2015-03-30 |

European Patent Office upholds patents on conventionally-bred plants

Broccoli Who owns broccoli? (Photo: Liz West/

The European Patent Office (EPO) has approved the controversial patenting of plants and animals derived from conventional breeding. In a long awaited decision on the precedent cases of broccoli and tomato, the Enlarged Board of Appeal of the EPO in Munich ruled on Wednesday that plants obtained by essentially biological processes are patentable. The EPO made clear that while processes for crossing and selection cannot be patented, plants and animals stemming from these processes can still be granted patent protection. The decision was heavily criticised by the coalition "No Patents on Seeds!" which is supported by over 300 NGOs and farmers’ organisations worldwide. The organisations described the ruling as “illogical” and warned against an increasing monopolisation of the breeding of plants and animals needed for food production. “The EPO has paved the way for companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and others to take control of resources we all need for our daily lives. We call upon European governments to put political pressure on the EPO to change its practice”, Christoph Then commented for No Patents on Seeds!. In a report published in October, he documented the increasing number of patents on plants and seeds derived from conventional breeding which have been granted by the EPO. Since the 1980s, around 2400 patents on plants and 1400 patents on animals have been granted in Europe. The EPO has granted more than 120 patents on conventional breeding and about 1000 such patent applications are pending. The scope of many of these patents often covers the whole food chain from production to consumption. The current precedent case of broccoli refers to a patent granted to Monsanto-owned Seminis on the „severed broccoli“, a conventionally-bred broccoli, which has a longer stalk than other varieties, making it easier to mechanically harvest the crop. The coalition No Patents on Seeds! is now calling for "a revision of European Patent Law to exclude breeding material, plants and animals and food derived thereof from patentability". The Green Party in the European Parliament also described the Board of Appeal’s decision a “scandal”. The agricultural policy spokesman Martin Häusling said: „The European Patent Office does obviously not decide in the interests of European citizens and farmers, but in the interests of its paying customers, namely the agricultural industry, which wants to ensure market monopolies through these patents.” (ab)

2015-03-26 |

Almost one in 10 of Europe's wild bee species face extinction threat

Wildbee Wild bee at work (Photo: Ombrosoparacloucycle/flickr)

Europe’s wild bee population is declining dramatically. According to the first-ever assessment of all 1,965 wild bee species in Europe, 9.2% are threatened with extinction while another 5.2% are likely to be threatened in the near future. The study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was published last week as part of “The European Red List of Bees” and the “Status and Trends of European Pollinators “ (STEP) project, both funded by the European Commission. Jean-Christophe Vié, of the IUCN Global Species Programme, said the assessment offered the best understanding so far of wild bees in Europe, but knowledge was incomplete due to "an alarming lack of expertise and resources". For this reason, a total of 56.7% of wild bee species are classified as data deficient. The study found that 7.7% of the species have declining populations and 12.6% are stable while population trends for the remaining 79% are unknown. “Our quality of life – and our future – depends on the many services that nature provides for free,” says Karmenu Vella, the EU Commissioner for Environment. “Pollination is one of these services, so it is very worrying to learn that some of our top pollinators are at risk“. Of the main crops grown for human consumption in Europe, 84% depend on insect pollination, including many types of fruit, vegetables and nuts. Pollinators support crops accounting for 35% of global agricultural production volumes. Wild and domesticated bees play an essential role: The pollination services provided by bees alone are estimated to be worth €153 billion globally and €22 billion in Europe every year. The study shows bees are threatened by changing agricultural practices and increased farming intensification which have caused losses and degradation of their habitats. The experts say that important sources of food and forage for pollinators have been lost due to intensive silage production at the expense of hay-cropping, which led to the disappearance of herb-rich grasslands and season-long flowering. The widespread use of insecticides also harms wild bees and herbicides have reduced the availability of flowers on which they depend. Climate change has been another factor in the decline in bee populations, particularly in bumblebees. The report warns a total of 25.8% of Europe’s bumblebee species are threatened with extinction. The authors call for greater attention to bees in the management of protected areas and in agricultural policies in Europe. “We need far-reaching actions to help boost both wild and domesticated pollinator populations. Achieving this will bring huge benefits to wildlife, the countryside and food production,” says Simon Potts, STEP project Coordinator. (ab)

