News

2014-10-21 |

Salt-tolerant Dutch potatoes to fight salinity and world hunger?

Potato Salt was added after harvest (Photo: Guillaume Brialon)

A Dutch team has developed a potato crop through traditional breeding methods that is tolerant to salt water. Their project beat more than 500 competitors from 90 countries to win an award sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Inspired by sea kale, Dutch farmer Marc van Rijsselberghe set up Salt Farm Texel in the north of the Netherlands and collaborated with Dr Arjen de Vos from the Free University in Amsterdam to look at the possibility of cultivating crops using non-fresh water. “The world’s water is 89% salinated, 50% of agricultural land is threatened by salt water, and there are millions of people living in salt-contaminated areas. Up until now everyone has been concentrating on how to turn the salt water into fresh water; we are looking at what nature has already provided us with”, van Rijsselberghe told the Guardian. The process of desalination is expensive and requires much energy. The salt-tolerant potato plants, however, were watered with diluted sea water. The variety is four times more salt tolerant than regular potato varieties. The project used a trial and error approach and then screened different potato cultivars of which only two showed increased salt tolerance and were used for further development of the saline potato. Some of the Texel seed potatoes are already on their way to Pakistan where 4.2 million hectares of land is salt affected and farmers are often forced to use brackish groundwater to water their crops, which reduces yields and the quality of the crops. If the potatoes adapt to the Asian climate, they could transform the lives of farmers not only in Pakistan. According to Dutch team, there is no risk of overdosing on salt when eating crops fed by sea water. “What we find is that, if you tease a plant with salt, it compensates with more sugar,” said de Vos. The salt is mostly retained in the leaves of the plant. Peter Melchett, policy director of Soil Association, welcomed the new potato variety: “This is another example of conventional breeding beating GM technology by years. These non-GM salt-tolerant potatoes are already being grown yet ‘saline tolerance’ has always been one of the great (as yet unfulfilled) promises of pro-GM campaigners.”

2014-10-16 |

FAO report: 500 million family farms form the backbone of agriculture

Frau Woman farmer in India (Photo: V.Reddy/CCAFS)

The world’s food security and environmental sustainability depend on the more than 500 million family farms that form the backbone of agriculture in most countries. This is the key message of a new report published today by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on the occasion of World Food Day. According to “The State of Food and Agriculture 2014” report, 90% of the world's 570 million farms are managed by families, making them the predominant form of agriculture. Family farms produce about 80% of the world's food and are custodians of about 75% of all agricultural resources. The FAO report offers a lot of details about the size and distribution of agricultural holdings: 72% of the world's farms are less than one hectare in size but control only 8% of all agricultural land. Farms between 1 and 2 hectares account for 12% of all farms and control 4% of the land. In contrast, only 1% of all farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares, but they control 65% of the world’s agricultural land. The report says that small farms produce a higher share of the world's food relative to the share of land they use, as they tend to have higher yields than larger farms within the same countries and agro- ecological conditions. However, many smaller farms are unable to produce enough to provide decent livelihoods for the families. The FAO says that family farms face the “triple challenge” of increasing yields “to meet the world’s need for food security”, achieving “environmental sustainability to protect the planet” and increasing productivity and diversifying livelihoods to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger. The report argues that family farmers must innovate and improve their production and agricultural practices. However, innovation systems must take the diversity of family farms into account.

2014-10-16 |

UN Committee adopts weak principles on agricultural investment

FAO Plenary of the CFS (Photo: FAO/Giuseppe Carotenuto)

The UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the central and most inclusive intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder platform for food security and nutrition, yesterday adopted the Principles on Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems (RAI). UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the endorsement, praising the principles as a “new point of reference for all, providing guidance to governments, investors, businesses, farmers, local communities, intergovernmental organisations and civil society organisations.” Non-governmental organisation, however, doubt that the principles will live up to their objective of promoting responsible investment in agriculture and food systems that contribute to food security and nutrition. According to Oxfam, they are too weak, vague and in a number of areas actually worse than the standards that already exist. “Unscrupulous investors could find ways to use the principles to cover irresponsible deals”, Oxfam spokesperson Thierry Kesteloot said. He criticises that the principles put trade interests before human rights. The CFS civil society mechanism shares this concern, stating that human rights are undermined by repeated references that seek to subordinate human rights to trade agreements and rules. Moreover, the term ‘smallholders’ used in the document leaves out the millions of people who are landless but deeply involved in agricultural investment. Civil society also highlights the document’s failure to acknowledge that different production systems have different environmental impacts, allowing business as usual for agricultural practices that damage people and the planet.“While it claims to promote agroecology, it also supports ‘sustainable intensification’, which is a euphemism for chemical intensive agriculture,” said Gilbert Sape of the Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific. The civil society mechanism warned the principles “will not help small-scale food producers and workers overcome the economic, environmental and political constraints that hamper their capacities, and they will not assist people who are struggling to defend their land, seeds and territories.” The principles have been developed over the past two years by a wide range of stakeholders; the final adoption was the responsibility of the CFS Member States.

