News

2016-09-22 |

UN General Assembly calls for action on antimicrobial resistance

Antibiotics Antibiotics are also used in farming (Photo: CC0)

World leaders have sounded the alarm about antimicrobial resistance and called for immediate action to curb the overuse of antibiotics in human patients and farm animals. In a high-level meeting on September 21, the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration aimed at curbing the spread of infections that are resistant to antimicrobial medicines. It is only the fourth time in history that a health issue has been discussed at the assembly, so far only HIV, noncommunicable diseases and Ebola made it on the agenda. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) happens when bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi become resistant to medicines that were previously able to cure them, making it increasingly difficult to treat common and life-threatening infections like pneumonia and post-operative infections. The head of states committed to addressing the root causes of AMR across all sectors. According to a joint press release by several UN institutions, the high levels of AMR worldwide are the result of overuse and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in humans, animals (including farmed fish), and crops, as well as the spread of residues of these medicines in soil, crops, and water. “AMR is a problem not just in our hospitals, but on our farms and in our food, too. Agriculture must shoulder its share of responsibility, both by using antimicrobials more responsibly and by cutting down on the need to use them, through good farm hygiene,” said Dr José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Alastair Kenneil, a campaigner with the non-profit organisation Farms not Factories, finds clearer words: “For decades factory farmers have been pumping antibiotics into livestock to compensate for inhumane and disease-inducing conditions. Now, bacteria are fighting back,” he wrote in the Ecologist. AMR is predicted to have significant social, health security, and economic consequences that will seriously undermine the development of countries. According to a recently released World Bank report, drug-resistant infections could cause low-income countries to lose more than 5% of their GDP and push up to 28 million people, mostly in developing countries, into poverty by 2050. “Antimicrobial resistance threatens the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and requires a global response,” said Peter Thomson, the President of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly. He described the adopted UN declaration as “a good basis for the international community to move forward”. The UN nations reaffirmed their commitment to develop national action plans on AMR, based on the global action plans on antimicrobial resistance developped by the WHO, the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health. Peter Stevensen, chief policy advisor at the animal welfare organization Compassion in World Farming, welcomed the FAO action plan. “However, it fights shy of offering effective solutions,” he told Global Meat News. The UN declaration also recognises the need for stronger systems to monitor drug-resistant infections and the volume of antimicrobials used in humans, animals, and crops, as well as increased international cooperation and funding. “Antimicrobial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development, and security. The commitments made today must now be translated into swift, effective, lifesaving actions across the human, animal, and environmental health sectors. We are running out of time,” urged Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO. (ab)

2016-09-14 |

“A marriage made in hell”: Monsanto accepts Bayer’s $66bn takeover bid

Paved Monsanto and Bayer pave the way for a merger (Photo: CC0)

Monsanto has accepted a takeover bid from the German chemical giant Bayer, opening the way for the creation of the world’s biggest seed and pesticide company. In a joint press release, Bayer and Monsanto announced on Wednesday that they agreed on a 66 billion dollar deal under which Bayer will be paying USD 128 per share in an all-cash transaction. “We are pleased to announce the combination of our two great organizations,” rejoiced Bayer’s chief executive Werner Baumann. The signing of the merger agreement puts an end to a takeover battle that stretched over four months. The 66 billion dollar offer represents a 44 percent premium over Monsanto’s share price on May 9, the day before Bayer’s first written proposal to the US seed giant and producer of the world’s most widely used weedkiller Roundup. The deal also includes a two billion dollar antitrust break fee which Bayer will have to pay if the deal is not concluded or fails to obtain the necessary regulatory approvals. The proposed merger would create a new company with about 26 billion US dollars (23 billion euros) in sales that according to BBC News would control more than a quarter of the global supply of seeds and pesticides. While Bayer and Monsanto stress their “deep commitment to innovation and sustainable agriculture practices” and the new company’s contribution to feeding “an additional 3 billion people in the world by 2050 in an environmentally sustainable way”, environmental and anti-GMO activists fear exactly the opposite will be the case. Adrian Bebb, campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said “Bayer's buyout of Monsanto is a marriage made in hell, which threatens to further lock in industrialised agriculture at the expense of nature, farmers and the wider public. He added that “this mega corporation will be doing its best to force damaging pesticides and GM seeds into our countryside” although public support for local and greener food continues to boom. The merger agreement was described as a “disaster for the world's food system” by Aisha Dodwell, a food campaigner at Global Justice Now: “The creation of this mega-argibusiness would mean that a single terrifying corporate behemoth is now the world’s biggest company for both seeds and fertilisers, putting them firmly in control of the world’s farming inputs.” Bayer and Monsanto hope that the deal, which is subject to regulatory approval on both sides of the Atlantic, will be closed by the end of 2017. The Monsanto Bayer merger is not the only deal threatening to increase the concentration in the seed and pesticide market. Dow and DuPont announced a 130bn dollar merger last year, while ChemChina’s 44bn dollar acquisition of Syngenta recently received approval from an important U.S. regulator, removing a key hurdle to the takeover. “We already know that these agri-businesses use aggressive techniques to further their market share and increase profit margins and do not act in the best interests of small-scale farmers, public health or the environment," Aisha Dodwell warns in a statement. (ab)

