle2 Cattle - a contributor to climate change (Photo: Compassion in World Farming)

A radical shift in meat and dairy consumption patterns is essential to keep global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius but an “awareness gap” about emissions from livestock could hamper efforts to curb climate change, a new report warns. The livestock sector produces more greenhouse gas emissions than transport and is the largest source of two of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. However, people were more than twice as likely to identify transport as a major contributor to climate change, according to a 12-nation survey commissioned by international think-tank Chatham House. Governments and environmental groups are reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to change consumer behaviour due to fears of a consumer backlash, the analysis suggests. “A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat”, said Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author. Although the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that dietary change can “substantially lower” emissions, efforts to cut meat and dairy consumption are absent from international mitigation strategies. The Chatham report found that consumers with a higher level of awareness of climate change and its impacts were more willing to reduce their dietary behaviour. The greatest potential for behaviour change appears to lie in emerging economies, with respondents in Brazil, China and India showing a greater consideration of climate change when choosing meat and dairy, and a greater willingness to modify their behaviour than consumers in the United States, the UK and Japan. This is encouraging as these countries are among the most important for future demand for meat and dairy products. “The research does not show everyone has to be a vegetarian to limit warming to 2°C”, said Bailey. It shows, however, that closing the awareness gap is an important precondition for behaviour change and that addressing dietary trends has to be part of an international strategy to reduce emissions.

2014-12-02 |

Latin American fairtrade farmers call for climate action

Honduras Climate change will affect farmers in Central America (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

A new round of UN climate talks opened in Lima on Monday, aimed at paving the way for a new international climate deal. Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP20), fairtrade producer networks urged governments to provide more support to smallholder farmers in fighting the effects of climate change on their livelihoods. “Small farmers and rural workers are among the groups most affected by the devastating impacts of climate change; however, their voice is not being heard in the climate negotiations”, the Fairtrade Producer Network for Latin America and the Caribbean (CLAC) criticised on behalf of three networks representing more than 1.4 million farmers and rural workers. According to their statement, extreme weather events are affecting crops and livestock in Latin America, disrupting the delicate ecological balance needed to ensure food security of farm families, rural communities and urban consumers. The fairtrade networks stressed “the urgent need to increase resilience to climate change and access more funding opportunities for climate change adaptation”. They called on governments and international actors involved in the agricultural sector “to work together towards achieving food security and sovereignty for the regional and global population.” In the run-up to the COP20 conference, many civil society organisations in Latin America worried about the effects of global warming on farming and food security, urging their governments to put a focus on agriculture in the climate talks. Tania Guillén, who represents Nicaragua’s Humboldt Centre environmental group at the talks, told Inter Press Service “Central American organisations working for climate justice, food security and sustainable development are trying to share information and hammer out a common position.” Over the next 10 days, delegates from more than 190 countries will attempt to reach consensus on a new international climate agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. The deal is set to be signed in Paris in December 2015 and would enter into force in 2020.

2014-11-27 |

New study highlights importance of urban agriculture

Cuba Cuban urban agriculture (Photo: Melody Breaker/flickr)

Urban agriculture is playing an increasingly important role in global food production, according to research from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, suggests that the significance and size of urban agriculture is widely underestimated. Using satellite data, the scientists found that agricultural activities within 20 kilometres of urban areas occupy 456 million hectares of land - an area roughly the size of the European Union. Most of that land lies just outside the city but 67 million hectares is being farmed in open spaces in urban agglomerations. “This is the first study to document the global scale of food production in and around urban settings, and it is surprising to see how much the table is definitely getting closer and closer to the farm,” said co-author Pay Drechsel, a researcher at the IWMI. The scientists say their goal was to highlight the proximity of farming to cities in the quest for urban food security and sustainable development, given the focus on rural areas of most agricultural research and policy work. The team notes that urban agriculture, in addition to contributing to food security, puts marginal lands into production, helps with flood control, creates income opportunities for the poor and strengthens urban biodiversity. Citing Ghana as an example, Dr Drechsel said that in and around cities, everyday there are about 2,000 urban vegetable farmers supplying greens to 800,000 people. In addition, most of these farmers irrigate their fields with polluted water. „In Accra, up to 10% of household wastewater is indirectly recycled by urban vegetable farms. These farms are now ‘recycling’ more wastewater than local treatment plants”, he added. According to the authors, urban agriculture is viewed differently in the North and in the South: “Urban farming in wealthy countries is praised for reducing various footprints and enhancing a green economy, while in developing countries it is usually regarded as an inconvenient vestige of rural life that stands in the way of modernisation.”

2014-11-25 |

Bee populations decline due to loss of essential pollinating plants

Bee Busy bees at work (Photo: Jack Wolf/flickr.com)

Bee populations have decreased in recent decades mainly due to a loss of biodiversity causing the decline of their essential host plants, according to a study published Monday in the journal US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The scientists of Wageningen University in The Netherlands analysed the pollen found on the bodies of insects from 57 different wild bee species collected before the onset of their decline and used data to quantify population trends of bee species and their host plants. They found that the bees had certain favoured plants for pollinating. Dr Jeroen Scheper, an environmental specialist at the Alterra Research Institute reported, “we assessed the relative importance of a range of proposed factors responsible for wild bee decline and show that loss of preferred host plant species is one of the main factors associated with the decline of bee populations in The Netherlands”. Another important factor was bee body size, because larger bee species require more pollen to survive than smaller species. The researchers said that diet breadth and other potential factors such as length of flight period or climate change sensitivity were not important in explaining twentieth century bee population trends. The loss of natural habitats, namely grasslands, that are increasingly used for intensive agricultural production has led to a decline in wildflowers and the loss of bees’ food sources. Scheper mentions, that “these results indicate that mitigation strategies for loss of wild bees will only be effective if they target the specific host plants of declining bee species”. Bees are important for crop production, pollinating up to 80% of plants and flowers essential to the human diet.