2014-10-14 |

New report stresses need to reform and democratise food systems

RnWCover Cover of the new report

Global food security and the human right to food remain seriously threatened by the concentration of land ownership and corporate domination of food systems, according to a new report launched last week. The “Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2014” was officially presented at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome with the participation of the new UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, Dr. Hilal Elver. It marks the ten-year anniversary of the Right to Food Guidelines, adopted by the FAO in 2004. "As we celebrate the progress made over the past decade, it is important to keep in mind that we will have to work even harder to realise the right to food in order that hunger and malnutrition no longer afflict humanity", Dr. Elver said. The report highlights the growing influence of companies in global food and nutrition governance as a major challenge: Multinational food corporations influence what ends up on peoples’ plates, leading to a higher consumption of processed foods. These unhealthy diets contribute to obesity and malnutrition in both industrialised and developing countries. At the same time, agribusiness and financial investors are taking control of natural resources. In Mali, for example, one million hectares of land have been appropriated in recent years, depriving small-scale food producers of their livelihoods. The expansion of mining in Sweden and the consequences for small-scale food producers - a topic also covered by the report - shows that land grabbing is a global phenomenon. The Watch analyses the “gains, concerns and struggles” in the years since the Guidelines on the Right to Food were approved and calls on governments to actively address the inequities in food systems. According to the authors, democratic institutions and mechanisms are needed that give those most affected by hunger a say in policy-making. The Right to Food and Nutrition Watch is published each year by a network of organisations, including FIAN International and the German development service Bread for the World.

2014-10-09 |

African NGOs criticise biotech takeover of African seed companies

Mais A handful of seeds (Photo: Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT)

An African civil society group has expressed concerns about the recent acquisitions of African seed companies by multinational biotech giants, warning against a “neo-colonial occupation of Africa’s seed systems”. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) said in a 7 October press release that large parts of SeedCo, one of Africa’s largest home-grown seed companies, have been acquired by foreign companies. According to the statement, SeedCo has agreed to sell 49% of its shares in Africa’s only cottonseed company, Quton, to Mahyco, an Indian company. Mahyco is 26% owned by Monsanto and has a 50-50 joint venture to sub-license Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) bt cotton traits in India, AFSA said. Another deal involves the French seed giant Groupe Limagrain, which has invested up to US$60 million for a 28% stake in SeedCo. These acquisitions follow on Syngenta’s take-over in 2013 of Zambian seed company MRI Seed, whose maize germplasm collection was considered to be amongst Africa’s most comprehensive and diverse. “Attracting foreign investment from the world’s largest seed companies (...) is an inevitable consequence of the fierce drive to commercialise agriculture in Africa”, AFSA warns. Taken together, three of the world’s largest biotech giants, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, now have a significant foothold on the continent in markets for two of the three major global GM crop varieties: maize and cotton.

2014-10-06 |

UN report highlights failure to meet biodiversity protection targets

Traktor Farming affects biodiversity (Photo: Andrew Stawarz/flickr)

International efforts to meet a set of targets agreed in 2010 to halt the loss of wildlife and habitats are failing miserably, a new UN report found. The Global Biodiversity Outlook, published at the start of a biodiversity meeting in South Korea on Monday, shows that governments are failing to meet most of the 53 goals set for 2020 in the Convention on Biological Diversity. The signatory states are only on track to meet five goals, for example the goal of setting set aside 17% of the world's land area by 2020 in protected areas for wildlife. 33 targets show some progress, but at an insufficient rate to meet the targets, while the rest show no progress at all or the situation is getting worse. Nations are lagging behind when it comes to halving the rate of loss of natural habitats, including forests, or preventing the extinction of threatened species. “Despite individual success stories, the average risk of extinction for birds, mammals and amphibians is still increasing”, the report said. At the same time, genetic diversity of domesticated livestock is eroding, with more than one-fifth of breeds at risk of extinction. Wild relatives of domesticated crop species are increasingly threatened by habitat fragmentation and climate change. The report called for an increased focus on agriculture, for instance by limiting the over-use of fertilisers since nitrogen and phosphorus pollution continues to pose a very significant threat to biodiversity. According to the report, 70% of the projected loss of terrestrial biodiversity is caused by drivers linked to agriculture. “Addressing trends in food systems is therefore crucial in determining whether the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 will succeed. Solutions for achieving sustainable farming and food systems include sustainable productivity increases by restoring ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, reducing waste and losses in supply chains, and addressing shifts in consumption patterns“, the authors conclude.

2014-10-02 |

Number of British vegetarians on the rise, new research

Breakfast Vegetarian English breakfast (Photo: Ben Sutherland/flickr)

In the United Kingdom, the number of vegetarians is increasing. A new survey reveals that 12% of British adults now follow vegetarian or vegan diets - rising to 20% of those aged between 16 and 24. According to research group Mintel, millions more are cutting back substantially on the amount of meat they eat. “The meat alternative market will continue to be driven by an emerging consumer trend towards meat reduction on a part-time basis, also called flexitarianism, entailing increased consumption of plant-based foods without completely cutting out meat”, said Laura Jones, food science analyst for Mintel. In the UK alone, this has led to a booming £625 million-a-year market for meat-free products in 2013, up from £543 million in 2009. The study also claims that more products than ever are showcasing vegetarian credentials: 12% of all new food and drink products launched in Britain in 2013 carried a vegetarian claim, up from 6% in 2009. This includes chocolate and confectionary products which now avoid using animal-based ingredients. Mintel’s report, published yesterday on World Vegetarian Day, reveals that 48% of Britons regard meat-free products as environmentally friendly and 52% see them as healthy.

