2015-03-12 |

Filipino farmers and consumers oppose genetically modified Golden Rice

Rice Golden Rice compared to white rice (Photo: IRRI Photos/flickr)

Farmers and civil society organisations united in the Stop Golden Rice Alliance have reiterated their opposition to genetically modified (GM) rice, denouncing a campaign tour of a Canada-based advocacy group which is currently in the Philippines promoting the adoption of Golden Rice. According to the alliance, Golden Rice is a covert attempt to win wider approval for genetically modified food and will not solve the problem of malnutrition. Golden Rice has been genetically modified to provide beta-carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, one of the essential micro-nutrients. The GM rice is being developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in a public-private partnership with Syngenta. The lobby group “Allow Golden Rice Now!”, headed by Dr Patrick Moore, regards it as a silver-bullet solution to address Vitamin A deficiency in developing countries. The group will tour the Philippines, Bangladesh and India from March 4th to 20th, 2015. Filipino farmer-scientist group Masipag, a member of the network against Golden Rice, believe that GM rice will not solve hunger and malnutrition. “Micronutrient deficiencies are largely observed among children in poor families since they cannot afford a well-balanced diet. In that case, Golden Rice is not the solution; what is needed rather is peoples’ access to resources”, said Dr Chito Medina, National Coordinator of Masipag. He thinks that Golden Rice proponents “are merely using the malnutrition issue to sell their technology at the risk of the Filipino peoples’ health and the country’s agrobiodiversity”. The Stop Golden Rice Alliance warned in a press release that with inexpensive Vitamin A abundantly available from various natural sources, produced by small scale and backyard producers, it is a mistake to turn blindly to Golden Rice, a crop that IRRI itself admits it has not yet determined if it can actually improve the vitamin A intake. In 2014, IRRI announced that more research would be needed before Golden Rice can be commercialised due to its very low yield performance. The Stop Golden Rice Alliance stresses that the development of Golden Rice has already cost about 100 million U.S. dollars. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave an additional $10.3 million grant on top to fund the further development. On the other hand, long standing Vitamin A supplementation programmes have already succeeded in reducing Vitamin A deficiency in many countries while being cost-effective and easy to implement. “We have many traditional food and crops that are rich in Vitamin A,” says Masipag farmer Virgie Nazareno. “We do not need Golden Rice, what we need is access to these nutritious and safe foods.” (ab)

2015-03-10 |

EU environment report calls for urgent action to halt biodiversity loss

Soil European soils are at risk (Photo: John Bennett/

Europe remains far from reaching the objective of living well within the limits of the planet by 2050, according to the European Environment Agency’s latest assessment. Its key message is that Europe still faces a range of persistent and growing environmental challenges. Addressing them will require fundamental changes in the systems of production and consumption that are the root cause of environmental problems. Although we use natural resources more efficiently than in the past, we are still degrading our natural capital. The loss of biodiversity remains a major threat: recent data shows that 60% of species and 77% of habitat assessments recorded an unfavourable conservation status. Europe is falling behind the 2020 target of halting biodiversity loss. European soils are also at risk: land-use change and agricultural intensification are threatening soil ecosystem services. More than 25% of the EU's territory is affected by soil erosion by water, which compromises soil functions and freshwater quality. Soil contamination and sealing are also persistent problems. The European Environment Agency (EEA) does not believe that land use and management, and their associated environmental and socio-economic drivers, will turn for the better, especially since clear and binding targets are missing. Fresh water quality has improved over recent years but the EEA is concerned about the nutrient load of water bodies as “excessive nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) inputs in aquatic environments cause eutrophication, resulting in changes in species abundance and diversity, as well as algal blooms, deoxygenated dead zones, and leaching of nitrate to groundwater.“ The impacts of climate change on species and ecosystems are expected to worsen. Agriculture will be affected by shifts in crop phenology, suitable cropping area, changes in yields and by increased water demand for irrigation in southern Europe. Agriculture could also contribute to meeting the challenges. However, in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, “a more ambitious and long-term approach would be needed to address the resource efficiency of the agricultural sector in terms of productivity, land , carbon capture, water use, and dependence on mineral fertilisers and pesticides”. The report mentions that, “reducing agriculture’s environmental impacts requires a transition towards low-input systems”. According to the authors, organic farming can contribute to increasing the efficiency of nutrient management and reducing pesticide use. Although the organic sector has experienced a rapid development over recent years, only 5.7% of the EU’s agricultural area was under organic agriculture in 2012, with large differences in the share of organic agriculture amongst countries. Austria is at the top of the list with 18.6% while Malta has the lowest share at 0.3%. (ab)