2015-03-24 |

Urgent need to make agricultural water use more sustainable, UN report

Irrigation Irrigation in the United States (Photo: Frank Peters/

The world is projected to face a 40% global water deficit by 2030 unless we dramatically improve the management of this precious resource. This is the main message of the UN’s World Water Development Report 2015, launched on Friday two days before World Water Day. The planet has never been so thirsty: About 1.2 billion people live in areas where water is physically scarce and 748 million people do not have access to improved sources of drinking water. The water crisis is not one of resource availability, the report stressed. There is enough water to meet the world’s growing needs - but not without dramatically changing the way water is used, managed and shared. At least 50% of the global population uses groundwater resources to satisfy drinking water needs. Groundwater also accounts for 43% of all water used for irrigation. An estimated 20% of the world’s aquifers are being over-exploited, leading to serious consequences such as land subsidence and saltwater intrusion. The report predicts that, by 2050, global water demand will increase by 55%, mainly due to growing urbanisation, climate change and demand from agriculture. The agricultural sector accounts for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals, and more than 90% in some of the world’s poorest countries. According to the report, the intensive and often inefficient use of water for crop irrigation depletes aquifers, reduces river flows, degrades wildlife habitats and has caused salinisation of 20% of the irrigated land area. Water quality faces pressures from pollution through the release of pesticides and chemicals into watercourses and the lack of wastewater treatment in developing countries. Eutrophication of surface water and coastal zones are expected to increase almost everywhere until 2030. The number of lakes with harmful algal blooms will increase by at least 20% until 2050. To make water use more sustainable, agriculture must reduce water losses and increase water productivity (i.e. producing more crop or value per volume of water applied). The UN experts suggest that improvements in ‘crop per drop’ could be realised by adopting agro-ecological methods such as the System of Rice Intensification, which gives plants only the ideal amount of water and keeps the soil temporarily dry instead of continuously flooding rice fields. The report suggests a combination of more stringent regulation and well-targeted subsidies can help reduce water pollution. Water use efficiency could also be improved by rewarding farmers who use efficient irrigation methods. For example, in an arid country like Cyprus, subsidies have led to a major change in farmers’ attitudes towards irrigation techniques and the imposition of water-saving techniques. As the UN prepares to adopt the future Sustainable Development Goals for the time after 2015, the report points to the need to devote an entire goal to water. (ab)

2015-03-19 |

Middle income nations play key role in ending hunger and malnutrition

Child Boy in Madhya Pradesh (Photo: Arjun Claire EU/ECHO 2013)

Close to half of the world’s hungry, or 363 million people, live in just five fast-growing, middle income countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia and Mexico. At the same time, the levels of overweight and obesity are rising in these countries. This is why we must also pay attention to those living in the “economic middle” as part of any strategy to effectively fight hunger and malnutrition worldwide, according to a new report released on Wednesday by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The 2014–2015 Global Food Policy Report calls on the governments of these countries described as “economic powerhouses” to reshape their food systems to focus on nutrition and health, close the gender gap in agriculture and improve rural infrastructure to ensure food security for all. The report said there were both strong advances and stubborn setbacks in food and nutrition security in 2014. Some countries made progess in reducing poverty and the number of hungry people, while in other countries conflict, climate change and disease disrupted food production and took a heavy human toll. The number of food insecure people has increased in many Arab countries since 2011, especially in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Extreme weather conditions and climate change threatened all regions of the world, from low rainfall in the Sahel to drought in Central America and natural disasters in Asia. IFPRI Director General Shenggen Fan wrote in a foreword to the report that smallholder farmers, who produce much of the food consumed in Asia and Africa south of the Sahara, remain most vulnerable to these types of shocks. However, IFPRI’s strategy for helping those farmers sounds quite uncompromising: “Small family farmers need to move up or move out”. First, it should be determined which farmers can be profitable. Public policy should then support small family farms in either ‘moving up’ to commercially oriented and profitable farming systems or ‘moving out’ of agriculture to seek urban and nonfarm employment opportunities. Shenggen Fan is optimistic about the future: “The year 2015 offers a rare chance to reshape the global development agenda through the Sustainable Development Goals. Food and nutrition security garnered much political attention in 2014. If this momentum can be leveraged into a post-2015 plan that includes holistic and comprehensive food and nutrition investments, policies, and programs, the international community may soon have a chance to end hunger and malnutrition once and for all“, Fan concludes in his outlook. (ab)

