02.02.2017 | permalink
US crop harvests could suffer substantial yield losses due to climate change, new research shows. Without significant reductions in emissions, the production of some of the most important food crops could be reduced by up to 50 per cent by the end of the century, mostly caused by water stress. According to a study published in the journal Nature Communications, maize yields in the US could fall by 49 per cent by 2100. Soybean yields could drop by 40 per cent, while wheat harvests could see a 20 per cent reduction. The research team, which includes scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and the University of Chicago, developed a computer simulation of how crops responded to rising temperatures and then tested the results against observational data collected from US croplands. They used nine different crop models and showed that these models reproduces the observed average temperature responses of US maize, soybean and wheat yields. “We know from observations that high temperatures can harm crops, but now we have a much better understanding of the processes,” said PIK researcher Bernhard Schauberger, who led the study.
The scientists found that for each day above 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), maize and soybean yields diminished by up to 6% under rainfed conditions. These losses do not even consider extremely high temperatures above 36°C, which are expected to lower yields further, the study says. This would not only have negative impacts for the US, one of the largest crop exporters. Yield losses in the world’s main bread baskets could also lead to higher world market crop prices, which is also negatively affecting food security in poor countries, the authors warn. The researchers identified water stress as the main reason for yield losses. “The losses got substantially reduced when we increased irrigation of fields in the simulation, so water stress resulting from temperature increase seems to be a bigger factor than the heat itself,” said co-author Joshua Elliott from the University of Chicago. They said crops respond to water stress by increased root growth at the expense of above-ground biomass, which means a reduction in yields. According to the scientists, increased irrigation could help to reduce the negative effects of global warming but this is possible only in regions where sufficient water is available. Since this is limited by the lack of water resources in many regions, limiting global warming by cutting emissions is needed to keep crop losses in check. (ab)
31.01.2017 | permalink
We can only solve the climate crisis if we cut industrial meat and dairy production and take meaningful steps towards agroecology and food sovereignty, says a new report released on Monday by the non-profit organisation GRAIN. Transformations over the past century in the way food is produced and consumed have made the food system a huge contributor to climate change, the report argues. Meat production alone now generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transport combined. GRAIN cites official estimates according to which the food system is responsible for up to 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). “Some of these emissions are due to the growth of packaged and frozen foods, the increased distance foods are shipped and the rise in food waste. But the most important source of food system-related GHG emissions is the escalation of meat and dairy consumption – made possible by the expansion of industrial livestock and chemical-intensive feed crops,” the report reads.
But GRAIN also underscores that not all meat and dairy is created equal. “It’s crucial to make a distinction between different systems,” GRAIN researcher Renee Vellve told telesur. “Large-scale, confined feedlot operations controlled by a handful of corporations spew massive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – from feed production to enormous manure lagoons to long-distance transportation. Not to mention additional negative impacts on the environment, labor conditions and public health.” In most of the Global South, however, livestock is raised mainly by small farmers practising low-emissions, mixed farming, plus 200 million herders who often graze their animals in areas where crops cannot be grown. The report highlights that not only do these production and consumption systems contribute little to climate change, they also improve family nutrition, enhance livelihoods and are an integral part of cultural and religious traditions. If we want to take meaningful action to address climate change, we therefore need to limit the power of meat and dairy corporations and the rapid expansion of industrial livestock farming. According to GRAIN this requires changing the policies, like corporate subsidies and free trade agreements, that promote factory farming.
One measures is to revise dietary guidelines to officially call for a reduction in meat consumption. The report says the drive to cut meat and dairy consumption must, in the first place, be directed towards the big offenders: North America and Europe, plus a few countries in Latin America like Brazil. Another measure is to impose a tax on meat, especially beef, to raise the price of meat and dairy in a responsible way in order to decrease consumption, as in the case of sugar, fats, fizzy drinks and tobacco. Another reommendation outlined in the report is a “socially positive tax”, e.g. a differentiated tax only on industrial meat or a tax that is coupled with subsidies to make locally and sustainably produced meat and non-meat alternatives available and affordable, especially for people with low income. Also the enormous subsidies behind the meat and dairy industry need to be addressed, says the report. In 2013, OECD countries paid US$53 billion to livestock producers, with the EU paying US$731 million to its cattle industry alone. Finally, we urgently need to reverse the push for global meat and dairy “value chains” as enshrined in big trade agreements between major trading blocks.
