News

2016-01-11 |

Drought and heat hit global cereal production harder since 1980s, study shows

Cereal Droughts hit cereal crops (Photo: SnoShuu/Flickr.com)

Drought and extreme heat waves dramatically reduced crop yields during the second half of the 20th century and will likely pose a serious threat in the coming decades, according to new research published in the journal Nature. The scientists found that drought and extreme heat slashed cereal harvests by 10% and 9% respectively between 1964 and 2007, while extreme cold events and floods had no significant impact on crop harvests. “We have always known that extreme weather causes crop production losses,” says senior author Navin Ramankutty, a food security professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada, “But until now we did not know exactly how much global production was lost to such extreme weather events, and how they varied by different regions of the world.” The researchers analysed national production data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation for 16 cereals in 177 countries and also examined the effects of about 2,800 international weather disasters from 1964 to 2007. They found that the impact of droughts on cereals like corn, rice and wheat increased in recent decades: From 1985 to 2007, droughts caused cereal production losses averaging 13.7%, up from 6.7% for the period from 1964 to 1984. Almost 3 billion tonnes of crops have been lost since 1964, about three years of global maize harvests. The results also highlight 8–11% more damage in developed countries than in developing ones. Production levels in the more technically advanced agricultural systems of North America, Europe and Australia dropped by an average of 19.9% because of droughts – roughly double the global average. “Across the breadbaskets of North America, for example, the crops and methods of farming are very uniform across huge areas, so if a drought hits in a way that is damaging to those crops, they will all suffer,” said first author Corey Lesk from McGill University. “By contrast, in much of the developing world, the cropping systems are a patchwork of small fields with diverse crops. If a drought hits, some of those crops may be damaged, but others may survive.” The authors of the study say the research provides key insight on the effects of climate on agriculture and may help to guide agricultural priorities in international disaster risk reduction and adaptation efforts. While farmers in wealthier countries, who rarely depend on harvests directly for food and have access to crop insurance, could opt for the strategy of maximising yields, running this risk could have disastrous results for farmers in developing countries. (ab)

2016-01-06 |

Venezuela passes new seed law banning genetically modified crops

Corn Biodiversity instead of GMOs (Photo: Jenny Maeling/Flickr.com)

Venezuela has passed a new seed law, imposing a strict ban on genetically modified organisms (GMOs). On December 23th, the National Assembly of Venezuela approved the “Ley de Semillas” in its final session before the new opposition coalition took over on January 5th . The law was promptly signed by Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro. It regulates the production of hybrid seeds in Venezuela and prohibits the production, distribution and import of genetically modified seeds as well as GMO research. A central body will be established to implement the law and sanction violations, with a focus on the protection of traditional seeds, teleSUR reported. The legislation also makes an emphasis on the “protection of indigenous, African, campesina, and local seeds, which represents a benefit for our biological diversity and consolidates our food security and sovereignty,” said Venezuela’s Vice-President Jorge Arreaza. The law promotes the free exchange of seed and opposes the conversion of seed into intellectual or patented property or any other form of privatisation. Article 2 of the law states the broader goal of promoting “the transition from conventional systems of production based on monoculture and the use of agrochemicals with agro-industrial and/or corporate seed for conventional use, to an agroecological system and the preservation of the environment in the short, medium and long term, based on agro-biodiversity.” On his television show in December, President Maduro said the new Seed Law provides the conditions to produce food “under an agro-ecological model that respects the pacha mama [mother earth] and the right of our children to grow up healthy, eating healthy.” The approval of the law came after three years of debates but its implementation could prove difficult as the newly elected opposition coalition “Roundtable of Democratic Unity” won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. (ab)

2016-01-04 |

Soil degradation is a major threat to food security, report warns

Soil We depend on soil (Photo: Alosh Bennett/Flickr.com)

