News

2016-02-19 |

Better water management could increase yields and climate resilience of farmers

Drip Drip irrigation (Photo: ICRISAT/Flickr.com)

Improved agricultural water management could help produce more food with the same amount of water and buffer potential climate change impacts on crop yields, according to new research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The scientists analysed the worldwide potential to increase food production by improving rainwater use and irrigation. “Smart water use can boost agricultural production – we’ve in fact been surprised to see such sizeable effects at the global level,” said lead-author Jonas Jägermeyr from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). Under a scenario described as ambitious but achievable, the use of integrated water management strategies could increase global food production in kilocalories by as much as 41%. The researchers say this could halve the global food gap, assuming that the world will need 60%-100% additional crop calories by 2050 to eradicate hunger. Although the scientists do not question these figures – the world’s farmers are already producing enough to feed 12 billion people – and do not explain how a mere increase in production will improve the access to food for the poor, they show the enormous potential of clever water management. “It turns out that crop water management is a largely underrated approach to reduce undernourishment and increase climate resilience of smallholders,” Jägermeyr said. The scientists took into account a number of very different concrete water management options, from low-tech solutions for smallholders to the industrial scale. According to the study, water harvesting by collecting rainwater for irrigation during dry spells is a common traditional approach in some regions such as the Sahel region in Africa. But it is under-used in many other semi-arid regions in Asia and North America. Mulching is another option since covering the soil with crop residues left on the field can reduce evaporation. In addition, the potential of drip irrigation has not yet been fully exploited. Especially in water-scarce regions such as in China, Australia, the western US, Mexico, and South Africa, there is a lot of potential to increase yields through better crop water management. The study also highlights the important role of water management in reducing food risks under climate change. According to co-author Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, improved water management and more research in this area will be key to limiting pressure on our national resources and achieving a sustainable food future. “The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals by all countries – while stipulating sustainable agriculture among all nations – need to be based on more evidence on how to achieve such large system changes, and water needs to be central here. Since we're rapidly approaching planetary boundaries, our study should indeed draw the attention of decision-makers of all levels to the potential of integrated crop water management.” (ab)

2016-02-16 |

Land degradation affects 3.2 billion people worldwide, study warns

Soil Land degradation (Photo: Lighttruth/Flickr.com)

Land degradation is on the rise, affecting around 3.2 billion people worldwide, yet insufficient efforts have been made so far to ensure sustainable land use and the protection of soils. This is the message of a new book presented at a press conference in Berlin last week. An international team of scientists from Bonn's Center for Development Research and other institutions conducted case studies for 12 countries in different world regions. Their findings, which are partly based on satellite data, are alarming: 33% of grasslands, 25% of croplands and 23% of forests experienced degradation over the last three decades. About 30% of global land area, which is home to about 3.2 billion people, has experienced significant degradation. Land degradation is a serious problem in both low- and high-income countries and in both temperate and tropical regions, the scientists concluded. “If we talk about fighting the root causes of mass migration, then land degradation is an important factor. When people cannot grow their own food, they will think about moving elsewhere”, Klaus Töpfer, former head of the United Nations Environment Program, was cited by Deutsche Welle. According to the book, the global costs of land degradation amount to about US$300 billion per year, or about 0.4% of the 2007 global gross domestic product. The assessment found that the costs of doing nothing about land degradation are several times higher than the costs of taking action to reverse it: Every dollar invested in saving land and soils today will save us five dollars in the future. The poor are hit hardest by land degradation because their livelihoods heavily depend on natural resources. Africa south of the Sahara accounts for the largest share of the total global cost of land degradation with 26%. Often, there is a lack of extension services for farmers, for example about soil fertility management, the authors said. Another problem is weak security of land tenure. Several case studies showed that the adoption of sustainable land management practices is often dependent on secure land tenure. The authors therefore stressed the need for policies which protect customary tenure systems against arbitrary expropriation as well as for long-term strategies for enhancing women’s access to land under customary tenure. It is high time to take action against land degradation, the researchers said. “Sustainable land management contributes to achieving several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as land degradation neutrality and an ambitious climate and biodiversity agenda,” said Professor Klaus Töpfer. Goal 15 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN in autumn aims at halting and reversing land degradation. (ab)

