2016-06-16 |

British MPs demand policy changes to improve soil health

Soil Soil health must be protected (Photo: CCO, Pixabay, r1g00)

More needs to be done to better protect soils for future generations and to promote agricultural practices that benefit soil health, according to a cross-party group of MPs in the United Kingdom. Following an inquiry into soil health and protection that included sessions with leading soil experts, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on AgroEcology for Sustainable Food and Farming has released a series of reports with a particular focus on agriculture. Although 95 per cent of our food comes from the soil, the political rhetoric and agenda does not adequately reflect this understanding and the current policy framework is insufficient to ensure that soil is protected, the group warns. “Healthy soil is vital both here and around the world. Failure to tackle current problems will lead to catastrophic environmental, economic and social breakdown,” said Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, who led the inquiry panel. “Reversing the loss of soils, along with restoring knowledge and interest in soil, are essential first steps to sustainable food production.” According to one of the reports, changing diets, increasing populations and downward price pressures from retailers are all combining to put immense strain on the agricultural sector. This pressure has manifested itself in an increasing need by farm businesses to increase outputs while reducing inputs. This, especially when combined with increasingly shorter tenancies, is fostering a culture of short-termism, the MPs warn. The authors state that farming methods such as an increasing cultivation of maize crops for energy use may be implicated in soil compaction and flooding. According to the group, one step that could be taken to build healthier soils is to use measures within Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to incentivise farmers to improve soil organic matter with initiatives, such as crop diversification to include agroforestry, which could also mitigate against harmful monocultures. For example, cultivation of leguminous cover crops, carefully managed application of manure, rotations, well managed extensive livestock grazing (as opposed to intensive systems), buffer strips – all are examples of techniques which should be encouraged by government policy, the report concludes. Rules with greater scope, force and ambition are required in order to meet the Government’s stated goal to manage soils sustainably by 2030. (ab)

2016-06-14 |

Land grabs expand the frontier of industrial agriculture, new research warns

LAnd Farmland, an important source of revenue (Photo: Pixabay)

The global farmland grab is far from over – there are new "hard-core" initiatives with the aim of expanding industrial agriculture, intensifying conflict around the world, according to a comprehensive dataset released by GRAIN today. The new data builds on previous research published by the non-profit organisation in 2008, which showed how a wave of land grabbing was sweeping the planet in reaction to the global food and financial crises. It documents 491 land grabbing cases across the globe and almost US$94 billion in farmland investments. The deals cover 78 countries and over 30 million hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Finland. This means that the number of land deals is continuing to grow, but growth has slowed since 2012. According to GRAIN, some of the largest deals which appeared in the investment frenzy following the 2008 food and financial crisis have since then reduced their ambitions or collapsed altogether. This has resulted in the overall decline of the number of hectares. However, the authors warn that there is no reason to celebrate: “This new research shows that, while some deals have fallen by the wayside, the global farmland grab is far from over. Rather, it is in many ways deepening, expanding to new frontiers and intensifying conflict around the world.” The new dataset shows that the remaining deals tend to embody “hard-core initiatives to expand the frontiers of industrial agriculture”. This means they are large, long-term and determined to avoid the pitfalls that earlier deals ran into. According to GRAIN, much of the Asian-led oil palm expansion in Africa, and the advance of pension funds and trade conglomerates to secure access to new farmlands, fall into this category. The researchers warn that gaining access to farmland is increasingly becoming “part of a broader corporate strategy to profit from carbon markets, mineral resources, water resources, seeds, soil and environmental services.” In particular, the last few years have seen a spectacular rise in farmland investments by pension funds. Since 2012, their number has ballooned. Some, such as the US-based TIAA-CREF, are even running their own farming operations. The new database also reveals that the global farmland grab remains as much about water as it is about land: “In many of the cases for which we have been able to see the legal agreements - as in Mali, Senegal and Cameroon - rights to water and access to water are explicitly guaranteed in the text,” says the report. But there is also cause for optimism: “One thing that has changed radically compared to eight years ago is the level of resistance and mobilisation these deals have triggered,” the authors write, “People are now more informed and taking action like never before. There are numerous coalitions and campaigns against land grabbing operating at local, national and regional levels.” (ab)

2016-06-09 |

EU Parliament slams G7 New Alliance as threat to African small-scale farmers

Frau Will African farmers benefit? (Photo: CCO, Pixabay, skeeze)