Instead, small-scale, local and agroecological meat and dairy production and marketing should be supported. The conclusion of the report is that “we can only solve the climate crisis if we take meaningful steps towards agroecology and food sovereignty. This would not only help stabilise our climate in a significant way, it would feed people better, healthier food, and treat animals more humanely. Moving from industrial production to agroecology will let farmers, pastoralists and ranchers capture carbon back into mistreated soils and improve food production over the long term.” (ab)
24.01.2017 | permalink
Over 18,000 people took to the streets of Berlin last Saturday, 21 January, to demonstrate for healthy food, more ecological farming and fair trade. Farmers, consumers, beekeepers and food activists joined the march that was led by 130 tractors and ended in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Equipped with colourful posters and creative costumes, they walked under this year’s motto “Agri businesses: Take your hands off our food”. Many dressed up as cows, chickens or butterflies, buzzed across the city as bees or pushed along artwork such as an outsized bottle of glyphosate or an enormous pig. Farmers from all across Germany had travelled for many hours by tractor to take part in the march. The event was organised by a broad alliance of more than 100 farmers’, environmental, animal welfare and development organisations, known as “Wir haben es satt!” (we are fed up). It was the seventh year in a row that the protesters demand a fundamental chance of course in agriculture during the International Green Week – Europe’s biggest agricultural fair that takes places in Berlin at the moment. Many participants expressed their concern about the Monsanto-Bayer merger and other deals such as DuPont’s proposed merger with Dow and the ChemChina-Syngenta deal. They fear that these deals will lead to a further concentration of the seed market and increased corporate control of the food system. If these mergers all go through, the three biggest agribusiness companies would control more than 60 percent of the world’s patented seeds. The march also targeted free trade agreements such as the EU-Canada international trade deal CETA, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the European Union and the United States as well as EPAs with African countries. The organisations behind the march warn that these deals pose a threat to small-scale sustainable farming and consumer protection. According to the alliance, these deals will cause harmful dumping that destroys domestic markets in poor countries and will lead to even greater export dependency for European farmers. (ab)
17.01.2017 | permalink
Just eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population combined, according to a new report published by the charity organisation Oxfam. The report ‘An economy for the 99 percent’ shows that the richest eight individuals, led by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, have a net wealth of $426bn, which is the same as the net wealth of the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity. Gates, whose net worth is $75 billion, is followed by Amancio Ortega, the founder of the Spanish fashion chain Zara (net worth $67 billion) and the American investor Warren Buffett (net worth $60.8 bn). “It is obscene for so much wealth to be held in the hands of so few when 1 in 10 people survive on less than $2 a day,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International. “Inequality is trapping hundreds of millions in poverty; it is fracturing our societies and undermining democracy,” she added and warned of a growing and dangerous concentration of wealth. The report, released ahead of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, reveals that the divide between rich and poor is more pronounced than had been previously feared. Last year, Oxfam had calculated that 62 people owned the same as the poorest half of the world but new data on the distribution of global wealth, particularly in India and China, shows that the situation is even worse.