2014-09-29 |

EU-US trade deal could open the door to GM food in Europe, campaigners warn

Horse TTIP - a trojan horse? (Photo: Gillian/flickr)

As the seventh round of EU-U.S. negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement kicks off in Washington today, fears are growing that the proposed trade deal will lead to food contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being allowed into Europe for human consumption, despite public affirmations that food safety standards would be maintained. According to Friends of the Earth Europe, analysis from recently completed trade negotiations with Canada - seen as a model for TTIP - suggests that the EU has already agreed to co-operate with Canada, allowing low levels of GMO contamination in food and seed. The campaign group says that a leaked letter from the EU's former food safety chief signals a willingness to increase imports of GM rapeseed as part of the Canadian trade deal. “Once Europe has accepted low levels of GM contamination, there is a real risk that the existing protection will be whittled away. This trade deal agreed with Canada shows that the EU negotiators are too happy to trade away citizens' rights and environmental protections in order to benefit industry”, says Friends of the Earth Europe food campaigner Mute Schimpf. The proposed TTIP would be the biggest free trade deal in history. US negotiators and industry lobbyists have been pushing for weaker rules on GM imports, arguing that the EU’s current “zero tolerance” rule on GMOs is a barrier to trade, and damages business for US exporters. Mrs Schimpf warns that the biotech industry is using their lobby power in what she calls a “Trojan horse trade deal” to open up the European market to foods contaminated with GMOs.

2014-09-24 |

Corporate greenwash: NGOs reject Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture

Cropduster Is this climate-smart farming? (Photo: cdn-pix/flickr.com)

On the sidelines of the UN Climate Summit, the Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture was launched, which aims to achieve “sustainable and equitable increases in agricultural productivity and incomes” and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. More than 20 governments, and 30 organisations and companies announced they would join the initiative, including McDonald’s, Walmart and Kelloggs. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the initiative: “I am glad to see action that will increase agricultural productivity, build resilience for farmers and reduce carbon emissions.” But a coalition of over 100 civil society and farmers' organisations released an open letter on Monday rejecting the launch of this “deceptive and deeply contradictory initiative”. The organisations, among them ActionAid, Friends of the Earth, the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements and Third World Network, warn that the Global Alliance will not deliver the solutions that are urgently need “to help farming systems - and particularly small-scale farmers - adapt to a changing climate, and to revive and reclaim the agroecological systems on which future sustainable food production depends.” The signatories fear that the Alliance provides a platform for agribusiness firms to promote industrial farming: “By endorsing the activities of the planet’s worst climate offenders in agribusiness and industrial agriculture, the Alliance will undermine the very objectives that it claims to aim for. The organisations say the initiative lacks social and environmental criteria as well as a clear definition for what can or cannot be considered “climate-smart”. Instead of creating one more body for business-as-usual, governments, funding agencies and international organisations should take bold action. According to the NGOs, this includes “committing to shift resources away from climate-damaging practices of chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and meat production and towards investment in and commitment to agroecology, food sovereignty, and support to small-scale food producers.”

2014-09-22 |

New Alliance threatens small-scale farmers' control over land and seeds, NGOs warn

Maniok A cassava farmer in Tanzania (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

More than ninety NGOs and campaign groups have condemned the G7’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, warning that the initiative will exacerbate poverty by depriving farmers of control over land and seeds. Representatives of governments and multinational companies, including UK development secretary Justine Greening, meet in New York today to discuss the controversial scheme. The New Alliance was launched at the G8 summit in 2012 with the goal of lifting 50 million people out of poverty within 10 years by increasing private investment and agriculture-led growth in selected African countries. In a joint statement, the organisations say that more than two years after the launch of the initiatve, „there is no sign that the New Alliance is lifting African people out of poverty, but the promise to ‘unleash the power of the private sector’ is very visibly being fulfilled.” The second progress report, published in August, gave no data on the scheme's impact on food security or nutrition in any of the ten African countries it is targeting. According to the NGOs, the New Alliance requires these ten African countries to change their land and seed laws for the benefit of big agribusiness companies. As a result of their cooperation agreements, Tanzania and Mozambique formulated new laws that criminalise farmers who exchange seeds rather than buying them from companies like Monsanto. In Ghana and Malawi similar laws are being drafted. Many small-scale farmers depend on saving seeds to plant the following year and exchanging different varieties with each other. The UK is contributing £600 million in aid money to the scheme: “UK aid should help reduce poverty and inequality, and help the poorest people access essential resources like food, land and water. Instead, the New Alliance is helping some of the world’s most powerful companies expand their control over those resources”, warned Heidi Chow, campaigner at the World Development Movement. Last month, Coca-Cola became the highest-profile company to join the Alliance, joining companies such as Unilever, Syngenta and Yara.

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