The European Parliament has heavily criticised the G7 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN), saying it benefits agribusiness while posing a threat to small-scale farmers and the environment. MEPs voted on 7 June to adopt a report from the parliament’s development committee. They called on the G7 to ensure projects under the New Alliance include environment protection measures and safeguards against land grabs - or to abandon the initiative altogether if it does not radically alter its mission. “Supporting family farmers and smallholders would be the most effective way to fight hunger in many African regions. Instead, the EU is contributing its scarce development funding to the New Alliance, which actually undermines sustainable small-scale food production and local food systems,” said Maria Heubuch, a German Green MEP and rapporteur on the alliance. Launched in 2012, the NAFSN aims to boost agriculture and relieve poverty by working with private companies in ten participating Sub-Saharan African states which are in turn expected to change their legislation on land, seeds and foreign investments. However, the report notes that the Alliance prioritizes the interests of agricultural companies over those of small-scale farmers who have been largely excluded from negotiations. “As recent studies showed, there are cases of land grabbing by private companies, which the EU co-funded indirectly. If the New Alliance does not address the severe problems that we witness, the EU should withdraw from the initiative“, urged Heubuch. The report warns against “replicating in Africa the Asian ‘Green Revolution’ model of the 1960s and ignoring its negative social and environmental impacts.” It stresses that the NAFSN must restrict the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and warns that the development of extensive irrigation in the targeted geographical investment areas may reduce water availability for other users, such as small-scale farmers or pastoralists. The report also highlights the need to uphold farmers’ rights to produce, exchange and sell seeds freely, as this underpins 90% of agricultural livelihoods in Africa and is vital to build resilience to climate change. It warns against “the dangers of deregulation of the seed sector in participating countries, which may lead to smallholders becoming over-dependent on seeds and plant protection products manufactured by foreign companies.” While commercial seed varieties may improve yields in the short term, traditional farmers’ varieties, landraces and associated knowledge are best suited for adaptation to specific agro-ecological environments and climate change, MEPs said. “The report calls on the countries of the G7 to stop promoting genetically modified seeds in Africa. This is a real success,” said Heubuch. With the adoption of the report, the EU Parliament took its first official stance on the controversial alliance. MEPS called for support to be given instead to policies which protect and assign priority to small-scale food producers, particularly women, and promote sustainable land use. (ab)

2016-06-03 |

Food experts urge global shift towards diversified agroecological systems

Vielfalt From uniformity to diversity (Photo: CCO, Pixabay)

The world needs a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems to protect human health and the environment, a group of leading food system experts has concluded. According to a report released by the IPES-Food panel on 2nd June, food systems based on diversified agroecological farming succeed where current systems are failing, namely in reconciling concerns such as food security, environmental protection, nutritional adequacy and social equity. “Many of the problems in food systems are linked specifically to the uniformity at the heart of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides,” said Olivier De Schutter, co-chair of IPES-Food and former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms,” he added. The report identifies industrial agriculture as a key contributor to the most urgent problems in food systems. These include the widespread degradation of land, water and ecosystems; high greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. The report warns that extinction of wild species and the application of insecticides threaten the 35% of global crops dependent on pollination. While current food systems produce an abundance of energy-rich, nutrient-poor crops, around 800 million people are still going hungry and 2 billion people are suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, alongside the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related diseases. According to lead author Emile Frison, “The way we define food security and the way we measure success in food systems tend to reflect what industrial agriculture is designed to deliver - not what really matters in terms of building sustainable food systems.” The report therefore calls for a change of course in global agriculture: “What is required is a fundamentally different model of agriculture based on diversifying farms and farming landscapes, replacing chemical inputs, optimizing biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods, i.e. ‘diversified agroecological systems’. The food experts refer to a growing body of evidence which shows that diversified agroecological systems have also a major potential to keep carbon in the ground, increase resource efficiency and restore degraded land, turning agriculture into one of the key solutions to climate change. Moreover, diversifed agriculture can also contribute to increasing dietary diversity at the local level, as well as reducing the multiple health risks from industrial agriculture (e.g. pesticide exposure, antibiotic resistance). The food experts admit that a shift to agroecology is not without its challenges. “Farmers can only be expected to transform their practices when they are certain that they will find markets. And consumers will only shift towards healthy, sustainable food when it is accessible and affordable to them,” said Frison. De Schutter added: “We must change the way we set political priorities. The steps towards diversified agroecological farming are steps to democratize decision-making and to rebalance power in food systems.” (ab)

