News

2014-11-17 |

Monsanto to pay $2.4 million to farmers in GMO wheat dispute

Wheat Wheat field in Oregon (Photo: WebbShots/flickr.com)

Monsanto agreed to pay almost $2.4 million compensation to U.S. wheat farmers, who suffered economic losses after unlicensed genetically modified (GM) wheat was found in Oregon last year. On Wednesday, Monsanto announced that it had entered into a settlement agreement with farmers in the States of Washington, Oregon and Idaho who sued the seed company over market disruption. In May 2013, unapproved wheat, genetically engineered to withstand Roundup Ready herbicide, was discovered growing on a farm in Eastern Oregon. In response, Japan and South Korea temporarily stopped importing U.S. wheat due to fears the unapproved GM wheat might have contaminated U.S. wheat supplies. The settlement includes paying $2.1 million into a fund for farmers in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, who sold “soft white wheat” between May and November of 2013. A further $250,000 will go to different wheat growers’ associations. Monsanto will also pay the legal costs to farmers who were pursuing legal action against them. However, the company did not admit liability and said the agreement only resolves claims associated with the white wheat variety. At least three class action lawsuits have now be dismissed as part of the settlement. It is still unclear how the GM wheat appeared in the Oregon field in the first place. Monsanto’s GM wheat was never approved by U.S. regulators and the company said it stopped testing in Oregon over a decade ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in September there had been a second discovery of unapproved Monsanto wheat at a Montana State University research facility, where field trials were conducted between 2000 and 2003. Right now, there is no commercially approved genetically modified wheat worldwide. In 2004, Monsanto withdrew its application for the approval of herbicide resistant GM wheat.

2014-11-13 |

Plant-based diets could improve human and environmental health

Vegetables Healthy vegetables (Photo: Olearys/flickr.com)

A new study suggests that healthier food choices could dramatically reduce the environmental costs of agriculture and food production. The paper published in the journal ‘Nature’ by scientists at the University of Minnesota gathered 50 years of data from 100 of the world’s most populous nations. The scientists analysed data on the environmental impact of food production, diet trends, diet-related illnesses and population growth. “We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage,” said Professor of Ecology G. David Tilman. With rising incomes between 1961 and 2009, people consumed more meat, empty calories and total calories per person, the researchers say. The study linked global diet trends to forecasts of population and income growth. The scientists predict that diets in 2050 will include less fruits and vegetables, but almost 60% more empty calories and 25 to 50% more pork, poultry, beef, dairy and eggs. These changes will contribute to increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower life expectancy. These diets would lead to an 80% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions from food production, as well as to habitat destruction due to land clearing for agriculture. The study then compared the omnivorous diets to the traditional Mediterranean diet, a pescetarian diet (with fish as the only animal protein) and a vegetarian diet. Switching to these alternative diets could reduce Type 2 diabetes by 16 to 41%, cancer by 7 to 13% and death from heart disease by about 20% compared to the omnivore diet. In addition, adopting these alternative diets could prevent most or all of the increased greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction that would otherwise be caused by both current diet trends and population growth. “The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance”, the authors write.

2014-11-10 |

FAO concept of family farming under fire for ignoring smallholders’ access to land

Farm Is this a family farm? (Photo: United Soybean Board)

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is painting a “rosy picture” of the situation of small-scale farmers, disregarding the “most crucial factor affecting the capacity of small farmers to produce food: lack of access to land". This is the message of an opinion piece published by Reuters, in which the international non-profit organisation GRAIN criticises the FAO’s concept of family farming. The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming and the “State of Food and Agriculture” published by the FAO in October also covers this topic. The report says family farmers manage 70-80% of the world's farmland and produce 80% of the world's food. In contrast, a recent study by GRAIN found that small farmers feed the world with just 24% of the world's farmland - or 17% if China and India are left out. The confusion stems from the way the FAO defines family farming “as any farm managed by an individual or a household”. This means that huge industrial family-owned soybean farms in Argentina and the United States are also included in FAO's count of “family farms”. GRAIN says that using family ownership as the decisive criterion “masks all the inequities, injustices and struggles that peasants and other small scale food producers across the world are mired in”. The FAO report itself states that only 1% of all farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares, but these farms control 65% of the world’s agricultural land. According to GRAIN, instead of paying “lip service to family farming”, the FAO should focus on small food producers’ access to land. Although their share of land is decreasing, small producers are feeding the planet as they are often more productive than large ones. GRAIN’s report indicates that if large-scale operations in Kenya achieved the yields of the country's small farms, Kenya's agricultural output would double.