2016-02-12 |

Green revolution policies could be harming Africa’s rural poor, study warns

Rwanda Farmer in Rwanda (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

New research indicates that so-called ‘green revolution’ agricultural policies aimed at alleviating poverty in Africa could be making things worse. A study by the University of East Anglia, published in the February issue of the journal World Development, found that forcing “modern” farming practices on rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa may contribute to increased landlessness, poverty, food insecurity and inequality. The authors looked in-depth at Rwanda's agricultural policies and the changes affecting the rural inhabitants in eight villages in the country’s mountainous west where smallholders depend on the food they grow on their small plots. The two main components of this strategy are the Rwandan Land Policy and the Crop Intensification Program, which involves a rapid shift away from traditional modes of production towards specialisation in a small number of government-approved, marketable staple or cash crops with the use of new seed varieties and chemical fertilisers. According to lead author Dr Neil Dawson and his team, Rwanda’s agricultural policies are pronounced as successful in alleviating poverty and enhancing food security by the International Monetary Fund and other donors without paying attention to the negative impacts on the poorest and the perspectives of rural inhabitants themselves. The study reveals that only a relatively wealthy minority have been able to keep to enforced modernisation because the poorest farmers cannot afford the risk of taking out credit for expensive inputs, such as fertilisers. “Similar results are emerging from other experiments in Africa. Agricultural development certainly has the potential to help these people, but instead these policies appear to be exacerbating landlessness and inequality for poorer rural inhabitants,” said Dr Dawson. “Such policies may increase aggregate production of exportable crops, yet for many of the poorest smallholders they strip them of their main productive resource, land.” He said it was startling to see that policies with such far-reaching impacts for poor people are, in general, so inadequately assessed. According to the study, conditions facing African countries today are very different from those past successes with green revolution policies in Asia some 40 years ago. However, wealthy donors such as the Gates Foundation, initiatives such as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and multinational companies such as Monsanto continue pushing agricultural modernisation in Africa - even though the mechanisms for achieving improvements in the lives of smallholder farmers through such policies are unclear. Dr Dawson and his team conclude that these green revolution policies should be subject to much broader and more rigorous impact assessments. They also recommend that measures to prevent poverty-exacerbating impacts should be incorporated into such policies. In the case of Rwanda, this means encouraging land access for the poorest and supporting traditional practices during a gradual and voluntary “modernisation,” the authors write. (ab)

2016-02-08 |

France passes food waste law banning supermarkets from binning unsold food

Food France wants to ban food waste (Photo: USDA/flickr.com)

France has become the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food under a new law that requires them instead to give unspoiled food to charities or food banks. The French senate unanimously approved the bill on Wednesday, following a lower house vote last year. The legislation stipulates that supermarkets measuring 400 square metres or more are no longer allowed to destroy any unsold, but still edible products, including products which would be thrown away because they are approaching their best-before dates. Now these supermarkets will have to sign donation contracts with charities or face penalties, including fines of up to €75,000 (£53,000) or two years’ imprisonment. Food banks and campaigners welcomed the law, which was propoased last year by the former food minister Guillaume Garot. According to Jacques Bailet, head of Banques Alimentaires, a network of French food banks, the law is “positive and very important symbolically”, The Guardian reported. Bailet said it would greatly increase an already emerging trend for supermarkets to donate to food banks. “Most importantly, because supermarkets will be obliged to sign a donation deal with charities, we’ll be able to increase the quality and diversity of food we get and distribute. In terms of nutritional balance, we currently have a deficit of meat and a lack of fruit and vegetables. This will hopefully allow us to push for those products,” he told The Guardian. The French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy estimates food waste to amount to 7.1 million tonnes. Wasted food costs the average French household €400 a year, and the country up to €20 billion. Campaigners now hope to persuade the EU to adopt similar legislation in all member states. A report published last year showed that in the UK, households threw away 7 million tonnes of food in 2012, enough to fill London’s Wembley stadium nine times over. Avoidable household food waste in the UK is associated with 17m tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. (ab)

2016-02-04 |

Organic farming key to feeding the world sustainably, study finds

Organic Organically grown (Photo: Bruce Fingerhood/Flickr.com)