2016-06-01 |

UN report calls for a major overhaul of the global food system

Schwein Feeding 35% of cereals to animals is unsustainable (Photo: CCO/matildanilsson)

UN experts have called for a major overhaul of the global food system in order to combat hunger, use natural resources more efficiently and stop environmental damage. According to the International Resource Panel (IRP), this overhaul includes a change of unhealthy dietary patterns and a shift in affluent societies from meat to more plant-based diets. In its new report, the IRP - a group of more than 30 international scientists and national governments hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – says the world urgently needs to switch to a sustainable food system that changes the way food is grown, harvested, processed, traded, transported, stored, sold and consumed. “We have the knowledge and the tools at our disposal to feed all the people in the world while minimizing harm to the environment. A better, more sustainable food system can allow us to produce and consume food without the detrimental effects on our natural resources,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. According to the report, food systems are currently unsustainable from a natural resources perspective. Globally, they are responsible for 60% of terrestrial biodiversity loss, around 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, 33% of degraded soils, the depletion of 61% of ‘commercial’ fish populations, and the overexploitation of 20% of the world’s aquifers. Although food production has increased remarkably over the past decades, more than 800 million people remain hungry, two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies - mainly vitamin A, iodine, iron and zinc - and more than two billion people are overweight or obese. Population growth and increased demand for food will put even more pressure on natural resources, the report notes. To combat these problems, the world urgently needs to shift to food systems which make sustainable use of renewable resources without harming the environment. The IPR laid out a series of recommendations for governments, including the reduction of food loss and waste, the replacement of certain inputs (such as pesticides) with ecosystem services and higher nutrient efficiency along the food chain, for example through better recycling of minerals in animal manure and use of by-products or food waste as feed or compost. Other measures include connecting urban consumers with how their food is produced and informing them about the environmental impact of their dietary choices. The experts strongly recommend a move away from resource-intensive products such as meat and highly processed food. The report warns that “the high consumption of animal based products, as well as of ultraprocessed food (often containing ‘empty calories’) brings disproportionate environmental costs, and moreover undermines public health due to obesity-related diseases.” Prof Maarten Hajer, the lead author of the report, told the UN environment assembly in Nairobi that meat consumption should be reduced and governments should tax meat production. “If we were all to copycat the way in which we feed ourselves in North America or Europe, the planet would be in deep trouble,” he was quoted by the Guardian. He said the intake of meat could be reduced by increasing its price. “We think it’s better to price meats earlier in the chain, it’s easier. It’s sexier to tax it at the consumer level, but not as effective,” said Hajer. (ab)

2016-05-27 |

Study finds organic agriculture can boost local economies

Organic Organic market fruits and vegetables (,

Organic food and crop production, and the business activities accompanying organic farming, helps lower poverty and increase household incomes in rural America, new research shows. The White Paper was prepared by Penn State Agricultural Economist Dr Edward Jaenicke. The study finds organic hotspots – counties with high levels of organic agricultural activity whose neighboring counties also have high organic activity – increase median household incomes by an average of $2,000 and reduce poverty levels by an average of 1.3 percent. “This research systematically investigates the economic impacts of organic agriculture,” noted Jaenicke. “Its important findings show that organic contributes to the economic health of local economies. The growing market interest in organic agriculture can be leveraged into effective policy for economic development.” The author identified 225 counties in the United States as organic hotspots. They are particularly strong on the West Coast, where in 2013 a single hotspot of contiguous counties stretched from California to Washington. Smaller hotspots also appear in the northern Midwest anchored on Wisconsin, in several parts of New England and the northern Mid-Atlantic states. Dr Jaenicke then looked at how these organic hotspots impact two key county-level economic indicators: the county poverty rate and the median household income. The same beneficial results are not found for general agricultural hotspots. If the economic impact of a county being part of a general agricultural hotspot is isolated, the county’s poverty rate drops by only 0.17 percent and the median household income increased by only $75. “We know that organic agriculture benefits our health and our environment,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA) that commissioned the study. “This significant research shows organic can also benefit our livelihoods and help secure our financial future.” The study suggests organic agriculture can be used as an economic development tool by policymakers at all levels - local, state and national. In the United States, organic has experienced a boom over the past years. Organic food sales in 2015 jumped by 11 percent to almost $40 billion, exceeding the 3 percent growth rate for the overall food market. (ab)

