2014-06-26 |

New study: Vegetarian diet reduces greenhouse gas emissions

Veg Choice of vegetables (Photo: LollyKnit/flickr)

A vegetarian diet results in a more sustainable environment, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and increases longevity, according to new research from Loma Linda University School of Public Health. The study, which will be published in the July issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, focused on the dietary patterns of vegetarians, semi-vegetarians and meat eaters and analysed data from more than 73,000 participants. The aim of the study was to quantify and compare greenhouse gas emissions linked to the dietary patterns consumed in a large population across North America. The study found that greenhouse gas emissions were 29% lower for vegetarians and 22% for semi-vegetarians. Moreover, the mortality rate for meat lovers was almost 20% higher than that for vegetarians and semi- vegetarians. Reducing the consumption of animal-based foods can therefore be a feasible and effective tool for climate change mitigation and public health improvements, the researchers said.

2014-06-23 |

Obama establishes task force to save honey bees

Bee Busy bee at work (Photo: David Farquhar/flickr)

The White House has created a new task force to tackle the rapid decline in honey bees and other pollinators. On Friday, US President Barack Obama announced plans for a “Pollinator Health Task Force” which will be lead by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Within the next six months, the team will investigate the causes of bee declines and develop a federal strategy to protect the health of pollinators. According to recent data from USDA, bee populations saw a 23% decline over the winter season between 2013 and 2014. “The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment”, Obama said in a presidential memorandum. A quarter of the food Americans eat, including apples, carrots and avocados, relies on pollination. In California, the almond industry depends exclusively on bees for pollination. According to the White House, honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the US. As part of the plan, the task force will assess the effects of pesticides on pollinators. “Scientists believe that bee losses are likely caused by a combination of stressors, including poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites, pathogens, lack of genetic diversity, and exposure to pesticides”, the memorandum said. On Friday, USDA also announced an $8 million funding programme for farmers and ranchers in the states of Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin who establish new honey bee habitats.

2014-06-19 |

OWG 12: Sustainable Development Goals in the Spotlight

Tom Goal 2 focuses on food and farming (Photo: World Bank)

The UN Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals is holding its 12th and penultimate meeting in New York this week. Representatives from UN member states are discussing changes to the “zero draft”, a document released by the OWG on June 2, which currently contains 17 proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 212 targets. The goals, to be attained by 2030, are to succeed the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015. This week’s session was preceded by three days of informal consultations held on 9-11 June in New York. Ahead of the meeting, several civil society groups published papers and reactions to the zero draft, proposed additions to the text and ways to reduce the number of targets. With regard to proposed Goal 2 on ending hunger and achieving food security and nutrition, Biovision Foundation and the Millennium Institute, on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Cluster of the NGO Major Group, suggested some changes: Adding a specific reference to “the progressive realization of the right to food” and underlining the need for sustainable and diverse food systems which “maintain and regenerate natural resources and ecosystems” while “contributing to human and environmental health“. They suggested including a target on land degradation in Goal 2, with a focus on restoring degraded land, since addressing land and soil degradation are key to ensuring food security and nutrition. The global civil society campaign Beyond 2015 also issued a series of recommendations, such as the wording “ensure food sovereignty and the basic right to food for all” in order to end hunger. Moreover, the campaign suggested adding a reference to the elimination of harmful agricultural subsidies. The next OWG session will take place on 14-18 July and the group will then submit its final SDG proposal to the UN Secretary General and the General Assembly in September 2014.

2014-06-17 |

Chemical pollution of European water bodies worse than assumed

Fisch Chemical pollution: a threat to aquatic life (Photo: vanlaar/flickr)

The chemical pollution of European water bodies is greater than previously believed, according to a new study by the University of Koblenz-Landau and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ), Germany, published in the latest edition of the scientific journal Proceedings. Together with fellow scientists from Switzerland and France, the researchers analysed data on 223 chemicals taken from over 4000 monitoring sites and estimated the extent to which risk thresholds were exceeded for fish, invertebrates and algae. The study reveals that in 42% of European water bodies chemicals are likely to have negative long-term effects on aquatic organisms, such as impacts on breeding or higher vulnerability to disease. In 14% of the sites, the concentrations of chemicals could exert acute lethal effects on species. Up to now, most authorities and scientists have considered toxic chemicals to be rather a local problem while this study shows that chemical pollution is a large-scale problem in Europe. Pesticides used in conventional farming are the main source of pollution, with herbicides being most harmful to algae and invertebrates. Other substances found in large quantities include organotin compounds, brominated flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons from burning petroleum or organic matter. According to the scientists, the EU focuses mainly on the occurrence of around 40 chemicals considered particularly hazardous to aquatic life. “The real problem, however, is that a large number of chemicals which are currently in use are not taken into account at all in the context of water quality monitoring”, says Dr. Werner Brack from the Helmholtz Centre. The authors suggest preventative measures, including the reduction in the use of pesticides in agriculture and the introduction of buffer strips where farming fields are close to rivers.