Global soil degradation costs up to 10.6 trillion US dollars a year and poses a long-term threat to food security and the environment, according to a report published by the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) in December. The report argues that soil degradation should be recognised alongside climate change as one of the most pressing problems facing humanity. Soil is a vital resource for food production that needs to be protected and enhanced, the report said. Instead, more than half (52%) of all fertile, food-producing soils globally are now classified as degraded, many of them severely, largely due to inappropriate farming methods. This reduces the ability of farmland to produce food at a time when more will be demanded of soils than ever before due to population increase and climate change, the authors warns. More than 95% of the food we eat depends on soil. “Few people think about soil when they do their shopping, in part because most root vegetables have all the soil washed off them these days, but the reality is that for every trolley of food we wheel back to our cars, we are tipping three trolleys full of the same weight of soil into the river to be washed away,” Sustainable Food Trust policy director Richard Young said in a press release. He argues that “urgent action is now needed to develop common solutions which address climate change and soil degradation simultaneously”. According to SFT, soil degradation is potentially reversible through planned ecosystem restoration and by introducing agricultural systems and practices that regenerate soil by building fertility and increasing biological activity and soil organic carbon. The report quotes farming practices such as crop-grassland rotation, hedgerow planting and animal manure application as methods to halt soil degradation and increase soil carbon. The report concludes that soil health should be given a central position in decisions made to combat climate change and that it needs to be recognised as a vital resource for the future of humanity. (ab)

2015-12-28 |

Decline in wild bee population threatens U.S. crop production, new study

Bee Wild bees are in decline (Photo: Mick Talbot/Flickr)

Wild bees are on the decline in many important agricultural regions of the United States, a trend that will increase costs for US farmers and may even destabilise crop production over time, a new study warns. According to the first national map of bee populations, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wild bee abundance in the US decreased by 23% between 2008 and 2013. A research team identified 139 counties in key agricultural regions of California, the Pacific Northwest, the upper Midwest and Great Plains, west Texas and the southern Mississippi River valley that have the most worrisome mismatch between falling wild bee supply and rising crop pollination demand. “Until this study, we didn’t have a national mapped picture about the status of wild bees and their impacts on pollination,” says Insu Koh, a researcher at the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. The new nationwide assessment comprises 39% of the pollinator-dependent crop area in the United States. These counties grow crops such as almonds, pumpkins, squashes, blueberries, watermelons, peaches and apples that are highly dependent on pollinators. “These are the crops most likely to run into pollination trouble – whether that’s increased costs for managed pollinators, or even destabilized yields,” says Taylor Ricketts, director of the Gund Institute. But the study also mapped counties that grow less-pollinator-dependent crops including soybeans, canola and cotton. Wild bees are important pollinators; in the U.S. alone there are at least 4,000 species of wild bees. Along with managed honey bees, they ensure stable pollination to agriculture and wild plant communities. According to estimates, these pollination services contribute over $3 billion to the U.S. agricultural economy each year. But pesticides, climate change and diseases are threatening wild bees. The new study shows that their decline may also be caused by the conversion of natural bee habitat into cropland. In 11 key states with declining bee populations, the amount of land tilled to grow corn increased by 200% in five years, replacing grasslands and pastures that once supported bee populations. The authors blame the increased demand for corn in biofuel production for the destruction of bee’s natural habitats. “By highlighting regions with loss of habitat for wild bees, government agencies and private organizations can focus their efforts (…) to support these important pollinators for more sustainable agricultural and natural landscapes,” said Rufus Isaacs, one of the co-authors on the study. The study followed a 2014 memorandum by President Barack Obama creating a task force to study pollinator losses. (ab)

2015-12-21 |

New report celebrates African rural women as custodians of seeds and knowledge

Woman Celebrating African rural women (Photo: JRecha/CCAFS)