2016-05-24 |

Bayer makes $62 billion bid for GM seed giant Monsanto

Elephant Monsanto and Bayer - a merger of two giants (Photo: Pixabay, baludo, CC0)

Pharmaceutical and chemicals company Bayer has made an offer to buy US seed giant Monsanto for $62 billion US dollars. The German group confirmed on Monday it made an all-cash offer to acquire all of the issued and outstanding shares of common stock of Monsanto for $122 per share in a deal that would create the world’s biggest seller of seeds and farm chemicals. The offer, based on Bayer’s written proposal to Monsanto dated May 10, values the US company at 37 per cent more than its closing share price on 9 May. “Together we would draw on the collective expertise of both companies to build a leading agriculture player with exceptional innovation capabilities to the benefit of farmers, consumers, our employees and the communities in which we operate,” said Werner Baumann, CEO of Bayer AG. However, environmental and anti-GMO activists fear exactly the opposite, warning against increased corporate power over the world’s food supply. “A further concentration of corporate power in the agriculture/chemical sector would be bad news for farmers and consumers,” said Franziska Achterberg, Greenpeace’s EU food policy director. “It would accelerate the decrease in crop diversity while limiting consumer choice. Farmers would become even more dependent on just a handful of global players. They would find it harder to choose what they grow and how they grow it.” Monsanto confirmed it had received an unsolicited, non-binding proposal from Bayer AG for a potential acquisition. According the US company, the Board of Directors is reviewing the proposal and there won’t be further comments until this process will be completed. A Monsanto-Bayer merger would first have to pass regulators’ scrutiny. On Saturday, activists in more than 400 cities worldwide took to the streets in simultaneous demonstrations to protest against seed giant Monsanto and genetically modified crops. (ab)

2016-05-19 |

Study shows 400m meals' worth of edible food wasted in the UK each year

Foodwaste Food waste (Photo: merrick brown/ (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,

The equivalent of almost 400 million meals of edible food waste from UK supermarkets and manufacturers each year is not redistributed to those in need, new research shows. According to analysis by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap), an estimated 1.9 million tonnes of food is wasted in the UK grocery supply chain every year, 56% of which could be avoided. Only 18 per cent of the 270,000 tonnes of edible food waste produced in 2015 was given to businesses or charities to be used in food banks, the report found. Instead, the large majority of the 270,000 tonnes suitable for redistribution was going to waste, with around 40% going to anaerobic digestion and other recycling options and another 40% being used for energy recovery. A further 37,000 tonnes are currently being used to produce animal feed. Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of food redistribution charity FareShare, said: “Wrap’s report confirms what FareShare has been saying for some time: that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of good, surplus food could be saved from waste each year, and redistributed to charities to feed vulnerable people.” The government’s waste advisory body says the study is the most comprehensive review so far of surplus food and food waste from UK food manufacturers and grocery retailers, highlighting the overall avoidable food waste figures and breaking them down into eleven sub-sectors, such as meat and dairy. “Through a combination of prevention, redistribution to people and diversion to animal feed, the grocery supply chain could, in the next 10 years, almost halve its avoidable food waste, from 2009 when we first started work in this area,” said Dr Richard Swannell, Director at WRAP. It is estimated that around 450,000 tonnes of food waste in retail and manufacturing could be practically avoidable by 2025, a reduction of 23% compared to total food waste levels. Three sectors alone (bakery, fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy) would have the potential to account for more than half of it. Action to increase prevention of food waste could save businesses £300 million a year, the report found. (ab)

2016-05-12 |

One in five of the world's plant species facing extinction, scientists warn

Potato Plant genetic diversity is at risk (Photo: Luis Cordova)

