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20.04.2021 |

UN report reveals “relentless, continuing climate change”

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Dry soil (Photo: CC0)

Global temperatures continue to rise, with 2020 being one of the three warmest years on record. Extreme weather events combine with the COVID-19 pandemic in a double blow for millions of people, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In a report released on April 19th, the UN organization warns that the pandemic-related economic slowdown last year failed to put a brake on climate change drivers and accelerating impacts. “All key climate indicators and associated impact information provided in this report highlight relentless, continuing climate change, an increasing occurrence and intensification of extreme events, and severe losses and damage, affecting people, societies and economies,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas. “The negative trend in climate will continue for the coming decades independent of our success in mitigation,” he added.

The report on the State of the Global Climate 2020, compiled by the WMO together with an extensive network of organisations and research institutions, shows that the global average temperature was about 1.2° Celsius above the pre-industrial level. The six years since 2015 have been the warmest years on record. The concentrations of the major greenhouse gases continued to increase in 2019 and 2020. The global average for carbon dioxide concentrations has already exceeded 410 parts per million (ppm) and could reach or exceed 414 ppm in 2021. Furthermore, 2019 saw the highest ocean heat content on record. The rate of ocean warming over the past decade was higher than the long-term average, indicating a continued uptake of heat trapped by greenhouse gases. WMO also noted that the trend in sea-level rise is accelerating due to the increased melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Overall, global mean sea level continued to increase in 2020. In total, around 152 Gt of ice were lost from the Greenland ice sheet between September 2019 and August 2020. A loss of 200 Gt of ice per year corresponds to about twice the annual discharge of the river Rhine.

The report also gives information on the most acute impacts and extreme weather events in 2020. Hurricanes, extreme heatwaves, severe droughts and wildfires led to tens of billions of US dollars in economic losses and many deaths. Heavy rain and flooding affected much of the Sahel and the Greater Horn of Africa, triggering a desert locust outbreak. Severe drought affected many parts of the interior of South America in 2020, with the worst-affected areas being northern Argentina, Paraguay and the western border areas of Brazil. The estimated agricultural losses were estimated at US$ 3 billion in Brazil alone. Long-term drought also continued to persist in parts of southern Africa, especially the Northern and Eastern Cape Provinces of South Africa. Extreme heat and fires were another problem last year. In a large region of the Siberian Arctic, temperatures in 2020 were more than 3°C above average. This led to prolonged and widespread wildfires. In the US, the largest fires ever recorded occurred in late summer and autumn. Australia also broke heat records in early 2020.

The WMO report highlights that COVID-19 worsened the situation for many people worldwide. More than 50 million people were doubly hit in 2020 by climate-related disasters (floods, droughts and storms) and by the pandemic. Mobility restrictions, economic downturns and disruptions to the agricultural sector exacerbated the effects of extreme weather and climate events along the entire food supply chain. Local, national and global supply chains were disrupted, compromising access to farm inputs, resources and services needed to sustain agricultural productivity and ensure food security and slowing the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the authors write. But the food situation of millions of people was bad enough even before the pandemic broke out. After decades of decline, food insecurity has been on the rise again since 2014, being driven by conflict and economic slowdown as well as climate variability and extreme weather events. Nearly 690 million people, or 9% of the world population, were undernourished, and about 750 million, or nearly 10%, were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity in 2019. Between 2008 and 2018, the impacts of disasters cost the agricultural sectors of developing country economies over $108 billion in damaged or lost crop and livestock production.

According to the report, adaptation policies aimed at enhancing resilience to a changing climate are required. “One of the most powerful ways to adapt is to invest in early warning services and weather observing networks. Several less developed countries have major gaps in their observing systems and are lacking state of the art weather, climate and water services,” said Prof. Taalas. In a foreword to the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres writes that the world knows what needs to be done to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. “We have the technology to succeed. But current levels of climate ambition and action are significantly short of what is needed,” he criticizes and adds a call to action. “This report shows that we have no time to waste. (…) Countries need to commit to net zero emissions by 2050. They need to submit, well ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, ambitious national climate plans that will collectively cut global emissions by 45 per cent compared to 2010 levels by 2030. And they need to act now to protect people against the disastrous effects of climate change,” Guterres concludes. (ab)

07.04.2021 |

Report outlines two visions for the future of food systems

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Visions for the future of food systems (Photo: CC0)

Agribusiness giants could dominate the future of our food systems, accelerating environmental breakdown and surrendering the food security of billions of people to untested technologies managed by for-profit companies. Or civil society and social movements could fight back instead and succeed in transforming financial flows, governance structures and food systems from the ground up. This is the message from a new report published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and ETC Group on March 30. In the report “A Long Food Movement? Transforming Food Systems by 2045”, they outline how these different futures for food systems, people and the planet could look like. The authors stress that the 2021 Food Systems Summit, convened with the express intention of restructuring the regulatory environment for food and farming, could be a sign of the battles to come. “We are facing a corporate tidal wave. In only six months’ time, the UN Food Systems Summit could rubber-stamp changes that force millions of people off the land and put our food security at the mercy of high-risk big data and AI-controlled farming,” warns lead author Pat Mooney. “But farmers, food workers and their allies are mobilizing in new ways to defend their spaces and livelihoods. In fact, the Summit could spark a quarter century of food system transformation - a ‘long food movement’.”