2014-06-12 |

EU vote could give biotech companies a say on GMO bans

BASF A majority of EU citizens reject GMOs (Photo: BASF/flickr)

EU environment ministers have voted in favour of a new law that would theoretically allow member states to ban the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops on their territory. At today’s Environment Council, a majority supported the compromise, with only Luxembourg and Belgium abstaining. Several environment groups opposed the deal. Under the ministerial accord, a member state could request that a company applying for the authorisation of a GM plant in the EU adjusts the “geographical scope” of its application so that the territory of that state will be excluded from cultivation. If the company opposes the adjustment, the government could opt out of GM cultivation for agricultural or social reasons, such as public opposition. Luxembourg's environment minister, Carole Dieschbourg, voiced concern that the compromise could lead to a new wave of approvals of GM plants when member states could agree to approve GM plants in return for a company’s willingness to adjust another application. Environmental organisations shared these concerns, warning that the changes would increase the amount of GM crops on Europe’s fields and give biotech companies an official role in the banning process. “It is unacceptable that companies like Monsanto will be given the first say in any decision to ban their products. Governments must be able to ban unwanted and risky GM crops without needing the permission of the companies who profit from them”, said Mute Schimpf, food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. The text agreed in Council today will now go back to the newly elected European Parliament for a second reading.

2014-06-04 |

Zero draft of proposed Sustainable Development Goals released

Farmer One target is to increase small farmers" incomes (Photo: UN Photo/Kibae Park)

The UN Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals has released a list of goals and targets to succeed the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. After several rounds of consultation, the Co-Chairs issued the “zero draft”, which contains 17 proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) to be attained by 2030, as well as associated targets. As compared with a previous working document, the draft now includes a goal on reducing “inequality within and among countries”. Proposed goal two is “to end hunger, achieve food security and adequate nutrition for all, and promote sustainable agriculture”. It includes 11 targets, among them ensuring “that all people have access to adequate, safe, affordable, and nutritious food all year round by 2030” and ending malnutrition in all its forms, such as undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity and overweight. The document calls for substantially increasing “small-scale food producers’ incomes and productivity, including small family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, with a particular focus on women” – without specifying what “substantially” means – and for ensuring their access to “adequate inputs, knowledge and productive resources, financial services and markets”. Further targets are: making food systems “more productive, sustainable, resilient and efficient” by 2030 and reducing food waste at retail and consumer level, as well as production and post-harvest losses by 50%. Moreover, the document calls for measures to be implemented that curb excessive food price volatility and ensure proper functioning of markets. The next OWG session will take place on 16-20 June. In the meantime, delegations will have the opportunity to voice their opinion on the zero draft's goals, targets, and means of implementation during informal consultations.

2014-06-02 |

The world is getting fatter: 2.1 billion people overweight or obese

Obese Obesity is on the rise (Photo: Tony Alter/flickr)

30% of the world’s population are either obese or overweight, according to a new study published last week by British medical journal The Lancet. The number of overweight and obese people increased from 857 million in 1980 to 2.1 billion in 2013. The researchers used data covering 188 nations from 1980 to 2013. Worldwide, the prevalence of overweight and obesity rose by 27,5% for adults and 47,1% for children over the past 33 years. The proportion of adults who were overweight - defined as a body-mass index (BMI) of 25 or more - increased from 28,8% to 36,9% in men, and from 29,8% to 38,0% in women. Because of the increases in prevalence, the study warned that obesity has become a major global health challenge. Not a single country has reported a decline in the last three decades, the researchers said. Increases were recorded in both developing and developed countries. More than half of the 671 million obese people live in 10 countries, topped by the United States and followed by China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Germany, Pakistan and Indonesia. The prevalence of obesity exceeded 50% in men in Tonga and in women in Kuwait, Kiribati, Micronesia, Libya, Qatar, Tonga, and Samoa. In North America, the USA stood out with roughly a third of men and women being obese. To tackle the problem, urgent global action is needed to help countries to more effectively intervene against major determinants such as excessive caloric intake, physical inactivity, and active promotion of food consumption by industry, the study concluded.