2014-11-20 |

Governments at UN food summit pledge to combat malnutrition

Nutrition Crop diversity in Peru (Photo: Bioversity International)

The international community must intensify its efforts towards eradicating hunger and malnutrition, top UN officials declared on Wednesday at the opening of the second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in Rome. The conference brings together ministers and senior officials responsible for food, agriculture and health with leaders of UN agencies and representatives of civil society. At the opening, some 170 Member States adopted the “Rome Declaration on Nutrition” as well as a “Framework for Action”, which set out recommendations for policies and programmes to address nutrition across different sectors. According to the FAO press release, the role of food systems - the way food is produced, processed, distributed, marketed and prepared for human consumption - is crucial in the fight against malnutrition. Therefore, many of the recommendations adopted focus on ensuring that food systems become more sustainable and promote diverse and healthy diets. To this end, governments are encouraged in Recommendation 9 to “strengthen local food production and processing, especially by smallholder and family farmers, giving special attention to the empowerment of women”. The framework document also recommends “programmes to promote physical activity, dietary diversification, consumption of micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, including traditional local foods.” At the opening of the conference, WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan stressed that “the world’s food system - with its reliance on industrialised production and globalised markets - produces ample supplies, but creates some problems for public health”. Currently, 805 million people worldwide still go hungry and over two billion are affected by micronutrient deficiencies, leaving them vulnerable to death or disease, obesity is on the rise, pushing life-expectancy figures backwards and increasing the costs of health care. The Rome Declaration commits governments to preventing malnutrition in all its forms, including hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity, and names nine other areas of action. However, further concrete measures and commitments are not mentioned.

2014-11-17 |

Monsanto to pay $2.4 million to farmers in GMO wheat dispute

Wheat Wheat field in Oregon (Photo: WebbShots/flickr.com)

Monsanto agreed to pay almost $2.4 million compensation to U.S. wheat farmers, who suffered economic losses after unlicensed genetically modified (GM) wheat was found in Oregon last year. On Wednesday, Monsanto announced that it had entered into a settlement agreement with farmers in the States of Washington, Oregon and Idaho who sued the seed company over market disruption. In May 2013, unapproved wheat, genetically engineered to withstand Roundup Ready herbicide, was discovered growing on a farm in Eastern Oregon. In response, Japan and South Korea temporarily stopped importing U.S. wheat due to fears the unapproved GM wheat might have contaminated U.S. wheat supplies. The settlement includes paying $2.1 million into a fund for farmers in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, who sold “soft white wheat” between May and November of 2013. A further $250,000 will go to different wheat growers’ associations. Monsanto will also pay the legal costs to farmers who were pursuing legal action against them. However, the company did not admit liability and said the agreement only resolves claims associated with the white wheat variety. At least three class action lawsuits have now be dismissed as part of the settlement. It is still unclear how the GM wheat appeared in the Oregon field in the first place. Monsanto’s GM wheat was never approved by U.S. regulators and the company said it stopped testing in Oregon over a decade ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in September there had been a second discovery of unapproved Monsanto wheat at a Montana State University research facility, where field trials were conducted between 2000 and 2003. Right now, there is no commercially approved genetically modified wheat worldwide. In 2004, Monsanto withdrew its application for the approval of herbicide resistant GM wheat.

2014-11-13 |

Plant-based diets could improve human and environmental health

Vegetables Healthy vegetables (Photo: Olearys/flickr.com)

A new study suggests that healthier food choices could dramatically reduce the environmental costs of agriculture and food production. The paper published in the journal ‘Nature’ by scientists at the University of Minnesota gathered 50 years of data from 100 of the world’s most populous nations. The scientists analysed data on the environmental impact of food production, diet trends, diet-related illnesses and population growth. “We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage,” said Professor of Ecology G. David Tilman. With rising incomes between 1961 and 2009, people consumed more meat, empty calories and total calories per person, the researchers say. The study linked global diet trends to forecasts of population and income growth. The scientists predict that diets in 2050 will include less fruits and vegetables, but almost 60% more empty calories and 25 to 50% more pork, poultry, beef, dairy and eggs. These changes will contribute to increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower life expectancy. These diets would lead to an 80% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions from food production, as well as to habitat destruction due to land clearing for agriculture. The study then compared the omnivorous diets to the traditional Mediterranean diet, a pescetarian diet (with fish as the only animal protein) and a vegetarian diet. Switching to these alternative diets could reduce Type 2 diabetes by 16 to 41%, cancer by 7 to 13% and death from heart disease by about 20% compared to the omnivore diet. In addition, adopting these alternative diets could prevent most or all of the increased greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction that would otherwise be caused by both current diet trends and population growth. “The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance”, the authors write.

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