Oxfam’s calculations are based on the Global Wealth Data book 2016, an annual report published by financial services company Credit Suisse. Oxfam says the super-rich are fuelling the inequality crisis by avoiding taxes, driving down wages and using their power to influence politics. “Across the world, people are being left behind. Their wages are stagnating yet corporate bosses take home million dollar bonuses; their health and education services are cut while corporations and the super-rich dodge their taxes; their voices are ignored as governments sing to the tune of big business and a wealthy elite,” said Winnie Byanyima. And the rich are quickly getting richer. Between 1988 and 2011, the incomes of the poorest 10% increased by just $65 per person, while the incomes of the richest 1% grew by $11,800 per person – 182 times as much. The report quotes UBS figures estimating that in the next 20 years, 500 people will hand over $2.1 trillion to their heirs – a sum larger than the GDP of India, a country of 1.3 billion people. Oxfam says the world could see its first trillionaire within just 25 years. The report calls for fundamental changes to achieve an economy that works for the 99% of the world’s population and not just a handful of super-rich people. “Governments are not helpless in the face of technological change and market forces,” said Byanyima. Oxfam calls on governments to increase taxes on both wealth and high incomes in order to generate funds needed to invest in healthcare, education and job creation and to crack down on tax dodging. In addition, governments need to make sure workers are paid a decent wage, especially for women. “If politicians stop obsessing with GDP, and focus on delivering for all their citizens and not just a wealthy few, a better future is possible for everyone.” In order to achieve a better future for all, world leaders adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. Among other objectives, these goals aim at eradicating extreme poverty for all people everywhere by 2030, ending hunger and malnutrition and reducing inequalities within and among countries. (ab)
12.01.2017 | permalink
Ecological Focus Areas, a greening measure of the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), are currently implemented in a way that provides little benefit for biodiversity and farmers, new research shows. However, there are many possibilities to improve their effectiveness for biodiversity while overcoming implementation barriers for farmers. These are the findings of a group of scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, the University of Göttingen and other German, Austrian and French institutions, whose study was published in the journal Conservation Letters. Ecological Focus Areas (EFA) were introduced in 2015 as one of CAP’s greening measures: Farms with more than 15 hectares of arable land are required to dedicate at least 5% of this land to EFAs in order to receive payments. On this areas, they can implement measures such as creating buffer strips, maintaining hedges, leaving land lying fallow or planting nitrogen-fixing crops. The researchers looked at the ecological effectiveness and farmers’ perception of these EFA, collecting responses from 88 experts in agricultural ecology from 17 European countries. They also analysed data on EFA uptake at EU level and in eight Member States and reviewed factors influencing farmers’ decisions. They found that the measures implemented by farmers were not those with the most positive impact on nature. “The experts gave highest scores for buffer strip and for leaving the land fallow, indicating that these options are highly profitable for biodiversity,” explained Guy Pe’er, the lead author of the paper. “Landscape elements like hedges or traditional stone walls were also considered by the experts to have positive effects for many species.” However, very few farmers chose buffer strips or landscape elements. Other options were judged as quite ineffective by the experts: “Catch crops or nitrogen-fixing crops like legumes don’t benefit biodiversity much, especially if farmers use pesticides on these areas,” said Pe’er. But these are the two options most popular among farmers, the results showed. Around 45% of the EFA in the EU is used for growing nitrogen-fixing plants while a further 27% is used for catch crops. In Germany, this option even makes up 68% of EFA. “In other words, there was a poor matching between what ecologists recommend and what farmers implement,” said Guy Pe’er. But the authors also stress that they don’t blame farmers for this. “They are simply making the most economically rational decision and trying to minimise the risks involved,” added the agricultural economist Sebastian Lakner of the University of Göttingen. Cultivating catch crops and nitrogen-fixing plants is very attractive because these crops are simple and cheap to manage, whereas buffer strips and certain landscape elements might be more expensive and time-consuming to maintain. According to the scientists, the effectiveness of greening could be improved by prioritizing those EFA options that promote biodiversity such as buffer strips and landscape elements, and remove, or at least limit the attractiveness of less beneficial options like catch crops. In addition, stricter management requirements, such as limiting the use of pesticides on EFA, are needed. “It is of course essential to forbid the use of pesticides on EFA,” said Guy Pe’er. “It makes no sense to harm biodiversity in areas that are explicitly designated to protect it.” Other options include reducing administrative constraints and offering further incentives for expanding options like landscape features and buffer strips. The researchers hope that these recommendations will be considered in preparations for the EU mid-term review of greening, which will take place in March 2017. (ab)