2016-09-09 |

TPP trade deal undermines climate change goals for agriculture, report warns

Schiff Global trade and climate goals in conflict (Photo: CC0)

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other trade deals undermine climate goals, putting our planet and food systems at risk, a new report warns. In “The Climate Cost of Free Trade”, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) presents many examples of how trade rules already conflict with climate goals and shows how the TPP deal between the United States and 11 other Pacific rim nations, signed in February 2016, could create further barriers for nations trying to meet their Paris climate pledges. National commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are at the heart of the Paris agreement, the authors write, and almost 80% of countries’ national climate plans include actions on agriculture. Agriculture plays a key role for achieving the climate goals since the global food system, including agricultural production and land use, is responsible for one-third of global emissions. However, TTP could become a major obstacle for countries that want to reduce agricultural emissions and make farming systems more resilient, the report warns. “Most of agriculture’s global emissions are associated with the growth of an industrial model of agriculture designed to compete in global markets and take advantage of international trade rules put in place over the last several decades. Not surprisingly, global agribusiness companies sit prominently on US trade advisory committees and companies like Cargill and Monsanto are flexing their lobbying muscles in support of new trade deals.” According to the report, the trans-pacific deal aims at harmonizing food safety rules between countries, including rules on pesticide and veterinary drug residues, demanding they be “least trade restrictive,” rather than prioritizing public health and sustainable agricultural production, says IATP. The organisation also fears that TTP, that will cover some 40% of the world economy, will be a door-opener for genetically modified crops (GMOs). The deal sets forward rules to expand the use and acceptance of GMOs. These crops are mainly commodity crops that can be stored and sold on the global market, such as corn, soybeans and cotton. They are heavily dependent on synthetic fertilizers (a major greenhouse gas contributor) and are largely used as animal feed for the meat and dairy industry which are also major emitters. The authors consider this the wrong track: “Numerous international reports, from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, to the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, Technology for Development (IAASTD) to the most recent International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, have pointed to the imperative of greater biodiversity in agricultural systems to adapt to climate change. Less diversity and more homogeneity results in agricultural systems vulnerable to extreme weather, new pests and weeds, all of which are expected outcomes of climate change.” In addition, IATP criticises that the TPP deal requires all participating countries to sign on to UPOV91, a global seed breeders’ rights treaty which prohibits farmers and breeders from exchanging protected seeds, hindering climate adaptation efforts. The report demands that trade deals should no longer be considered in isolation, or given priority over other agreements or global goals: “Trade policy is too influential, and provides too many obstacles for successful governing on issues like climate change, health, food security and natural resource management - issues that the WTO and other free trade agreements are ill-equipped to handle,” the authors conclude. (ab)

2016-09-05 |

New study reveals humans’ growing ecological footprint

Pressures Human pressures on the planet are increasing (Photo: CC0)