African rural women play a critical role in evolving and maintaining the continent’s diverse and climate-resilient agricultural systems but their knowledge and status is increasingly being undermined. This is the message of a new report published by the African Biodiversity Network, Gaia Foundation and African Women's Development Fund to celebrate the important work of women as custodians of seed and nutritional food, medicine and biodiversity, and as spiritual, cultural and community leaders. “Today in Africa, it is small farmers - who are mainly women - who still produce 80% of the food on just 14.7% of the agricultural land, despite growing pressures,” says Liz Hosken, Founding Director of The Gaia Foundation and lead author of the report. According to the authors, the present global corporate scramble to control Africa’s rich heritage of minerals and fossil fuels, water and agricultural lands, seeds and food systems threatens to destabilise the continent and create more conflict, with women suffering most. The report puts a special focus on womens’ remarkable relationship with seed. “At the heart of this relationship between Africa’s women farmers and seed is a legacy of traditional knowledge that we cannot afford to lose. It is a legacy that has been and continues to be undermined by issues including land grabbing and disempowering seed ‘harmonisation’ laws,” writes Theo Sowa, Chief Executive of the African Women's Development Fund, in a foreword to the report. Many decades of targeting men for commercial interests promoting cash crops for foreign markets has further side-lined women, who have become increasingly invisible despite their critical role in meeting the diverse nutritional, medicinal and cultural needs of the family and the community, she warned. The report calls for both practical and policy support for rural women, their communities and their social movements in Africa, and for a profound and urgent shift in agricultural and investment policies across the continent. In particular, policies and practices should enhance women’s participation; value and recognise women’s knowledge; and enable women as well as men farmers to participate in decision-making processes in agriculture, food production, land and governance. (ab)

2015-12-17 |

Wildlife decline threatens UK biodiversity and agriculture, study finds

Hoverfly Hoverfly at work (Photo: Mick Talbot/Flickr.com)

Britain’s biodiversity is in an increasingly fragile state, with species that pollinate crops or fight pests declining rapidly, putting the nation’s food production at risk. This is the result of a new study published on 8 December in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers at the University of Reading and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology carried out a study which brings together tens of millions of wildlife records spanning 40 years. They found that the composition of species communities is changing rapidly through drivers such as habitat loss and climate change, with potentially serious consequences for the resilience of ecosystem functions. “There have been many efforts to track the changing prospects of wildlife, but this is the biggest and most comprehensive report ever assembled for any country in the world,” said Dr Tom Oliver from the University of Reading who led the research. “The picture that emerges is of an increasingly fragile system, particularly in species that do vital jobs for humans. Unless efforts are made to reverse some of these declines, we face a future where we will be less confident that we can effectively grow our food.” The scientists analysed trends in the frequency of 4,424 species across the country between 1970 and 2009, using data from thousands of trained volunteer recorders across the country. The record covered 22 broad species groups - such as bees, dragonflies, grasshoppers, ladybirds, plants and mosses. The scientists grouped the species into key ecosystem functions they provide - pollination, pest control, cultural value, decomposition and carbon sequestration. While all groups saw declines in native species, the population of animals providing decomposition and carbon sequestration remained relatively stable as declines are offset by new species arriving into the country. However, animals carrying out other vital jobs for farming by providing pollination and pest control suffered an alarming decline which can neither be offset by native species increasing in numbers nor by the arrival of new species to Britain. One example is the banded hoverfly Syrphus ribesii, which is important for pest control since it feeds on aphids and also pollinates crops and wildflowers. Professor James Bullock, who co-led the work, said: “While this analysis sends us a warning, concerted conservation efforts may allow us to halt these declines. Conservation actions, such as wildlife-friendly farming, can avoid the loss of biodiversity and the resulting erosion of the pollination, pest control and other benefits we derive from nature.” (ab)

2015-12-15 |

U.S. sales of antibiotics for farm animals up 22% since 2009

Pigs Antibiotics are frequently used on farms (Photo: Stefan Schwarzer/pixelio.de)