Organic farming can produce sufficient yields to feed a growing world population, be profitable for farmers, protect and improve the environment and be safer for farm workers. That is the conclusion of a large review study by Washington State University researchers, published in the February issue of the journal “Nature Plants”. The authors looked at 40 years of science comparing the performance of organic and conventional farming systems in terms of four key sustainability goals: productivity, environmental impact, economic viability and social wellbeing. “Thirty years ago, there were just a couple handfuls of studies comparing organic agriculture with conventional,” lead author John Reganold, WSU Regents Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology, said in a press release. “In the last 15 years, these kinds of studies have skyrocketed. Hundreds of scientific studies now show that organic ag should play a role in feeding the world,” he added. Although organic agriculture may in general produce lower yields, with certain crops, growing conditions and management practices organic farming comes close to matching conventional yields. Reganold and his doctoral candidate Jonathan Wachter found that “under severe drought conditions, which are expected to increase with climate change in many areas, organically managed farms have frequently been shown to produce higher yields than their conventional counterparts due to the higher water-holding capacity of organically farmed soils.” According to the authors, numerous studies prove the environmental benefits of organic production: “Aggregate studies have found that organic farming systems consistently have greater soil carbon levels, better soil quality and less soil erosion compared with conventional systems.” In addition, organic farming also creates less soil and water pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. In economic terms, organic agriculture proved significantly more profitable and had higher benefit/cost ratios than conventional agriculture because consumers are willing to pay higher prices for organic produce. Putting a price on the negative externalities caused by farming, such as soil erosion or nitrate leaching into groundwater, would make organic agriculture even more profitable, the review shows. “With only 1% of global agricultural land in organic production, and with its multiple sustainability benefits, organic agriculture can contribute a larger share in feeding the world,” the authors write. However, policy changes are needed to address the barriers that hinder the expansion of organic agriculture. These obstacles include the costs of transitioning to organic certification or lack of access to markets, loans and insurance, especially in rural regions and less-developed countries. But Reganold and Wachter also make clear that there is no silver bullet solution to feeding the world. “Rather, a blend of organic and other innovative farming systems, including agroforestry, integrated farming, conservation agriculture, mixed crop and livestock, and still undiscovered systems, will be needed for future global food and ecosystem security.” (ab)

2016-02-02 |

Nearly 75% of all glyphosate sprayed on crops in the last 10 years, study

Pest Glyphosate spraying (ptmartins/Flickr.com)

Monsanto’s herbicide glyphosate is now the most widely used weed-killer in history both in the U.S. and worldwide. According to new research to be published in the February edition of the journal “Environmental Sciences Europe”, there has been a dramatic increase in the total volume of glyphosate applied to crops across the globe. The paper, written by Charles M. Benbrook from the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, reveals that the use of glyphosate has almost increased 15-fold since the introduction of genetically engineered crops in 1996. At global level, the use of glyphosate increased from 113 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion in 2014. In the United States, glyphosate use by farmers even increased 9-fold, from 28 million pounds in 1995 to 250 million pounds in 2014. The paper found that the use has skyrocketed in recent years. Almost 75% of the total volume of glyphosate sprayed world-wide over the last four decades (1974 to 2014) has been applied in just the last ten years. According to Benbrook, “The dramatic and rapid growth in overall use of glyphosate will likely contribute to a host of adverse environmental and public health consequences.” In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This triggered a bitter row over the safety of the weedkiller, prompting calls from public officials, health experts and consumers worldwide for a ban on the pesticide. “My hope is that this paper will stimulate more research on glyphosate use, and human and environmental exposure patterns, to increase the chance that scientists will quickly detect any problems that might be triggered, or made worse by glyphosate exposure,” Benbrook was cited by EurekAlert. Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, a British charity campaigning for sustainable food, farming and land use, commented on the paper: “This huge increase in chemical spraying is what we can expect if GM crops are ever grown in England. (…) The research rightly questions the safety of using Glyphosate on crops destined for people to eat just before they are harvested – a growing practice in the UK, which must end.” (ab)

2016-01-28 |

Saving livestock diversity key to feeding a warmer world, new report

Wollschwein The Mangalica pig was almost extinct (Photo: A. Beck)