In the first scenario termed ‘Agribusiness as usual?’ the authors consider what food systems could look like by 2045 if agribusiness is allowed to run its course. “The keys of the food system are being handed over to data platforms, private equity firms, and e-commerce giants. This is the dystopian future of food and the planet, unless civil society fights back,” explains Mooney. The authors identify the mega-trends of technological development and corporate consolidation that are already underway, but they also point out three further trends that could characterize food systems in 2045 if agribusiness prevails. The first trend is termed “Precision-engineered ecosystems and the internet of farming things”. The authors project that algorithms will be used to pinpoint the growing conditions of every fertile square metre on earth. Crops and livestock will be tailor-made (and modified) for those conditions. Artificial intelligence (AI) will be used to re-engineer ecosystems for optimal performance and robotic tractors and drones are being rolled out as fast as digital infrastructures allow. The second trend is termed “Logistics corridors, resource conflicts, and the new data geopolitics” and foresees a future in which many low and middle-income countries will be convinced to put land, resources, and data in the hands of those supplying the technologies and offering to pre-purchase their harvests. Powerful corporations and major governments will be able to control resources and food supplies across vast economic corridors. The free trade agreements of the 2020s and 2030s will serve mainly to secure access to resources and protect rights to corporate data exploitation. With food seen as a strategic asset, a new wave of land, ocean, and resource grabs will get underway. The third trend focuses on consumers and is termed “Hyper-nudging, personalized diets, and new frontiers in shaping the eating experience”. Data from everyday transactions (digital wallets to automated food services) will be increasingly combined with information harvested online to track and manipulate people’s eating habits in order to reshape food cultures.

In the second scenario, titled ‘Civil Society As Unusual”, the authors imagine how the future of food and farming in 2045 would look like if civil society and social movements – from grassroots organizations to international NGOs, from farmers’ groups, to cooperatives and unions – gained power. This vision would require these movements to develop deeper, wider, and more effective collaborations over the next 25 years than ever before, with collective activities and umbrella strategies. “Civil society and social movements must think decades ahead. We must be ready for shocks on the horizon. Neither short-term actions nor long-term planning can wait. That’s why we need a ‘Long Food Movement’,” said Third World Network researcher Lim Li Ching, who also contributed to the report. This scenario is imagined in four interrelated pathways of food systems reform and transformation: (1) Rooting food systems in diversity, agroecology and human rights, (2) Transforming governance structures, (3) Shifting financial flows and (4) Rethinking the modalities of civil society organisations’ collaboration. The authors also describe 13 strategic opportunities within these pathways that are grounded in what is already happening or is achievable. The key strategies include diverting funds from major commodity subsidies, research expenditures and ‘niche’ budget lines to small-scale food producers. In order to redirect R&D to sustainable food systems, food movements would need to step up the pressure on bilateral donors to reorient research projects in the global South towards agroecology, to realign the mission of global research centres (the ‘CGIAR’), and to reform their own agricultural research programmes.

In addition, the shift towards territorial supply chains and ethical consumerism needs to be accelerated. If the food movement succeeds, as much as 50% of food would be sourced from local and regional supply chains by 2045. The authors also project that up to 80% of people in previously high-meat consuming (wealthier) population group will have shifted to vegetarian and flexitarian diets. Apps would allow consumers to rapidly distinguish between business-as-usual corporations, firms with a sustained commitment to corporate responsibility, and sustainable, cooperative enterprises. Other key strategies include levying taxes on junk food, toxins, CO2 and the revenues of multinationals as well as adopting emergency food security measures that supersede trade and intellectual property rules. By 2045, famine, malnutrition, and environmental degradation would be considered as criminal violations that can be internationally prosecuted if the second scenario becomes true. The authors estimate that the four pathways of civil society-led food system transformation combined could shift $4 trillion from the industrial chain to food sovereignty and agroecology. This includes $720 billion in subsidies going to big commodity production, and as much as $1.6 trillion in healthcare savings from a crackdown on junk food. Under this scenario, 75% of food systems’ greenhouse gas emissions would be cut. “Civil society can and must transform itself,” the authors conclude. “History shows that when confronted by necessity or opportunity, people can adapt almost overnight. (…) The vast changes experienced as society has adapted to COVID-19 (…) show that, tomorrow, anything is possible.” (ab)

30.03.2021 |

Europe and US to reach 'peak meat’ by 2025, study

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Plant-based burger (Photo: CC0)

The market for plant-based alternatives to meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood products is booming: Europe and North America could reach “peak meat” by 2025 – the point at which the consumption of conventional animal proteins begins to decrease. This would have significant environmental benefits, according to a new report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Blue Horizon Corporation (BHC). The study, published on March 23rd, shows that the market for alternative proteins will grow from currently 13 million metric tons a year to 97 million by 2035. Alternative proteins would then account for 11% of the protein market, up from 2% in 2020. If there are more supportive policies and regulations, such as widespread taxation of greenhouse gas emissions or reallocation of agricultural subsidies to support the transition to alternative proteins, the share could be higher. “The final domino could fall if regulators give it a push. Higher carbon prices and support for farmers transitioning from animal agriculture to alternative-protein inputs could boost consumption to 22% by 2035,” the study finds. “At that rate, Europe and North America would reach “peak meat” by 2025, and then the consumption of animal protein in those markets would actually begin to decline.” The growth rate of conventional-protein consumption in the rest of the world will slow, but total consumption will not yet decline.