U.S. sales of antibiotics used in farm animals rose at an alarming rate over the last five years, the Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday, fueling concerns about risks to humans from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to a new report, sales of medically important antimicrobials used in food-producing animals in the U.S. increased 3% between 2013 and 2014 and sales are up by 22% since 2009, when the agency began reporting the figures. For one critically important class of drugs, cephalosporins, which are often used to treat ear and urinary tract infections, sales increased by 57% from 2009 to 2014, despite FDA placing restrictions on certain uses of them in 2012. Public health advocates, scientists and civil society organisations have criticised the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock, arguing that it is fueling the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The increased sales of antibiotics approved for use in livestock in 2014 are “disgraceful since it came after the FDA issued voluntary guidance they claimed would actually reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture,” U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat of New York, was quoted by Reuters. The FDA guidelines were released in 2013 with the aim of convincing drug makers and agricultural companies to phase out the use of antibiotics as a growth enhancer in livestock. The agency said the antibiotics could still be used to treat illnesses in animals raised for meat, but should otherwise be pared back by December 2016 under a program to keep them out of the human food supply. According to a report published by the United States Department of Agriculture in November, the share of broilers raised without antibiotics except for disease treatment rose from 44 to 48% between 2006 and 2011, which means that the majority of broilers were still given antibiotics for growth promotion. The use of antibiotics is also widespread on beef and cow-calf operations: In 2011, more than three-quarters of feedlots with at least 1,000 head provided antibiotics in feed or water, where the purpose is often growth promotion, USDA reported. (ab)

2015-12-10 |

EPO upholds patent on conventionally bred wrinkled tomato

Tomato Wrinkled tomatoes (Photo: Tame Alien/Flickr.com)

The European Patent Office (EPO) has backed a controversial patent on the “wrinkled tomato” derived from classical breeding processes: On Tuesday, the Technical Board of Appeal confirmed patent EP1211926, granted to the Ministry of Agriculture of Israel already in 2003, with only minor changes to the wording. The patent covers a tomato that has a reduced water content and is thus better suited to the production of ketchup. According to the patent claim, the “tomato fruit is characterised by a capability of natural dehydration while on a tomato plant”. After the tomato is ripe, its skin starts wrinkling but the fruit is usually not affected by microbial spoilage. In 2004, Unilever filed an opposition on the grounds that the patent did not fulfil patentability requirements since the the tomato was obtained with conventional methods which are not patentable. Article 53 (b) of the European Patent Convention prohibits patents on plant varieties as well as on “essentially biological processes for breeding”, which do not involve genetic engineering. However, the EPO is continuing to grant patents on conventionally bred plants, bypassing existing prohibitions with its interpretation of the law. In 2015, for example, Swiss agrochemical giant Syngenta was granted a patent on a seedless pepper derived from conventional breeding as well as on a tomato with a higher content of compounds called flavonols which are known for their health benefits. EPO’s patent granting on conventionally bred plants is heavily criticised. Non-governmental organisations warn that food production is becoming increasingly dependent on just a few big international companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont, that file more and more patents on food plants. Nevertheless, EPO’s Enlarged Board of Appeal ruled in March 2015 in a long-awaited decision on the precedent cases of broccoli and tomato, that plants obtained by essentially biological processes are patentable. “It is now up to politicians to show they can succeed in the fight against the well-organised interests of the patent business”, said Christoph Then for the international coalition “No Patents on Seeds!”, which is backed by hundreds of organisations. “The EPO, the patent attorneys and big corporations are all benefitting from these patents, but the negative consequences concern society as a whole.” In a report published on Monday, the coalitions presents political measures that should be taken to prevent patents on plants from conventional breeding. “Around 120 such patents have already been granted. These patents are on the plant characteristics of around 1000 vegetable varieties,” warns Ruth Tippe, who co-authored the report. The scope of many of these patents often covers the whole food chain from production to consumption. (ab)

2015-12-07 |

Degradation of the world's soil can be averted, UN report

Soil Digging terraces to stop erosion (Photo: Georgina Smith/CIAT)