One in five of the world’s plant species are estimated to be threatened with extinction, according to the State of the World’s Plants released on Monday by experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The biggest factors threatening plant species is the destruction of habitats, including for farming, but the report also reveals that there are 2000 new plant species discovered each year. “This is the first ever global assessment on the state of the world’s plants,” said Professor Kathy Willis, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. “We already have a ‘State of the World’s …birds, sea-turtles, forests, cities, mothers, fathers, children even antibiotics’ but not plants. I find this remarkable given the importance of plants to all of our lives – from food, medicines, clothing, building materials and biofuels, to climate regulation.” The aim of the report therefore is to provide an assessment of our current knowledge on the diversity of plants on earth, the global threats these plants currently face, and the policies dealing with them. According to the more than 80 scientists involved in the report, there are now an estimated 391,000 plants known to science of which 369,000 are flowering plants. At least 31,000 plant species are used by people as medicines, food, material, animal feed or for other purposes. Among the plant species discovered in 2015 are a massive leguminous tree (Gilbertiodendron maximum), 13 new species from the onion family and 18 species of Ipomoea from Bolivia, among which is a close relative of the sweet potato. “Some areas of the planet exhibit an incredible quantity and diversity of plants, with many unique species. But many of these areas are degrading or disappearing entirely under the assault of increasing threats, including land-use change, climate change, pests and diseases,” the authors warn. According to the report, the biggest threat for plant species is the destruction of habitats for farming (31%), with the expansion and intensification of crop farming as well as livestock farming. The growing international trade in palm oil during the past 20 years, for example, has had significant effects on the conversion of natural forest and peatlands to palm oil plantations. Biological resource use, such as deforestation for timber or the gathering of terrestrial plants are also a major threat (21%), followed by the construction of buildings and infrastructure (13%). There are many emerging threats also occurring with plant diseases caused by fungal, bacterial and viral pathogens. Climate change is still a smaller factor at 4% but is likely to grow over the next decades. “Plants are absolutely fundamental to humankind,” Prof Kathy Willis told The Guardian. “Without plants we would not be here. We are facing some devastating realities if we do not take stock and re-examine our priorities and efforts.” (ab)

2016-05-09 |

Climate-driven water scarcity will hit the world’s poorest, World Bank warns

Drought Droughts will become more frequent (Photo: Harald

Water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could hinder economic growth, spur migration, and spark conflict, the World Bank warned on May 3. A new report finds that water will become scarce in world regions where it is currently plentiful - such as Central Africa and East Asia - and scarcity will further worsen in regions where water is already in short supply - such as the Middle East and the Sahel in Africa. The World Bank projects that these regions could see their growth rates decline by as much as 6 percent of GDP by the mid of the century due to water related impacts on agriculture, health, and incomes. This figure represents a median across the various climate scenarios considered under business-as-usual water management. The effects could therefore be even more severe in the drier parts of the world which are also home to the world’s poorest while Western Europe could be largely spared. Due to the effects of growing populations and expanding cities, the demand for water will rise exponentially, while supply becomes more uncertain. The report warns that reduced freshwater availability and competition from other uses, such as energy and agriculture, could reduce water availability in cities by as much as two thirds by 2050 compared to 2015 levels. The agricultural sector already consumes over 70 percent of the available freshwater but over the next few decades, these already high water requirements are set to increase. The authors argue that the impacts of water scarcity and mismanagement will be felt disproportionately by the poor. Nearly 78 percent of the world’s poor, approximately 800 million people, live in rural areas and rely on agriculture, livestock, or aquaculture to sustain themselves and their families. They are more likely to rely on rain-fed agriculture and live on the most marginal lands which are more prone to floods, and are most at risk from contaminated water and inadequate sanitation. With climate change expected to have dramatic effects on rainfall variability in many regions, farmers might be hit harder than perhaps any other group. Under high emissions scenarios, changes in rainfall patterns are projected to negatively affect crop yields globally, reducing them by up to 10 percent by 2030, and up to nearly 35 percent by 2080. According to the report, ensuring a sufficient and constant supply of water will be essential to achieving global poverty alleviation goals. Water insecurity could also multiply the risk of conflict, the report adds. Food price spikes caused by droughts can inflame latent conflicts and drive migration. “If countries do not take action to better manage water resources, our analysis shows that some regions with large populations could be living with long periods of negative economic growth,” said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. “But countries can enact policies now that will help them manage water sustainably for the years ahead.” When governments respond to water shortages by boosting efficiency and allocating even 25% of water to more highly-valued uses, such as more efficient agricultural practices, losses decline dramatically and for some regions may even vanish. Possible measures includes better planning for water resource allocation, adoption of incentives to increase water efficiency, and investments in infrastructure for more secure water supplies and availability. (ab)

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