06.01.2017 | permalink
Smallholder farmers in South and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are responsible for more than 70% of the food calories produced in these regions, new research shows. A study published by researchers at the University of Minnesota in the journal Environmental Research Letters provides comprehensive information about the number, location and distribution of small farms worldwide. It also includes a map which illustrates the distribution of small, medium and large farms across most world regions. The scientist said that despite the recent spotlight on small farms and increasing consensus on their importance, detailed information on location and size of smallholder farms is virtually absent. “This map is a first step toward a better understanding of where and how smallholder farming can be sustainable for both landscapes and livelihoods,” said Leah Samberg, lead author of the study and scientist with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. The researchers said that smallholders and family farms are crucial to feeding the planet and they highlighted that successful policies aimed at alleviating poverty, boosting food security and protecting biodiversity and natural resources depend on the inclusion and participation of small farmers. The researchers therefore hope that the map will fill this knowledge gap and help implement effective agricultural, development, and land use policies. “Combining both agriculture and household survey data creates a map that is a critical piece of the puzzle for targeting the billions of dollars invested in programs to improve people’s lives,” said Paul West, one of the co-authors. The scientists used census data from millions of households in dozens of countries to identify farming households and average farm sizes across much of the world. They identified 918 places in 83 countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America where there are fewer than 5 hectares of agricultural land per farming household. These smallholder hotspots are home to more than 380 million farming households, make up roughly 30% of the agricultural land are key sources of many important agricultural commodities. Within the 83 countries studied, units with a mean agricultural area of five hectares or less account for more than half of the production by mass of eight staple crops: rice, groundnut, cassava, millet, wheat, potato, maize, barley, and rye. According to the authors this illustrates the specific importance of smallholder production for food security. Smallholders in the 83 countries covered by the study in the three regions were responsible for more than 70% of the food calories produced in these regions, and produced 55% of the food calories produced globally. The calories produced by small farms with less than five hectares varied between regions. In Asia, they accounted for 90% of food calories in the region while smallholder units produce half of food calories in sub-Saharan Africa. This study was only a first effort to make use of the rich datasets, said lead author Leah Samberg: “We envision numerous future applications of this farm size product in combination with other variables related to food security, natural resource use and human well-being that will further increase our understanding of the dynamics of small farms and the livelihoods of those who depend on them.” (ab)
05.01.2017 | permalink
The fight against poverty, hunger and malnutrition can only be won if rural women and girls, especially in the agricultural sector, have equal opportunities than men. This was the message of hunger experts at a high-level event held at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome in December. “It is important that rural women have the appropriate conditions to develop their capacities and carry out their activities. This includes adequate and equal access to financial resources, services and opportunities,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, who described women as the backbone of agriculture. According to FAO figures, 45% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries are women, with that figure rising to 60 percent in parts of Africa and Asia. “Evidence shows that when women have opportunities, the yields on their farms increase, natural resources are better managed, nutrition is improved, and livelihoods are more secure,” da Silva added. This was confirmed by Neven Mimica, the EU commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, who also spoke at the event: “We know that agricultural yields would rise by almost a third if women had the same access to resources as men. As a result, there would be up to 150 million fewer hungry people in the world.” In addition, children also have significantly better prospects for the future when their mothers are healthy, wealthy and educated, he stressed, especially during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. However, 60 percent of chronically hungry people on the planet are women or girls. Women across all world regions are less likely than men to own or control land, and their plots often are of poorer quality. FAO estimates that less than 20% of the world’s landholders are women. “All of this must change,” said da Silva, “Achieving gender equality and empowering women is not only the right thing to do. It is a crucial ingredient in the fight against extreme poverty, hunger and malnutrition.” The speakers therefore highlighted the key role rural women play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Gender equality and women’s empowerment is an important theme of the Agenda 2030, adopted by world leaders in September 2015. This is not only addressed in the stand-alone goal 5, that wants to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, but gender equality needs to be mainstreamed across all 17 SDGs. Neven Mimica underscored the importance of gender equality especially for Goal 2 on eliminating hunger and malnutrition worldwide. “If we are serious about putting an end to poverty and hunger once and for all, then we all need to step up our support for rural women. As an investment in families, in our communities, in our wider societies, and in our planet's future,” the EU Commissioner argued. (ab)