2015-03-17 |

EU imports drive illegal deforestation, new report finds

Deforestation Deforestation in Brazil (Photo: Daniele Gidsicki/

The EU is one of the largest importers of commodities stemming from illegally deforested land, according to a new report published today by Brussels-based environmental group Fern: between 2000 and 2012, forests the size of a football field were illegally cleared every two minutes to supply European consumers with beef, soybeans, leather and palm oil. In 2012, the EU imported 6 billion euros worth of these products linked to illegal deforestation - almost a quarter of the total world trade, the report reveals. Around 25% of all soy, 18% of palm oil, 15% of beef and 31% of all leather produced on land illegally cleared of forest is destined for the EU. “It is well documented that the EU has been leading the world in imports of products which drive deforestation, but this is the first time that we have data showing that much of this deforestation is also illegal”, said Saskia Ozinga, Campaigns Coordinator at Fern. The Netherlands, Italy, Germany, France and the UK are the main destination countries. While the Netherlands and Germany are the main importers of palm oil, the UK is by far the largest consumer of beef from illegal deforestation. Most of the products originate in Brazil and Indonesia, where 90% and 80% of deforestation respectively is thought to be illegal, Fern said. Soy and cattle are also the main drivers of deforestation in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. The Fern campaigners are calling on the EU to take action to halt illegal deforestation by addressing its current trade and consumption patterns in agricultural commodities. Demand for forest-risk commodities is being driven by a number of different EU policies, such as agriculture, trade and energy policy, Ozinga explains. "We urgently need an Action Plan to make these different policies coherent, reduce EU consumption and ensure we only import legal and sustainably produced commodities." (ab)

2015-03-12 |

Filipino farmers and consumers oppose genetically modified Golden Rice

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

Farmers and civil society organisations united in the Stop Golden Rice Alliance have reiterated their opposition to genetically modified (GM) rice, denouncing a campaign tour of a Canada-based advocacy group which is currently in the Philippines promoting the adoption of Golden Rice. According to the alliance, Golden Rice is a covert attempt to win wider approval for genetically modified food and will not solve the problem of malnutrition. Golden Rice has been genetically modified to provide beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, one of the essential micro-nutrients. The GM rice is being developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in a public-private partnership with Syngenta. The lobby group “Allow Golden Rice Now!”, headed by Dr Patrick Moore, regards it as a silver-bullet solution to address Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. The group will tour the Philippines, Bangladesh and India from March 4th to 20th, 2015. Filipino farmer-scientist group Masipag, a member of the network against Golden Rice, believe that GM rice will not solve hunger and malnutrition. “Micronutrient deficiencies are largely observed among children in poor families since they cannot afford a well-balanced diet. In that case, Golden Rice is not the solution; what is needed rather is peoples’ access to resources”, said Dr Chito Medina, National Coordinator of Masipag. He thinks that Golden Rice proponents “are merely using the malnutrition issue to sell their technology at the risk of the Filipino peoples’ health and the country’s agrobiodiversity”. The Stop Golden Rice Alliance warned in a press release that with inexpensive Vitamin A abundantly available from various natural sources, produced by small scale and backyard producers, it is a mistake to turn blindly to Golden Rice, a crop that IRRI itself admits it has not yet determined if it can actually improve the vitamin A intake. In 2014, IRRI announced that more research would be needed before Golden Rice can be commercialised due to its very low yield performance. The Stop Golden Rice Alliance stresses that the development of Golden Rice has already cost about 100 million U.S. dollars. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave an additional $10.3 million grant on top to fund the further development. On the other hand, long standing Vitamin A supplementation programmes have already succeeded in reducing Vitamin A deficiency in many countries while being cost-effective and easy to implement. “We have many traditional food and crops that are rich in Vitamin A,” says Masipag farmer Virgie Nazareno. “We do not need Golden Rice, what we need is access to these nutritious and safe foods.” (ab)