Although human pressure on natural habitats is growing at an alarming rate, threatening especially the world’s species-rich biodiversity hot spots, the ecological footprint is not increasing as fast as the world population. This is one findings of a team of researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia, the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The study, published in the journal Nature Communications on August 23, is an update to an earlier human footprint map released in 2002. Using data from satellites and on-ground surveys, the scientists analysed the impacts of human activities on the environment between the years 1993 and 2009. They looked at different human pressures, including data on the extent of built surfaces, roads and railways, navigable waterways, crop and pasture land, human population density and night-time lights. The team found that while the global population grew 23% and the world economy grew 153% over this 16-year-period, the global human footprint increased only by 9%. Dr. Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Columbia who led the study said this is encouraging since “it means we are becoming more efficient in how we use natural resources.” However, human pressures have had severe and extensive environmental impacts. “Our maps show that three quarters of the planet is now significantly altered and 97 percent of the most species-rich places on Earth have been seriously altered. There is little wonder there is a biodiversity crisis,” said Dr. James Watson, co-author of the study from the University of Queensland and WCS. Regions that are very rich in biodiversity and host large numbers of threatened species, so-called biodiversity hotspots, are affected most. Only a few places with many threatened species remained impact-free, including central Borneo and the Central Asia Deserts. Overall, in around 71% of the world’s different ecological regions human pressures have increased by over 20% since 1993. Forests tend to suffer most from environmental pressures, for example the temperate broadleaf forests of Western Europe, the eastern United States and China; the tropical dry forests of India and parts of Brazil as well as the tropical moist forests of south-east Asia. The researchers said one of the main drivers of deforestation and biodiversity loss is the expansion of agriculture. “The suitability of lands for agriculture appears to be a major determinant of the intensity, extent and temporal trends of pressures across the globe,” they write. Agriculture has expanded into more marginal lands. While the most suitable areas showed little change since 1993, areas moderately suitable for farming have seen a rapid increase in human use since then. The authors highlight that maintaining biodiversity will require extensive restoration to remove and mitigate existing pressures, especially in the world’s most biologically valuable regions. Efforts may be particularly successful where pressures have arisen only recently, as the time-lags before biodiversity declines could mean that many species could still be saved, they added. (ab)

2016-08-30 |

Neonicotinoid insecticides linked to long-term wild bee decline in England

Rape Bee in a rapeseed field (Photo: CC0)

New research has linked the the large-scale and long-term decline in wild bee species across England to the use of the controversial neonicotinoid pesticides. According to a study published on 16 August in the journal Nature Communications, wild bees are negatively affected by exposure to neonicotinoids on oilseed rape. “Over recent years there has been a growing body of evidence that seed-coated neonicotinoids are harmful to beneficial insects, including bees. However, most of these studies are based on short-term experiments on honeybees,” explained co-author Dr. Nick Isaac from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Oxfordshire. “Our study is different because we looked at long-term trends for 62 wild bee species across all of England.” The researchers used bee population data collected by volunteers from more than 31,818 surveys across more than 4000 square kilometres of land across England between 1994 and 2011. This time period covers the years before and after the introduction of wide-scale commercial use of neonicotinoid seed treatments on oilseed rape in 2002. The scientists also analysed data on the area planted with oilseed rape over this 18-year period and the proportion of neonicotinoid seed treatment applied to this crop before planting. The scientists found evidence suggesting that the decline in wild bee populations was, on average, three times stronger among species that habitually forage on oilseed rape, for example the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), than among species that regularly forage on a range of floral resources. “As a flowering crop, oilseed rape is beneficial for pollinating insects. This benefit however, appears to be more than nullified by the effect of neonicotinoid seed treatment on a range of wild bee species, “ said lead author Dr Ben Woodcock. Although the authors admit that neonicotinoids may not be considered in isolation of other pressures such as habitat loss, pathogens, climate change and other insecticides, they call attention to the large exposure risk to pollinators: According to the study, neonicotinoids comprised 80% of the worldwide insecticide seed treatment market in 2008 or 24% of the total insecticide market. In 2013, the European Union imposed a temporary ban on the use of three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam to protect bees. This moratorium is currently being reviewed. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is expected to complete its new assessments of the risks to bees posed by three neonicotinoid pesticides by January 2017. However, the British government has already temporarily lifted the ban on neonicotinoids last year, allowing “emergency rules” for the use of the insecticide in certain parts of the UK. (ab)

2016-08-23 |

Adios Monsanto: US giant to give up GMO maize seed plant in Argentina

Malvinas Local protests forced Monsanto to give up the project (Photo: Malvinas Lucha por la Vida)