30.12.2016 | permalink
A new report backed by European Parliament scientists underscores the benefits of organic food and farming for human health. The study, carried out by the European Parliamentary Research Service, looked at the existing scientific evidence regarding the impact of organic food on human health and the potential contribution of organic management practices to the development of healthy food systems. The scientists concluded that eating organic food has potential beneficial effects on human health, ranging from a decreased risk of allergic diseases to lower dietary exposure to pesticides. But they also point out that few studies have directly addressed the effect of organic food on human health and that more data from well-designed long-term studies is needed. With regard to pesticides, they concluded that consumers of organic food have a reduced risk of exposure. “Epidemiological studies point to the negative effects of certain insecticides on children’s cognitive development at current levels of exposure. Such risks can be minimised with organic food, especially during pregnancy and in infancy.” The report continues: “Organic agriculture supplies food with low pesticide residues, and may be instrumental in conventional agriculture’s transition towards integrated pest management by providing a large-scale laboratory for non-chemical plant protection.”
According to the researchers, some studies indicate that organic food may reduce the risk of allergies in children, adult overweight/obesity and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, but they also admit that it is currently not possible to determine whether organic food plays the decisive role since consumers of organic food tend to have healthier diets overall. This leads to methodological difficulties in separating the potential effect of organic food preference from the effect of other lifestyle factors. With regard to crop composition, the study said that vitamins and minerals are found in similar concentrations in both organic and conventional crops. But the scientists found indications that organic crops have a lower cadmium content due to differences in fertiliser usage and soil organic matter, an issue that is highly relevant to human health. In addition, organic milk, and probably also meat, have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional products. The authors also mention a large number of studies which suggest an increased content of phenolic compounds found in organic crops. Another benefit of organic agriculture highlighted in the study is the reduced risk of antibiotic resistance in farm animals: “The prevalent use of antibiotics in conventional animal production is a key driver of antibiotic resistance. The prevention of animal disease and more restrictive use of antibiotics, as practiced in organic production, could minimise this risk, with potentially considerable benefits for public health”, the study concluded. Soil Association, the UK’s leading food and farming charity, welcomed the report as a “Christmas present for organic farmers and everyone who eats organic food”. Peter Melchett, Soil Association’s policy director, said that “a key reason that people buy organic food sales is that they feel it is better for them and their family - that is why more than half the baby food sold in the UK is organic. This new, independent, scientific review confirms people are right,” he added. (ab)
28.12.2016 | permalink
Urbanization is eating up the world’s most fertile farmland, threatening sustainability goals and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in the Global South, new research shows. According to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), some 300,000 square kilometers of particularly fertile cropland will be lost by the year 2030 due to urban sprawl. This corresponds to an area almost the size of Germany and a possible loss of 3–4% of worldwide crop production in the year 2000. The scientists from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) say this area could feed more than 300 million people for an entire year with 2,500 calories per day. The researchers combined projections on urban area expansion from Yale University with land-use data from the University of Minnesota and the University of British Columbia on global croplands and crop yields. Their results show that urban expansion will result in a 1.8–2.4% loss of global croplands by 2030, with substantial regional disparities. About 80% of global cropland loss from urban expansion will occur in Asia and Africa. Africa has the highest urbanization rates, whereas Asia has the highest absolute growth of urban dwellers. China alone will account for one-fourth of total global cropland loss, amounting to almost 80,000 km². According to the authors, urban expansion in China is taking place in the country’s most productive farmland and over large areas and could therefore pose a threat to domestic crop production. “Hotspots of cropland loss tend to be river valleys and deltas, such as the Yangtze River Delta near Shanghai or the Pearl River Delta near Hong Kong,” said lead author Bren d’Amour. He predicts that land-use conflict between urbanization and food production will differ from region to region. “A lot depends on the urbanization dynamics of the individual countries. In India, for example, the urbanization process is not as fast as in China and smaller in overall scale.”