2014-11-06 |

Study finds rich countries get bulk of Gates Foundation agriculture grants

CIAT Will African farmer benefit?(Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spends most of its grants for agriculture to fight hunger in Africa by giving money to organisations in rich countries, according to a new report published by GRAIN on Tuesday. The non-profit group analysed the foundation’s food and agriculture grants since 2003 and found that half the $3billion awarded over the past decade went to global agriculture research networks and organisations. The single biggest recipient of this grouping is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a consortium of 15 international agricultural research centres, which have received over $720 million from Gates since 2003. The grouping also includes international organisations, such as the World Bank and UN agencies, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The report states that the second half of agricultural grants ($1.5 billion) went to hundreds of different research, development and policy organisations across the world, with 80% of the grants being given to organisations in the US and Europe and only 10% to groups in Africa. The north-south divide is most shocking when it comes to the funds granted to non-governmental organisations; of the $669 million that the Gates Foundation has granted to NGOs for agricultural work, over 75% went to organisations based in the US while Africa-based groups received just a meagre 4%. GRAIN criticised the lack of support “for programmes of research or technology development carried out by farmers or based on farmers’ knowledge, despite the multitude of such initiatives that exist across the continent.” The report says the “foundation has consistently chosen to put its money into top down structures of knowledge generation and flow, where farmers are mere recipients of the technologies developed in labs and sold to them by companies.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has rejected the accusations, “the central assumption is that only organisations located in Africa can benefit African farmers - and we think that is incorrect”, they told Reuters in a statement.

2014-11-04 |

Study links huge decline in European birds to farming and habitat loss

Sparling2 Birds are in rapid decline (Photo: Ian Sane/flickr.com)

Bird populations across Europe have experienced a sharp decline over the past 30 years due to modern farming methods and the loss of habitats, according to a new study that brought together data on 144 species from thousands of scientific surveys in 25 countries. The study, published in the journal "Ecology Letters", suggest that bird populations have dropped by 421 million across Europe since 1980, with 90% of the losses from the 36 most common bird species, including sparrows, skylarks and starlings. Dr Richard Inger, an ecologist at the University of Exeter who led the study, said: “It is very worrying that the most common species of bird are declining rapidly because it is these groups of birds that people benefit from the most.” Birds provide key ecosystem services. They help to control agricultural pests and play a vital role in decomposition, pollination and seed dispersal. The authors say the decline in bird populations can be linked to agricultural intensification, deterioration of the quality of the environment and habitat fragmentation, which has reduced areas that birds need for feeding and nesting. According to the study, conservation efforts tend to be focused on rarer species, such as white storks, whose populations are now increasing. However, measures should also address issues affecting common birds, for example those traditionally associated with farmland, since they exist in higher numbers and play a bigger role in maintaining the ecosystem. The authors stress the need for greater funding and efforts to protect common bird species, such as changing farming practices, implementing effective agri-environment schemes and increasing green spaces in urban areas.

2014-10-23 |

Patents on plants and animals a threat to food sovereignty, new report warns

Broccoli Patent on the severed broccoli (Photo: Cookthinker/flickr)

The European Patent Office (EPO) has already granted several thousand patents on plants and seeds, with an increasing number of patents on plants and seeds derived from conventional breeding, according to a new report published by the international coalition “No Patents on Seeds!” If politicians don’t ensure that these kind of patents are prohibited, our daily food will soon be controlled by big corporations and the patent industry, the report warns. Since the 1980s, around 2400 patents on plants and 1400 patents on animals have been granted in Europe. The EPO has granted more than 120 patents on conventional breeding and about 1000 such patent applications are pending. The scope of many of these patents often covers the whole food chain from production to consumption. The report gives an overview of patents granted in 2013 and early 2014, including a patent on conventionally bred peppers derived from wild, insect-resistant varieties from Jamaica. The patent granted to Syngenta covers the plants, fruits and seeds and even claims the growing and harvesting of the plants as an invention. The EPO also granted a patent to Monsanto on screening and selecting soybean plants adapted to certain climate zones, concerning wild relatives of soybeans found in Asia and Australia. This gives Monsanto a monopoly on the future usage of hundreds of natural DNA sequence variations in the conventional breeding of soybeans. “Industry together with the EPO is the driving factors turning the patent system into an instrument for misappropriation of basic resources needed to produce our daily food. They are selling out the future of our food”, warns Christoph Then, one of the authors of the report. According to European patent law, plant and animal varieties as well as conventional methods of plant and animal breeding cannot be patented. With its decision, the EPO has “intentionally created a situation full of legal absurdities that allows prohibitions to be circumvented”, serving the interests of multinationals such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta who already control more than 50% of the international commercial seed market.

2014-10-21 |

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

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

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

2014-10-16 |

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

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

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

2014-10-16 |

UN Committee adopts weak principles on agricultural investment

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

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

2014-10-14 |

New report stresses need to reform and democratise food systems

RnWCover Cover of the new report

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

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