2015-03-03 |

Court temporarily stops commercialisation of GMOs in Ghana

Cowpea Farmer inspecting cowpea plants (Photo: IITA/

A Ghanaian civil society group has won a High Court ruling temporarily halting the commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) cowpeas and rice in the West African country. In February, agricultural advocacy group Food Sovereignty Ghana (FSG) filed a case against the country’s National Biosafety Committee (NBC) and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), arguing that these institutions failed to comply with the provisions of the main Biosafety Act and are not authorised to commercialise such products. “Our case is very simple. According to Section 13 of the Biosafety Act, 2011, Act 831…only the National Biosafety Authority has such a power to authorise the commercial release of GM foods in Ghana”, the group said in an earlier statement. The court in its ruling on Tuesday upheld Food Sovereignty Ghana’s position that such a Biosafety Authority described by law did not exist. The introduction of the Biosafety Act in 2011 repealed a law from 2007 which set up the Biosafety Committee. “We are not only calling for an injunction on the commercialisation of GM rice and Bt cowpeas, but on all GM crops until the National Biosafety Authority is in place”, the group underlined. After two years of pointing this out, the board of the National Biosafety Authority was inaugurated on the 17th of February, the day of the first hearing in court. Since a request for an interlocutory injunction had already been applied for by the plaintiffs, the judge ruled that there would be a halt on any further commercialisation and development of GMOs until the case is concluded. Field trials of genetically modified rice and cowpeas in Ghana’s southern Ashanti province, and of cotton in three northern provinces, are currently underway: Confined trials with GM rice started in April 2013 at Nobewam in the Ashanti region, after receiving approval from the National Biosafety Committee. In December 2014, Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) announced the successful development of a genetically modified Bt cowpea. Food Sovereignty Ghana is campaigning to help create mass awareness about the political, economic, health and environmental impacts of GM crops and defends the right of the people to define their own food and agricultural systems. (ab)

2015-02-23 |

Monsanto and Gates Foundation push GM crops on Africa, new report

Corn 90% of South Africa’s maize is GM (Photo: Pascal Parent/flickr)

US agencies, donors such as the Gates Foundation and agribusiness giant Monsanto are collectively attempting to force African countries to accept expensive and insufficiently tested genetically modified (GM) foods and crops, according to a new Friends of the Earth International report released today. The report takes a closer look at who actually benefits from GM crops. “The US, the world’s top producer of GM crops, is seeking new markets for American GM crops in Africa. The US administration’s strategy consists of assisting African nations to produce biosafety laws that promote agribusiness interests instead of protecting Africans from the potential threats of GM crops”, said Haidee Swanby from the African Centre for Biosafety, a non-profit organisation based in South Africa which authored the report. The report shows how Monsanto is trying to influence biosafety legislation in African countries in order to pave the way for the approval of its products. While strong biosafety laws have been in place in Europe for years, only a handful of African countries have implemented such legislation. At the moment, only South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan have released GM crops commercially. The introduction of genetically modified maize is especially highly controversial, with maize being the staple food of most Africans. The report outlines two controversial projects which are trying to open the door for the acceptance of commercial GM varieties under the guise of fighting hunger and malnutrition: the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project and efforts to introduce genetically modified vitamin A-enriched bananas into Uganda. Both projects are sponsored by the Gates Foundation. Many organisations, farmers and consumers doubt that GM technologies are an adequate means of fighting hunger. Swanby gives South Africa as an example, where farmers have more than 16 years of experience in cultivating GM maize, soya and cotton. However, food security in the country declined from 48% in 2008 to 45.6% at the end of 2013 even though South Africa exports maize. “The South African experience confirms that GM crops can only bring financial benefits for a small number of well-resourced farmers. The vast majority of African farmers are small farmers who cannot afford to adopt expensive crops which need polluting inputs such as synthetic fertilisers and chemicals to perform effectively”, Swanby said. The report advises governments and donors to focus on agroecology to build people’s food sovereignty instead of funding polluting GM crops-based agriculture. The authors underline that seeds, land and agroecology in the hands of small-scale farmers are the solutions to the huge challenges agriculture is facing in Africa and elsewhere, as the IAASTD showed, which took 400 scientists and four years to complete. (ab)

2015-02-19 |

Global fertiliser use to rise above 200 million tonnes in 2018

Fertiliser A worker fertilising on an oil palm plantation in Indonesia (Photo: Agus Andrianto/CIFOR)