African countries will experience the highest percentage loss of cropland. Among the hotspots are Nigeria, Burundi and Rwanda, countries that are already severely affected by hunger and food shortage. Urbanization will also eat away large parts of Egypt’s fertile farmlands. By 2030, the country could lose about one-third of its cropland. The study warns that the world’s most fertile soils will be affected since urban sprawl is predicted to take place on cropland that is 1.77 times more productive than the global average. The authors say that “this dynamic adds pressure to potentially strained future food systems and threatens livelihoods in vulnerable regions”. Beyond the direct loss of cropland, the growth of megaurban regions has other important implications for food systems, especially for smallholder farmers, they argue. Large urban areas have seen a growth in supermarkets replacing locally owned or small-scale food retail stores. This has implications for traditional retailers, small producers, traditional food brokers, and the entire supply chain, the authors warn, as once decentralized systems of food procurement will shift to a more centralized system focused on large distribution centers. They urge governments to take action to protect small-scale producers and traditional retailers in order to secure livelihoods in the agrarian economies of the Global South. “Urban planners can contribute to preventing small farmers from losing their livelihoods. Spatially efficient urbanization could help to retain the existing agricultural system while continuing to provide small farmers with access to the urban food market,” said co-author Felix Creutzig. (ab)
23.12.2016 | permalink
A major UN conference has agreed to step up efforts to integrate the protection of biodiversity across all sectors, including agriculture. At the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which ended on 17 December in Mexico, ministers from around the world adopted the Cancún Declaration. The six-page document recognises the need to mainstream the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism sectors as a key action to achieve sustainable development, including ensuring food security and addressing climate change. In the text, countries pledge to “ensure that sectoral and cross-sectoral policies, plans and programmes, as well as legal and administrative measures and budgets established by governments, integrate in a structured and coherent manner actions for the conservation, sustainable use, management, and restoration of biological diversity and ecosystems.” They also committed to support sustainable production and consumption and to phase out incentives harmful to biodiversity.
The document stresses the need to make agriculture more sustainable to achieve biodiversity targets. “This is a turning point,” said Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General. “The agriculture sectors and biodiversity have often been regarded as separate and even conflicting concerns, yet they are inextricably connected. Agriculture is by nature a major user of biodiversity, but it also has the potential to contribute to its protection,” she added. One measure laid down in the document is the conservation and cultivation of native varieties, as well as farmers’ landraces, locally adapted breeds and underutilized species, including those threatened by production intensification. In addition, countries committed to measures to promote diversified agro-ecological systems and the designation of agricultural biodiversity conservation sites. Another goal are sustainable consumption and production patterns, including more diversified diets based on a broader range of biodiversity. While UN representatives seemed to be satisfied with the results of the conference, some NGOs were disappointed with the outcome. Friends of the Earth International said the results do not rise up to the challenge of protecting biodiversity as they do not lead to the necessary system change to curb the accelerated loss of biodiversity. “It is a good idea to make sure all sectors take biodiversity into account when making decisions that can impact biodiversity. But unfortunately, the final decisions fail to impose action that would force the before mentioned sectors to act within planetary boundaries,” the organisation said in a statement. With regard to one goal mentioned in the declaration, the effective management and conservation of pollinators, several countries already announced the creation of a “coalition of the willing”. The “Promote Pollinators” coalition promised to take action to protect pollinators and their habitats by developing and implementing national pollinator strategies, sharing knowledge on new approaches and to developing research on pollinator conservation. (ab)