2015-03-10 |

EU environment report calls for urgent action to halt biodiversity loss

Soil European soils are at risk (Photo: John Bennett/

Europe remains far from reaching the objective of living well within the limits of the planet by 2050, according to the European Environment Agency’s latest assessment. Its key message is that Europe still faces a range of persistent and growing environmental challenges. Addressing them will require fundamental changes in the systems of production and consumption that are the root cause of environmental problems. Although we use natural resources more efficiently than in the past, we are still degrading our natural capital. The loss of biodiversity remains a major threat: recent data shows that 60% of species and 77% of habitat assessments recorded an unfavourable conservation status. Europe is falling behind the 2020 target of halting biodiversity loss. European soils are also at risk: land-use change and agricultural intensification are threatening soil ecosystem services. More than 25% of the EU's territory is affected by soil erosion by water, which compromises soil functions and freshwater quality. Soil contamination and sealing are also persistent problems. The European Environment Agency (EEA) does not believe that land use and management, and their associated environmental and socio-economic drivers, will turn for the better, especially since clear and binding targets are missing. Fresh water quality has improved over recent years but the EEA is concerned about the nutrient load of water bodies as “excessive nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) inputs in aquatic environments cause eutrophication, resulting in changes in species abundance and diversity, as well as algal blooms, deoxygenated dead zones, and leaching of nitrate to groundwater.“ The impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems are expected to worsen. Agriculture will be affected by shifts in crop phenology, suitable cropping area, changes in yields and by increased water demand for irrigation in southern Europe. Agriculture could also contribute to meeting the challenges. However, in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, “a more ambitious and long-term approach would be needed to address the resource efficiency of the agricultural sector in terms of productivity, land , carbon capture, water use, and dependence on mineral fertilisers and pesticides”. The report mentions that, “reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts requires a transition towards low-input systems”. According to the authors, organic farming can contribute to increasing the efficiency of nutrient management and reducing pesticide use. Although the organic sector has experienced a rapid development over recent years, only 5.7% of the EU’s agricultural area was under organic agriculture in 2012, with large differences in the share of organic agriculture amongst countries. Austria is at the top of the list with 18.6% while Malta has the lowest share at 0.3%. (ab)

2015-03-03 |

Court temporarily stops commercialisation of GMOs in Ghana

Cowpea Farmer inspecting cowpea plants (Photo: IITA/

A Ghanaian civil society group has won a High Court ruling temporarily halting the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) cowpeas and rice in the West African country. In February, agricultural advocacy group Food Sovereignty Ghana (FSG) filed a case against the country’s National Biosafety Committee (NBC) and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), arguing that these institutions failed to comply with the provisions of the main Biosafety Act and are not authorised to commercialise such products. “Our case is very simple. According to Section 13 of the Biosafety Act, 2011, Act 831…only the National Biosafety Authority has such a power to authorise the commercial release of GM foods in Ghana”, the group said in an earlier statement. The court in its ruling on Tuesday upheld Food Sovereignty Ghana’s position that such a Biosafety Authority described by law did not exist. The introduction of the Biosafety Act in 2011 repealed a law from 2007 which set up the Biosafety Committee. “We are not only calling for an injunction on the commercialisation of GM rice and Bt cowpeas, but on all GM crops until the National Biosafety Authority is in place”, the group underlined. After two years of pointing this out, the board of the National Biosafety Authority was inaugurated on the 17th of February, the day of the first hearing in court. Since a request for an interlocutory injunction had already been applied for by the plaintiffs, the judge ruled that there would be a halt on any further commercialisation and development of GMOs until the case is concluded. Field trials of genetically modified rice and cowpeas in Ghana’s southern Ashanti province, and of cotton in three northern provinces, are currently underway: Confined trials with GM rice started in April 2013 at Nobewam in the Ashanti region, after receiving approval from the National Biosafety Committee. In December 2014, Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) announced the successful development of a genetically modified Bt cowpea. Food Sovereignty Ghana is campaigning to help create mass awareness about the political, economic, health and environmental impacts of GM crops and defends the right of the people to define their own food and agricultural systems. (ab)