Monsanto is to abandon the construction of a huge seed treatment plant for genetically modified maize seeds in the province of Córdoba, Argentina, following fierce protests from local residents over the past three years. According to media reports published in early August, the first part of the not even half-built plant in the rural town of Malvinas Argentinas was dismantled and machinery removed from the construction site. The US seed company has not yet issued an official statement but local Argentinean media cited a source from the head office of Monsanto in Latin America who said the company will give up the project because building the plant will no longer be profitable due a recent reduction in the area planted with genetically modified corn in the country. “The plant was designed to treat 3.5 million hectares of maize, however last year only 2.5 million hectares were sown,” the source told iProfesional. “Such an investment does not make sense from an economic point of view.” Monsanto has another factory for the production of genetically modified seeds in Rojas, in the province of Buenos Aires. “How things are at the moment, this corn processing plant alone will probably be sufficient for the next five years.” However, the spokesman also admitted that local protests by activists and environmentalists had influenced the decision to pull out of the project. Since 2013, citizens have maintained a blockade of the construction site preventing the entry of building material and fuel. In 2014, a provincial court ruled that the construction permit for the plant was unconstitutional. It ordered a halt to construction works and ordered an environmental impact assessment. “Justice was done. The company should have taken the decision to leave long ago,” said Vanesa Sartori, a member of the Assembly Malvinas Lucha por la Vida. “We will remain vigilant and follow the matter closely to see how this story will end until Monsanto has taken the final screw from site and left once and for all,” Sartori announced. Sofia Gatica, one of the leaders of the protest in Malvinas, was also greatly relieved: “We have stayed here for almost three years, in the morning, afternoon and evening, despite hunger and cold, without light or toilets. A lot of people from different places have united at the camp. Marriages have split up because our husbands told us to choose between Monsanto and them,” Gatica told local news channel CBA24n.”If those at the bottom move, those at the top fall,” she added. (ab)

2016-08-11 |

Agriculture and overexploitation main drivers of species loss, study

Wald Habitat conversion is a threat to species (Photo: CC0)

Agriculture and the overexploitation of plants and animal species are more significant drivers of biodiversity loss than climate change, according to new research published in the journal Nature on August 11th. The team led by scientists from the University of Queensland, Australia found that almost three-quarters of the world’s endangered species faced these threats, compared to just 19% affected by climate change. “Addressing overharvesting and agricultural activities are key to turning around the biodiversity extinction crisis,” said lead author Sean Maxwell of the University of Queensland. “This must be at the forefront of the conservation agenda.” Together with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the researchers assessed 8,688 near-threatened or threatened species on the IUCN’s “red list”. They quantified information for 11 threats: overexploitation, agricultural activity, urban development, invasion and disease, pollution, ecosystem modification, climate change, human disturbance, transport and energy production. The analysis showed that 72 per cent or 6241 species were overexploited, meaning that the harvesting of species from the wild happened at rates not compensated for by reproduction or regrowth, for example through logging, hunting, fishing or gathering species from the wild. These included the Sumatran rhinoceros, western gorilla and Chinese pangolin – all illegally hunted for their body parts and meat. Some 5,407 species or 62% were threatened by agriculture alone. Africa’s cheetah, Asia’s hairy-nosed otter and South America’s huemul deer are among the animals most affected by crop and livestock farming, timber plantations and aquaculture. However, the authors underlined that there are effective tools and approaches to alleviate harm caused by overexploitation and agricultural activities. “History has taught us that minimising impacts from overharvesting and agriculture require a variety of conservation actions but these can be achieved,” said co-author Associate Professor James Watson. “Actions such as well managed protected areas, enforcement of hunting regulations, and managing agricultural systems in ways that allow threatened species to persist within them all have a major role to play in reducing the biodiversity crisis,” he added. Other measures recommended by the authors are the establishment of protected areas to safeguard key biodiversity areas; the regulation of pesticide and fertilizer use and the certification of agricultural sustainability. “These activities need to be well funded and prioritised in areas that will reduce threat,” said James Watson. (ab)

2016-08-08 |

Humanity has already exhausted Earth’s natural resources for 2016

Eart Humanity has eaten up this year"s natural resources (Photo: CC0)

August 8th marks Earth Overshoot Day this year – the day humanity has used up the natural resources the world can supply in a year, according to data from Global Footprint Network, an international sustainability think tank. The date is calculated each year by contrasting the world’s demand on nature (ecological footprint) with the biocapacity - forests, pastures, cropland and fisheries as well as the planet’s ability to replenish resources and absorb waste, including carbon dioxide emissions. The world enters ecological ‘overshoot’ this year five days earlier than in 2015. The day has moved up on the calendar from early October in 2000, showing that humans are exhausting the world's resources faster than ever. For the rest of the year, we will be living on resources borrowed from future generations. According to the Global Footprint Network, the estimated level of resources and ecosystem services required to support human activities today is just over 1.6 Earths. If we continue on the course estimated by moderate United Nations projections for increasing population and consumption, we would need the capacity of two Earths to keep up with our level of demand by 2030. If everyone on Earth lived as Australians do, it would take 5.4 Earths to sustain global consumption. If the entire world population followed US citizens’ example, it would take 4.8 Earths. The costs of this ecological overspending are becoming more evident in the form of deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to the Global Footprint Network, carbon emissions are the fastest growing contributor to ecological overshoot, with the carbon footprint now making up 60% of humanity’s demand on nature. “The Paris climate agreement is the strongest statement yet about the need to reduce the carbon footprint drastically. Ultimately, collapse or stability is a choice,” said Mathis Wackernagel, co-founder and CEO of the network. “We forcefully recommend nations, cities and individuals take swift, bold actions to make the Paris goals an attainable reality.” One of the measures the think tank recommends is choosing a vegetarian alternative to steaks and burgers as often as possible since it takes more productive land to produce meat than vegetables or grain. The Global Footprint Network also hopes for a change of the current trend of growing meat consumption in China. The government has outlined a plan to reduce its citizens’ meat consumption by 50%, which it calculates will lower the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from China’s livestock industry by 1 billion tonnes by 2030. (ab)