Global fertiliser use is likely to surpass 200 million tonnes in 2018, an increase of 25% compared to 2008 levels, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported this week. World demand for total fertiliser nutrients is estimated to grow at 1.8% per year from 2014 to 2018. In the coming years, fertiliser use will vary widely in the different regions of the world. Asia as a whole is the largest consumer and relies heavily on imports of all three major nutrients. Overall fertiliser use will grow fastests in Sub-Saharan Africa at 4.7% annually. Global use of nitrogen, by far the largest fertiliser base, is expected to rise 1.4% each year, with East and South Asia accounting for almost two thirds of nitrogen-based fertiliser use. Current nitrogen use in Sub-Saharan Africa is low and the region will only apply 340,000 additional tonnes of nitrogen in 2018 as compared to 2014, accounting for less than 5% of the projected global increase. Phosphate use in the world will increase by 2.2% and potash by 2.6%. According to FAO’s outlook report, applying fertiliser is only one way of replacing nitrogen that is removed from soils when crops are harvested. While the boost in nutrients provided by nitrogen fertilisers made possible the steep increase in agricultural production over the past century, the overuse of fertiliser in some countries has caused soil pollution in the form of nitrogen deposition and damaged water systems. The FAO stressed that the use of crop rotations, mulching and manure can also restore nitrogen to soils. Legumes such as soybeans, have microorganisms in their root systems that fix nitrogen from the air and make it available to plants, thus replacing mineral fertilisers or animal manure.

2015-02-16 |

43.1 million hectares under organic agricultural management worldwide

Laos2 Organic farmer in Laos (Photo: Asian Development Bank/flickr)

Across the globe, a total of 43.1 million hectares of agricultural land were organic at the end of 2013, with the global market for organic products reaching US$72 billion. This is the result of the latest edition of "The World of Organic Agriculture", which was presented by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) and the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) at the BIOFACH trade fair last week. Compared to the previous year, organic farmland increased by almost 6 million hectares and 170 countries reported organic farming activities. “We are very pleased to see the recent excellent growth worldwide”, said Markus Arbenz, executive director of IFOAM International. “The positive environmental, social and economic impacts of the sector in the global South and North confirm the sector’s importance as a lighthouse.” The regions with the largest areas of organic agricultural land are Oceania (17.3 million hectares or 40% of total organic area) and Europe (11.5 million hectares, 27% of total). In Latin America, 6.6 million hectares of farmland are organic. Australia is the country with the largest organic agricultural area (17.2 million hectares, with 97% of that area used for grazing), followed by Argentina (3.2 million hectares) and the United States (2.2 million hectares). Two million organic producers were reported in 2013. The countries with the highest number of organic producers were India with 650,000 farmers, Uganda (189,610) and Mexico (169,703). The global market for organic products is booming: Market research company Organic Monitor estimates the global market in 2013 to have reached $72 billion (around 55 billion euros). The United States is the leading market with 24.3 billion euros, followed by Germany (€7.6 billion) and France (€4.4 billion). Official market data was published for the first time for China which has become the fourth biggest organic market worldwide. (ab)

2015-02-09 |

Study: Eating organic food can reduce pesticide exposure

Pesticide Pesticide-free produce (Photo: heather_on3/flickr)

People who eat organic foods may have significantly lower pesticide levels in their bodies than those consuming conventionally grown produce, according to a new study published on Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The study is among the first to predict a person’s pesticide exposure based on information about their usual diet. The scientists analysed dietary information of nearly 4,500 people from six U.S. cities to determine their exposure to organophosphates (OPs), the most common insecticides used on conventionally grown produce in the United States. The researchers linked the typical intake of certain food items to average pesticide residue levels on those foods as measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They then compared these predictions to pesticide metabolite levels measured in urine samples from a subset of participants. Results showed that among individuals eating similar amounts of fruits and vegetables, those who ‘often or always’ ate organic produce had significantly lower OP pesticide residues in their urine than those who ‘rarely or never’ ate organic. “For most Americans, diet is the primary source of OP pesticide exposure. The study suggests that by eating organically grown versions of those foods highest in pesticide residues, we can make a measurable difference in the levels of pesticides in our bodies”, said Cynthia Curl, an assistant professor at Boise State University, who led the study. Conventionally grown foods typically treated with OP pesticides include nectarines, peaches and broccoli. OP pesticides are linked to a number of negative health effects, especially among agricultural workers who are regularly exposed to the chemicals. “The next step is to use these exposure predictions to examine the relationship between dietary exposure to pesticides and health outcomes, including neurological and cognitive endpoints”, Curl said. For those interested in reducing exposure to pesticides, she recommends opting for organic at least in the case of those fruits and vegetables which the Environmental Working Group ranks in its "Dirty Dozen" list. (ab)

2015-02-02 |

Dedicating land to bioenergy won't curb climate change, new report finds

Palm Land cleared for oil palms (Photo: Mokhamad/CIFOR)