The genetic diversity of livestock can help feeding the world in the face of climate change, yet a substantial proportion of the world’s animal breeds remain at risk of extinction, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned. According to the agency’s second report on the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources, increased global efforts are needed to safeguard the existing gene pool and to ensure that animal genetic resources remain available for future generations. “Genetic diversity is a mainstay of resilience and a prerequisite for adaptation in the face of future challenges,” FAO’s Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in the foreword to the report. “For thousands of years, domesticated animals, like sheep, chickens and camels, have contributed directly to the livelihoods and food security of millions of people. That includes some 70 percent of the world's rural poor today,” he added. According to the report, 1,458 of the world’s farm animal breeds, about 17% of the total, are currently at risk of extinction, while the risk status of 58% is simply unknown due to lack of data on the size and structure of their populations. The main reasons for the continuing genetic erosion are cross-breeding, the increasing use of non-native breeds, the decline of traditional forms of production and neglect of breeds considered not competitive enough. Cross-breeding, embraced by countries which import genetic material to increase milk productivity and speed up growth, can lead to loss of valuable characteristics such as the ability to cope with high temperatures, limited water supplies, poor feed or high altitudes. Livestock’s roles in the provision of ecosystem services related to the regulation of ecological functions, landscape management and the provision of wildlife habitats remain under-researched and undervalued, the report says. One example is the Brazilian Pantaneiro cattle, a breed resistant to various parasite-induced diseases. Once common in the country, there are now only 500 pure-bred animals, threatening to erode the breed’s capacity to adapt and survive. However, there has also been some progress since countries and livestock breeders worldwide have increased efforts and established gene banks. The Hungarian Mangalica pig, for example, nearly went extinct when other pig species that produced more meat with less fat replaced it. The total population was down to less than 150 sows in the 1990s but thanks to the work of some breeders, the Mangalitza has been brought back from the verge of extinction. (ab)

2016-01-26 |

Governments must stop alarming rise in childhood obesity, UN agency

Child Childhood obesity is on the rise (Photo: Joe13/Flickr.com)

Childhood obesity has reached alarming levels including in developing countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned on Monday. According to figures released by the health agency’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, the number of children under five who are overweight or obese reached 41 million in 2014, up from 31 million in 1990. If current trends continue the number of overweight or obese infants and young children will increase to 70 million by 2025. “Overweight and obesity impact on a child’s quality of life, as they face a wide range of barriers, including physical, psychological and health consequences,” said the Commission’s co-chair, Dr Sania Nishtar. “We know that obesity can impact on educational attainment too and this, combined with the likelihood that they will remain obese into adulthood, poses major health and economic consequences for them, their families and society as a whole,” Nishtar added. Childhood obesity is becoming an increasing problem in the developing world. The number of overweight children in lower middle-income countries has more than doubled between 1990 and 2014, from 7.5 million to 15.5 million. In 2014, 48% of all overweight and obese children aged under five lived in Asia, and 25% in Africa. According to the report, many children are growing up today in environments encouraging weight gain and obesity. Exposure to unhealthy environments is increasing in high-, middle- and low-income countries and across all socioeconomic groups. The experts identified the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages as a major factor in the increase in numbers of children being overweight and obese. “Increased political commitment is needed to tackle the global challenge of childhood overweight and obesity,” said co-chair Sir Peter Gluckman. The report proposes a set of recommendations aimed at reversing the rising trend. The authors call on governments to promote the intake of healthy foods and reduce the consumption of unhealthy foods and sugar-sweetened beverages by children and adolescents, for example by subsidising healthy foods and implementing fiscal policies, such as taxes to reduce the consumption of unhealthy foods. WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan stressed that “the biggest harm comes from the marketing of sugar-rich non-alcoholic beverages and ultra-processed, energy-dense, and nutrient-poor foods, which are often the cheapest and most readily available, especially in poorer communities.” She sad that voluntary initiatives are not likely to be sufficient. “To be successful, efforts aimed at reducing the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages need support from regulatory and statutory approaches,” she said, underlining that the technical guidance issued by WHO as well as the formulation of public health policies must be “protected from influence by industries with a vested interest.” (ab)

2016-01-20 |

Public hearing on Monsanto’s patent on conventionally bred Indian melon

Melon Who owns melons? (Photo: ૐ Didi ૐ/Flickr.com)