2015-02-23 |

Monsanto and Gates Foundation push GM crops on Africa, new report

Corn 90% of South Africa’s maize is GM (Photo: Pascal Parent/flickr)

US agencies, donors such as the Gates Foundation and agribusiness giant Monsanto are collectively attempting to force African countries to accept expensive and insufficiently tested genetically modified (GM) foods and crops, according to a new Friends of the Earth International report released today. The report takes a closer look at who actually benefits from GM crops. “The US, the world’s top producer of GM crops, is seeking new markets for American GM crops in Africa. The US administration’s strategy consists of assisting African nations to produce biosafety laws that promote agribusiness interests instead of protecting Africans from the potential threats of GM crops”, said Haidee Swanby from the African Centre for Biosafety, a non-profit organisation based in South Africa which authored the report. The report shows how Monsanto is trying to influence biosafety legislation in African countries in order to pave the way for the approval of its products. While strong biosafety laws have been in place in Europe for years, only a handful of African countries have implemented such legislation. At the moment, only South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan have released GM crops commercially. The introduction of genetically modified maize is especially highly controversial, with maize being the staple food of most Africans. The report outlines two controversial projects which are trying to open the door for the acceptance of commercial GM varieties under the guise of fighting hunger and malnutrition: the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project and efforts to introduce genetically modified vitamin A-enriched bananas into Uganda. Both projects are sponsored by the Gates Foundation. Many organisations, farmers and consumers doubt that GM technologies are an adequate means of fighting hunger. Swanby gives South Africa as an example, where farmers have more than 16 years of experience in cultivating GM maize, soya and cotton. However, food security in the country declined from 48% in 2008 to 45.6% at the end of 2013 even though South Africa exports maize. “The South African experience confirms that GM crops can only bring financial benefits for a small number of well-resourced farmers. The vast majority of African farmers are small farmers who cannot afford to adopt expensive crops which need polluting inputs such as synthetic fertilisers and chemicals to perform effectively”, Swanby said. The report advises governments and donors to focus on agroecology to build people’s food sovereignty instead of funding polluting GM crops-based agriculture. The authors underline that seeds, land and agroecology in the hands of small-scale farmers are the solutions to the huge challenges agriculture is facing in Africa and elsewhere, as the IAASTD showed, which took 400 scientists and four years to complete. (ab)

2015-02-19 |

Global fertiliser use to rise above 200 million tonnes in 2018

Fertiliser A worker fertilising on an oil palm plantation in Indonesia (Photo: Agus Andrianto/CIFOR)

Global fertiliser use is likely to surpass 200 million tonnes in 2018, an increase of 25% compared to 2008 levels, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported this week. World demand for total fertiliser nutrients is estimated to grow at 1.8% per year from 2014 to 2018. In the coming years, fertiliser use will vary widely in the different regions of the world. Asia as a whole is the largest consumer and relies heavily on imports of all three major nutrients. Overall fertiliser use will grow fastests in Sub-Saharan Africa at 4.7% annually. Global use of nitrogen, by far the largest fertiliser base, is expected to rise 1.4% each year, with East and South Asia accounting for almost two thirds of nitrogen-based fertiliser use. Current nitrogen use in Sub-Saharan Africa is low and the region will only apply 340,000 additional tonnes of nitrogen in 2018 as compared to 2014, accounting for less than 5% of the projected global increase. Phosphate use in the world will increase by 2.2% and potash by 2.6%. According to FAO’s outlook report, applying fertiliser is only one way of replacing nitrogen that is removed from soils when crops are harvested. While the boost in nutrients provided by nitrogen fertilisers made possible the steep increase in agricultural production over the past century, the overuse of fertiliser in some countries has caused soil pollution in the form of nitrogen deposition and damaged water systems. The FAO stressed that the use of crop rotations, mulching and manure can also restore nitrogen to soils. Legumes such as soybeans, have microorganisms in their root systems that fix nitrogen from the air and make it available to plants, thus replacing mineral fertilisers or animal manure.

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