2016-08-04 |

Italy adopts new law to cut down on food waste

Pizza Italians will get family bags to take leftovers home (Photo: CC0)

Italy has adopted a new law designed to drastically reduce food waste across the country. The Italian Senate passed the bill on Tuesday with an overwhelming majority of 181 votes in favour by only 16 abstentions. The new regulations, which come six months after a similar bill was passed in France, aim to cut food waste by one million tonnes from the estimated five Italy wastes each year. “The new laws make it easier for shops and restaurants to give excess food away to charitable causes,” Maria Chiara Gadda, the Democratic Party MP who introduced the bill, told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. 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. The new law will cut red tape which made it difficult for food stores, supermarkets or restaurants to donate excess food since donations had to be declared five days in advance. With the new regulations, retailers would only have to declare all their donations by the end of the month. In addition, the new law clarifies that food may still be donated even if it is past its sell-by date and allows companies to donate food that has been mislabelled as long as it does not pose any health risk. Italian agriculture minister Maurizio Martina said the law was “one of the most beautiful and concrete heritages” of last year’s Universal Exposition hosted by Milan. “This provision confirms that Italy is at the forefront in the fight against food waste, a problem of still unacceptable proportions. With this law we are getting closer to achieving our aim of saving one million tonnes of food and donating it to those in need thanks to the indispensable work of our charities,” Martina said. According to food producers’ organisation Coldiretti, Italy throws away 5.6 million tonnes of food every year worth an estimated €12.5 billion. Italy will also invest in a campaign to promote the use of ‘doggy bags’ in restaurants, encouraging diners to take their leftovers home. In Italy, the bags will be called “family bags” in order to make it easier for Italians to free themselves of the notion that it was indecent to request to take home uneaten food. (ab)

2016-08-03 |

Palm oil is driving deforestation and biodiversity loss, study

Palm An oil palm plantation has replaced a forest (Photo: CC0)

Vulnerable tropical forests and species on four continents face increased risk of loss due to growing global demand for palm oil, a new study finds. As palm oil production expands from Southeast Asia into the Americas and Africa, large areas of tropical forest are being converted into oil palm plantations in 43 countries, according to researchers at Duke University who published their findings on July 27 in the journal PLOS ONE. “Almost all oil palm is grown in places that once were tropical forests. Clearing these forests threatens biodiversity and increases greenhouse gas emissions,” said Varsha Vijay, a doctoral student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment who led the study. Using 25 years of high-resolution satellite imagery from Google Earth and Landsat, Vijay and her team tracked the extent of palmoil-driven deforestation in four regions: Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and Mesoamerica. They then compared the data to countrywide trends in FAO data for oil palm planted area. Rates of recent deforestation have been highest in Southeast Asia and South America, particularly Indonesia, Ecuador and Peru, where more than half of all oil palms are grown on land cleared since 1989, they found. In Southeast Asia, 45% of sampled oil palm plantations came from areas that were forests in 1989. For South America, the percentage was 31%. By contrast, in Mesoamerica and Africa, the researchers observed only 2% and 7% of oil palm plantations coming from areas that were forest in 1989. The researchers warn that vulnerable forests in all four regions of palmoil production contain many species at risk of extinction. “While the Amazon and Indonesia have many species of globally threatened mammals and birds, other areas such as the Congo Basin and the coastal forests of Colombia are home to species with small ranges that make them especially vulnerable to habitat loss despite not being classified as threatened or endangered,” said Stuart Pimm, one of the authors. “This needs to be considered in conservation planning.” Since the biodiversity impacts of this expansion are very different from country to country and region to region, local conservation strategies, tailored to each region’s differing threats, will be needed to protect at-risk species, the authors conclude. (ab)

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