2014-05-30 |

Small farmers squeezed onto less than 25% of the world's farmland, study finds

Farmer Woman farmer harvesting (Photo: IITA Image Library)

Governments and international organisations frequently stress that small farmers control the largest share of the world’s agricultural land. But a new review of data carried out by GRAIN, an international non-profit organisation, reveals that small-scale farmers are now squeezed onto a quarter of the world’s farmland - or just 17%, if farms in India and China are excluded. With the launch of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) acknowledged the importance of small farms and announced that family farms work 70% of the farmland. According to GRAIN, however, this contradicts the experience with small farms around the world since corporate farms, big biofuel operations and land speculators are pushing millions off their land. “We are fast losing farms and farmers through the concentration of land into the hands of the rich and powerful,” said Henk Hobbelink, coordinator of GRAIN. “The overwhelming majority of farming families today have less than two hectares to cultivate and that share is shrinking. If we do nothing to reverse this trend, the world will lose its capacity to feed itself.” The report used official statistics from national agricultural census bureaus wherever possible, complemented by FAO's statistical database and other sources. To define what a “small farm” is, they mostly used the definition by each national authority, since the size of small farms in different countries varies widely. The report confirmed that over 90% of all farms in the world today are small, holding on average 2.2 hectares, and that they are still getting smaller. Despite this, they produce most of the world’s food and are often much more productive than large corporate farms. If all farms in Kenya matched the output of its small farms, the nation’s agricultural productivity would double and in Central America, it would nearly triple, the report found. Women are the major food producers, but their role remains unrecorded and marginalised. GRAIN’s conclusion is that “We need to urgently put land back in the hands of small farmers and make the struggle for agrarian reform central to the fight for better food systems.”

2014-05-27 |

G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition raises human rights concerns

Malawi Farmer in Malawi, one target country of the initiative (Photo: ILRI/Mann)

FIAN International has raised grave concerns about the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. In a policy paper published ahead of the G7 summit in Brussels on 4-5 June, the organisation analysed the initiative from a human rights perspective. The paper concludes that the New Alliance ignores general human rights principles and contradicts a human rights-based framework in key issues relevant for those most affected by hunger and malnutrition: small-scale food producers. FIAN says the G8 initiative is bluntly equating the opening of agriculture and food markets to foreign investors with combating hunger and malnutrition. Food security and nutrition is dangerously narrowed down to the general availability of food through increased productivity. The paper directly contrasts policy actions of the G8 initiative in four key areas - seeds, land, social protection/income, and nutrition - with a human rights framework. For example, while the UN-Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food asks governments to implement farmers' rights (as defined in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources), the G8-led initiative pushes for the “implementation of national seed regulation” for greater private sector involvement. FIAN also criticised the G8's narrow understanding of the nutritional dimension of food production which ignores that food and nutrition security does not simply entail increased caloric intake, but rather a consistent access to diverse, nutritious and culturally-adequate food. “The New Alliance’s investments in agricultural food production tend to focus on mainstream crops with relatively low nutritious and high caloric content, such as maize, sugar, and rice, which results in dietary gaps”, the paper argues.

2014-05-21 |

UN focuses on obesity and unhealthy diets

Chatarra Childhood obesity is on the rise (Photo: Pedro Valle Luna)

UN experts have highlighted the need to address obesity and unhealthy diets. “Parts of the world are quite literally eating themselves to death”, Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), warned on Monday at the opening of the 67th World Health Assembly in Geneva. Around 3.4 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. “Hunger and under-nutrition remain an extremely stubborn problem. At the other extreme, we see no good evidence that the prevalence of obesity and diet- related non-communicable diseases is receding anywhere”, Chan said, expressing deep concern over the global increase in childhood obesity. More than 40 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2012, with numbers climbing fastest in developing countries. To tackle the problem, the UN health body will establish a high-level Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. The commission will produce a report, to be published in 2015, specifying which approaches are likely to be most effective in different contexts across the globe. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, called for a new global agreement to regulate unhealthy diets. He said that, despite worrying signs, the international community paid too little attention to the problem. In his 2012 report, the Special Rapporteur identified five priority actions to address obesity and unhealthy diets: taxing unhealthy products; regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar; cracking down on junk food advertising; overhauling agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper; and supporting local food production. “Attempts to promote healthy diets will only work if the food systems underpinning them are put right,” De Schutter added on Monday.

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