The European Patent Office will hold a public hearing on Monsanto’s patent on a melon derived from conventional breeding. On 20 January, public oral proceedings in opposition will take place at the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich for European patent EP1962578, which covers virus-resistant melon plants. The melons have a natural resistance to the cucurbit yellow stunting disorder virus that turns melons yellow and reduces yields. Using conventional breeding methods, agrochemical giant Monsanto introduced a gene from another melon plant. This gene was already found in a melon plant in India that was catalogued in 1961 and has been publicly available since 1966. The patent application was filed in 2006 and the patent became effective in 2011. “Monsanto’s melon patent is biopiracy at its most devious. First of all, the patented resistance was not invented by Monsanto – just discovered in an Indian melon. Monsanto is now pretending to be the first to have bred it into other melons – but to copy something is not an invention”, says Francois Meienberg from The Berne Declaration. The patent covers the modified plant, parts of the plant and its fruits and seeds, but not the breeding process itself. Opposition to Monsanto’s melon patent also comes from India’s National Biodiversity Authority: “The actions of Monsanto in using Indian melon varieties in research and development with commercial intent including application of a patent based on Indian melon varieties amounts to a blatant violation of Section 3 and 6 of the Biological Diversity Act,” the authority wrote in a letter to Monsanto already in 2012. The melon patent is not the first patent granted by the EPO on plants and animals derived from conventional breeding. In October, Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta was granted a patent on a seedless pepper derived from conventional breeding. In December, its Technical Board of Appeal confirmed a patent on the conventionally bred “wrinkled tomato” that has a reduced water content. Research by “No Patents on Seeds!”, a coalition of more than 200 organisations, shows that in 2015 around hundred new patent applications were filed. These patents concern carrots, potatoes, maize and other plants. Amongst the applicants are big companies such as Bayer, Dupont/Pioneer and Monsanto. In total, around 1400 patent applications on conventional breeding are pending with around 180 already granted by the EPO. This has been heavily criticised by non-governmental organisations. They warn that food production is becoming increasingly dependent on just a few big international companies. Nevertheless, EPO’s Enlarged Board of Appeal ruled in March 2015 in a decision on the precedent cases of broccoli and tomato, that plants obtained by essentially biological processes are patentable even though European Patent Law does not allow patents on the conventional breeding of plants and animals. (ab)

2016-01-18 |

Richest 62 people own as much as half the world's population combined

Slum Poorer half: slum in Mumbai (Photo: Dieter Zirnig/Flickr.com)

Global inequality is reaching new extremes with the world’s richest 62 people owning as much as the planet’s poorest half put together, new research shows. The report “An Economy for the 1%”, published by Oxfam ahead of the annual gathering of the world's financial and political elite at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, found that the wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010. This 41% drop occurred although the world population increased by 400 million people during that period. At the same time, the wealth of the richest 62 people has increased by more than half a trillion dollars to $1.76 trillion, an increase of 44%. Oxfam’s calculations are based on the Forbes’ billionaires list. According to these figures, the number of people whose wealth is equal to that of the poorest half of the world’s population is getting smaller each year, down from 388 in 2010 and 80 people last year. “It is simply unacceptable that the poorest half of the world’s population owns no more than a few dozen super-rich people who could fit onto one bus,” Oxfam's International Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, said in a press release. “The richest can no longer pretend their wealth benefits everyone – their extreme wealth in fact shows an ailing global economy. The recent explosion in the wealth of the super-rich has come at the expense of the majority and particularly the poorest people”, Byanyima added. Although the number of people living in extreme poverty halved between 1990 and 2010, the average annual income of the poorest 10% has risen by less than $3-a-year in the past 25 years, an amount equivalent to an increase in individuals’ daily income of less than a single cent per year. The report also shows how women are disproportionately affected by inequality. Oxfam says urgent action is needed to tackle the inequality crisis if the Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating extreme poverty by 2030 is to be met. A precondition for this is that governments are able to collect the taxes they are owed from companies and rich individuals. The organisation therefore calls for an end to tax havens which is fuelling economic inequality and preventing hundreds of millions of people lifting themselves out of poverty. According to Byanyima, “We cannot continue to allow hundreds of millions of people to go hungry while resources that could be used to help them are sucked up by those at the top.” (ab)

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