News

2014-12-04 |

World must cut down on meat to curb climate change, report says

Cattle2 Cattle - a contributor to climate change (Photo: Compassion in World Farming)

A radical shift in meat and dairy consumption patterns is essential to keep global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius but an “awareness gap” about emissions from livestock could hamper efforts to curb climate change, a new report warns. The livestock sector produces more greenhouse gas emissions than transport and is the largest source of two of the most potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. However, people were more than twice as likely to identify transport as a major contributor to climate change, according to a 12-nation survey commissioned by international think-tank Chatham House. Governments and environmental groups are reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to change consumer behaviour due to fears of a consumer backlash, the analysis suggests. “A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat”, said Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author. Although the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that dietary change can “substantially lower” emissions, efforts to cut meat and dairy consumption are absent from international mitigation strategies. The Chatham report found that consumers with a higher level of awareness of climate change and its impacts were more willing to reduce their dietary behaviour. The greatest potential for behaviour change appears to lie in emerging economies, with respondents in Brazil, China and India showing a greater consideration of climate change when choosing meat and dairy, and a greater willingness to modify their behaviour than consumers in the United States, the UK and Japan. This is encouraging as these countries are among the most important for future demand for meat and dairy products. “The research does not show everyone has to be a vegetarian to limit warming to 2°C”, said Bailey. It shows, however, that closing the awareness gap is an important precondition for behaviour change and that addressing dietary trends has to be part of an international strategy to reduce emissions.

2014-12-02 |

Latin American fairtrade farmers call for climate action

Honduras Climate change will affect farmers in Central America (Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

A new round of UN climate talks opened in Lima on Monday, aimed at paving the way for a new international climate deal. Ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP20), fairtrade producer networks urged governments to provide more support to smallholder farmers in fighting the effects of climate change on their livelihoods. “Small farmers and rural workers are among the groups most affected by the devastating impacts of climate change; however, their voice is not being heard in the climate negotiations”, the Fairtrade Producer Network for Latin America and the Caribbean (CLAC) criticised on behalf of three networks representing more than 1.4 million farmers and rural workers. According to their statement, extreme weather events are affecting crops and livestock in Latin America, disrupting the delicate ecological balance needed to ensure food security of farm families, rural communities and urban consumers. The fairtrade networks stressed “the urgent need to increase resilience to climate change and access more funding opportunities for climate change adaptation”. They called on governments and international actors involved in the agricultural sector “to work together towards achieving food security and sovereignty for the regional and global population.” In the run-up to the COP20 conference, many civil society organisations in Latin America worried about the effects of global warming on farming and food security, urging their governments to put a focus on agriculture in the climate talks. Tania Guillén, who represents Nicaragua’s Humboldt Centre environmental group at the talks, told Inter Press Service “Central American organisations working for climate justice, food security and sustainable development are trying to share information and hammer out a common position.” Over the next 10 days, delegates from more than 190 countries will attempt to reach consensus on a new international climate agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. The deal is set to be signed in Paris in December 2015 and would enter into force in 2020.

2014-11-27 |

New study highlights importance of urban agriculture

Cuba Cuban urban agriculture (Photo: Melody Breaker/flickr)

Urban agriculture is playing an increasingly important role in global food production, according to research from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, suggests that the significance and size of urban agriculture is widely underestimated. Using satellite data, the scientists found that agricultural activities within 20 kilometres of urban areas occupy 456 million hectares of land - an area roughly the size of the European Union. Most of that land lies just outside the city but 67 million hectares is being farmed in open spaces in urban agglomerations. “This is the first study to document the global scale of food production in and around urban settings, and it is surprising to see how much the table is definitely getting closer and closer to the farm,” said co-author Pay Drechsel, a researcher at the IWMI. The scientists say their goal was to highlight the proximity of farming to cities in the quest for urban food security and sustainable development, given the focus on rural areas of most agricultural research and policy work. The team notes that urban agriculture, in addition to contributing to food security, puts marginal lands into production, helps with flood control, creates income opportunities for the poor and strengthens urban biodiversity. Citing Ghana as an example, Dr Drechsel said that in and around cities, everyday there are about 2,000 urban vegetable farmers supplying greens to 800,000 people. In addition, most of these farmers irrigate their fields with polluted water. „In Accra, up to 10% of household wastewater is indirectly recycled by urban vegetable farms. These farms are now ‘recycling’ more wastewater than local treatment plants”, he added. According to the authors, urban agriculture is viewed differently in the North and in the South: “Urban farming in wealthy countries is praised for reducing various footprints and enhancing a green economy, while in developing countries it is usually regarded as an inconvenient vestige of rural life that stands in the way of modernisation.”

2014-11-25 |

Bee populations decline due to loss of essential pollinating plants

Bee Busy bees at work (Photo: Jack Wolf/flickr.com)

Bee populations have decreased in recent decades mainly due to a loss of biodiversity causing the decline of their essential host plants, according to a study published Monday in the journal US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The scientists of Wageningen University in The Netherlands analysed the pollen found on the bodies of insects from 57 different wild bee species collected before the onset of their decline and used data to quantify population trends of bee species and their host plants. They found that the bees had certain favoured plants for pollinating. Dr Jeroen Scheper, an environmental specialist at the Alterra Research Institute reported, “we assessed the relative importance of a range of proposed factors responsible for wild bee decline and show that loss of preferred host plant species is one of the main factors associated with the decline of bee populations in The Netherlands”. Another important factor was bee body size, because larger bee species require more pollen to survive than smaller species. The researchers said that diet breadth and other potential factors such as length of flight period or climate change sensitivity were not important in explaining twentieth century bee population trends. The loss of natural habitats, namely grasslands, that are increasingly used for intensive agricultural production has led to a decline in wildflowers and the loss of bees’ food sources. Scheper mentions, that “these results indicate that mitigation strategies for loss of wild bees will only be effective if they target the specific host plants of declining bee species”. Bees are important for crop production, pollinating up to 80% of plants and flowers essential to the human diet.

2014-11-20 |

Governments at UN food summit pledge to combat malnutrition

Nutrition Crop diversity in Peru (Photo: Bioversity International)

The international community must intensify its efforts towards eradicating hunger and malnutrition, top UN officials declared on Wednesday at the opening of the second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in Rome. The conference brings together ministers and senior officials responsible for food, agriculture and health with leaders of UN agencies and representatives of civil society. At the opening, some 170 Member States adopted the “Rome Declaration on Nutrition” as well as a “Framework for Action”, which set out recommendations for policies and programmes to address nutrition across different sectors. According to the FAO press release, the role of food systems - the way food is produced, processed, distributed, marketed and prepared for human consumption - is crucial in the fight against malnutrition. Therefore, many of the recommendations adopted focus on ensuring that food systems become more sustainable and promote diverse and healthy diets. To this end, governments are encouraged in Recommendation 9 to “strengthen local food production and processing, especially by smallholder and family farmers, giving special attention to the empowerment of women”. The framework document also recommends “programmes to promote physical activity, dietary diversification, consumption of micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, including traditional local foods.” At the opening of the conference, WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan stressed that “the world’s food system - with its reliance on industrialised production and globalised markets - produces ample supplies, but creates some problems for public health”. Currently, 805 million people worldwide still go hungry and over two billion are affected by micronutrient deficiencies, leaving them vulnerable to death or disease, obesity is on the rise, pushing life-expectancy figures backwards and increasing the costs of health care. The Rome Declaration commits governments to preventing malnutrition in all its forms, including hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity, and names nine other areas of action. However, further concrete measures and commitments are not mentioned.

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.

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