The state of the world’s soils is rapidly deteriorating due to soil erosion, nutrient depletion, loss of soil organic carbon and other threats, but this trend can be reversed if appropriate measures are taken. That is the message of a new UN report released on Friday ahead of World Soil Day which was celebrated on 5th December and marked the end of the International Year of Soils 2015. According to the report, which collects the work of some 200 soil scientists from 60 countries, the majority of soils are in poor or very poor condition and the situation is getting worse. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that about 33% of global soils are already moderately or highly degraded due to erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution. This has serious consequences since soils serve as the basis for the cultivation of crops, filter and clean tens of thousands of cubic kilometres of water each year and sequester carbon, thus helping to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. “Further loss of productive soils would severely damage food production and food security, amplify food-price volatility, and potentially plunge millions of people into hunger and poverty,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva warned in his foreword to the 650 page-report. The report identifies population growth, urbanization and climate change as the main drivers of soil loss. Soils have been cleared of natural vegetation to grow crops or graze livestock to feed a growing population. Urban sprawl has led to the permanent sealing of soils under asphalt and concrete. Higher temperatures and extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and storms had a negative impact on soil fertility, for example by reducing moisture and depleting the layers of nutrient-rich topsoil. The report highlights ten major threats to soil functions: soil erosion, soil organic carbon loss, nutrient imbalance, soil acidification, soil contamination, waterlogging, soil compaction, soil sealing, salinization and the loss of soil biodiversity. An estimated 760,000 square kilometres of land worldwide – an area larger than all the arable land in Brazil – are affected by human-induced salinity. Soil erosion carries away 25 to 40 billion tonnes of topsoil every year, significantly reducing crop yields and soils’ ability to store and cycle carbon, nutrients, and water. But the authors also offer evidence that the loss of soil resources and functions can be avoided with targeted strategies. Soil erosion can be prevented by reducing or eliminating tillage - digging, stirring, and overturning of soil - and using crop residues to protect the soil surface from water and wind erosion. Nutrients can be restored and yields increased by returning crop residues and other organic material to the soil and employing crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing crops. The solution proposed is one that centres on sustainable soil management and which requires the participation of a broad level of stakeholders ranging from governments to small-holder farmers, FAO said in a press release. (ab)

2015-12-02 |

Over a quarter of EU farms disappeared between 2003 and 2013

Czech Farm in the Czech Republic (Photo: Martin Sojka/Flickr.com)

Between 2003 and 2013, more than a quarter of all farms in the EU disappeared while the average area per agricultural holding increased by 38%. These are the first results of the latest EU farm structure survey published by Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union. In 2013, there were 10.8 million farms in the EU, working 174.6 million hectares of land (the utilised agricultural area). Since the area used for farming remained almost stable over the period 2003 - 2013, the decline in the number of farms means increasing agricultural concentration. Farm numbers in the EU have plunged by more than 4 million holdings since 2003, a decline of 27.5% in just one decade. The number of holdings decreased in all EU Member States, except Ireland (+2.9%). Most farms disappeared in Slovakia and Bulgaria, with farm numbers falling by 67.1% and 61.8% respectively. A significant downward trend over this ten-year period was also observed in Italy (-48.6%), Estonia (-47.9%), the Czech Republic (-42.6%), Lithuania (-36.9%), Hungary (-36.5%), Latvia (-35.4%), Poland (-34.2%) and the United Kingdom (-34.0%). Regarding agricultural land, France and Spain account for almost 30% of the utilised agricultural area in the EU, followed by the United Kingdom (9.9%) and Germany (9.6%). The average area per holding growing in the EU grew by 38%, from 11.7 hectares in 2003 to 16.1 hectares in 2013. The largest farms can be found in the Czech Republic with 133.0 hectares and the United Kingdom with 93.6 hectares, followed by Slovakia (80.7 ha), Denmark (67.5 ha), Luxembourg (63.0 ha), France (58.7 ha) and Germany (58.6 ha). In Slovakia, farm size increased from 29.8 hectares in 2003 to 80.7 hectares in 2013. In contrast, average holdings are quite tiny in Malta (1.2 ha), Cyprus (3.1 ha) and Romania (3.6 ha). The farm structure survey also shows that farmers in the EU are growing older. Of the 10.8 million farms, almost 3.5 million (31.1%) were managed by persons aged 65 or over and a further 2.6 million (24.7%) by managers aged between 55 and 64, while those younger than 35 accounted for 6.0% of all farm managers. (ab)

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