Dedicating crops and land to biofuel production will undermine efforts to combat climate change and feed the planet, according to a new report published Thursday by the U.S.-based think tank World Resources Institute. Firstly, turning plants into liquid fuel or electricity is inefficient. Providing just 10% of global transportation fuel from biofuels in 2050 would require an additional 30% of the total energy in all the crops currently produced, the report found. Meeting 20% of the world’s total energy demand by 2050 with bioenergy would even require humanity to at least double the world’s annual harvest of plant material, including plant residues, grass and timber. Secondly, using land for bioenergy production increases the competition for fertile land, the report found. So-called “second generation” technologies, which use crop residues or other wastes, could also lead to competition since most of these residues are already used for animal feed or needed for soil fertility. Increasing biofuel production at a meaningful scale therefore comes at the cost of growing food, animal feed or storing carbon. Thirdly, biofuels do not cut greenhouse gas emissions as much as previously thought. According to the authors, most calculations claiming that bioenergy reduces greenhouse gas emissions relative to burning fossil fuels do not include the carbon dioxide released when biomass is burned. This is based on the theory that these emissions are matched and implicitly offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants growing the biomass. However, if those plants were grown anyway, for example for food, simply diverting them to bioenergy does not remove any more carbon from the atmosphere. Emissions even increase if forests are cleared to generate bioenergy or to replace fields that were converted to growing biofuels. The report identifies some forms of bioenergy which do not compete for food or land and could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Examples include growing winter cover crops for energy, timber processing wastes, landfill methane or wood from agroforestry systems. But their potential to meet a considerable share of human energy needs is limited. (ab)

2015-01-27 |

Paper: Food security and sustainable agriculture in the post-2015 agenda

Change A change of course in global agriculture is needed (Photo: CIAT/

World food security and the goal of changing course in global agriculture must become top priorities in the post 2015 development agenda. This is the key message of a new discussion paper published by Biovision - Foundation for Ecological Development, in cooperation with various other NGOs and institutions. The document outlines key concerns for the final stage of negotiations on the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs). According to the paper, a world free from poverty, hunger and malnutrition, where the right to adequate food is realised for all people, cannot be achieved without a shift to resilient, diverse and productive agriculture and food systems, which are environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable, with a special emphasis on small-scale food producers and supporting their livelihoods. The organisations welcome the “Synthesis Report” published by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in December. However, they criticise that he failed to take up some important issues that are crucial to achieving food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture and food systems. These issues are: the need to double incomes of small-scale food producers; implement resilient agricultural practices; maintain genetic diversity of farmed animals, as well as seeds and cultivated plants; limit extreme food price volatility; cut food waste and food loss in half, and strive to achieve a land-degradation neutral world. The paper calls on stakeholders to ensure that these issues will be reflected in the post-2015 development agenda. In addition, the organisations warn against re-negotiating the outcome document of the Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs because its proposed 17 goals and 169 targets were developed through an inclusive process. Finally, the discussion paper outlines effective tools and ways in which a change in agriculture can be achieved and how progress can be measured and monitored. (ab)

2015-01-22 |

Earth has crossed several planetary boundaries, study warns

Planet Planetary boundaries (Graphic: F. Pharand-Deschênes/Globaïa)

Human activity has pushed the planet across four out of nine environmental boundaries, according to a new study published in the journal Science. An international team of 18 researchers warns that the planetary boundaries that have been crossed are: climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land-system change and altered biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles). Lead author, Will Steffen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said “transgressing a boundary increases the risk that human activities could inadvertently drive the Earth System into a much less hospitable state, damaging efforts to reduce poverty and leading to a deterioration of human wellbeing in many parts of the world, including wealthy countries”. Regarding climate change, the scientists argue that carbon dioxide levels should not exceed 350 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere. However, the current level is about 399 ppm, and this is growing by about 3 ppm per year. According to Johan Rockström, who is the director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, “this boundary is consistent with a stabilisation of global temperatures at about 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels”. Biodiversity loss and species extinction are also reaching dangerous levels, with rates of extinctions of animals and plants being 10 to 100 times higher than safe levels. The study defines climate change and loss of species as two “core boundaries”, each of which “has the potential on its own to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed”. The researchers also sounded the alarm about deforestation and pollution from nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilisers. On the regional scale, even more boundaries have been crossed, such as freshwater use in the western U.S. and in parts of southern Europe and the Middle East. “Implementing methods to use water more efficiently in agriculture can help sort out this dilemma and at the same time increase global food production”, says Dieter Gerten, another co-author. Although it may seem that the paper paints a gloomy picture, the authors wish to emphasise that the findings provide us with the chance to change course. “The world has a tremendous opportunity this year to address global risks, and do it more equitably. In September, nations will agree the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. With the right ambition, this could create the conditions for long-term human prosperity within planetary boundaries,” said Rockström. (ab)

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