According to the analysts, the key to consumer acceptance is parity. Alternative proteins must taste and feel as good as the conventional foods they replace and cost either the same or less. “We expect parity to spur a new wave of growth, catapulting what is a fairly nascent market today into the mainstream, yielding significant environmental benefits, and facilitating even faster growth,” said Benjamin Morach, a BCG managing director. The findings suggest that alternative proteins will soon reach parity with animal proteins but the date depends on the source of alternative proteins and the product to be replaced. Plant-based alternatives such as burgers, dairy, and egg substitutes made from soy, pea, and other proteins will achieve parity in 2023 or earlier. Alternative proteins made from microorganisms like fungi, yeasts, and single-celled algae could match animal protein in taste, texture, and price by 2025. Alternatives grown directly from animal cells will catch up by 2032.

The adoption of alternative proteins will have a measurable positive impact on the environment, supporting a number of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals including responsible consumption and production (SDG 11) and zero hunger (SDG 2). The shift to plant-based meat and eggs alone would save more than 1 gigaton of CO2 equivalent by 2035. That is the equivalent of Japan becoming carbon-neutral for an entire year. Compared with conventional animal-based proteins, production of plant-based alternatives emits one-eighth the CO2-e per kilogram for chicken, one-third for eggs, one-twelfth for beef, and one-ninth for pork, the authors write. Switching to alternatives would also save 39 billion cubic meters of water, enough to supply the city of London for 40 years. In addition, more than 240,000 square kilometers of farmland that are used to grow animals and their feed, would become available – an area as large as the UK. This space will be freed up over the next 15 years, increasing biodiversity as land formerly used for intensive agriculture reverts to a more natural state.

The question remains who will benefit from the boom in alternative proteins. At the moment, the big players in the market are mainly the major incumbent meat companies which are “already redefining themselves as ‘protein’ companies, making and marketing their own alternatives,” the authors explain. US meat giant Tyson Foods and Germany’s Rügenwalder Mühle have their own alternative-protein brands. The market for alternative meat, eggs, dairy, and seafood products is set to reach at least $290 billion by 2035. This might also be the reason why the consulting firms are interested in the topic of alternative products. The authors stress that investors have much to gain from the protein transformation. “The alternative protein arena is wide open, and progress is happening fast. There is a real opportunity here for investors to make their moves early and become integral players in the future of food,” said BHC managing partner and CEO, Björn Witte. (ab)

08.03.2021 |

Empowering women and girls is key to ensuring food security

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Empowering women is key to food security (Photo: CC0)

Empowering women and girls is crucial to ensure sustainable food security in the aftermath of COVID-19, according to the heads of the three United Nations’ food agencies. Hunger and famine will persist and there will be unequal recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic unless more women in rural and urban areas hold leadership positions with increased decision-making power, they said in a press release published ahead of International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”. The heads of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the World Food Programme (WFP) highlight that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women and exacerbated existing vulnerabilities by reducing their economic opportunities and access to nutritious foods while at the same time increasing their workloads and escalating gender-based violence. Empowering women and female farmers is thus important so that they can contribute to the recovery from the pandemic and help create an environment that eliminates poverty, enhances productivity and improves food security and nutrition. “Women and girls can play a crucial role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in particular in transforming our agri-food systems. We all need to work together to spark the necessary changes to empower women and girls, particularly those in rural areas,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu.

Food security and gender inequality are closely linked with disadvantages beginning at a young age. In many countries boys and girls have very different childhoods, the UN organisations remind. Boys eat first, are given more food than their sisters, do less housework and marry later. For girls, marriage and not school work can dominate their childhoods. “The world is home to more than 1.1 billion girls under the age of 18, who have the potential of becoming the largest generation of female leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers ever seen for the better future. Yet, women and girls continue to face persistent structural constraints that prevent them from fully developing their potential and hinder their efforts of improving their lives as well as their households and communities,” QU Dongyu added. “We know from our work around the world that when women and girls have better access to information, resources and economic opportunities, and are free to make their own decisions, hunger rates fall and nutrition improves not only for themselves but also their families, communities and countries,” said David Beasley, Executive Director of WFP.

Women’s leadership is particularly important in rural areas of developing countries, where the voices of the 1.7 billion women and girls who live there are often overlooked. 60% of women in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture, yet they have less access to resources and services than men, including land, finance, training, inputs and equipment. Research suggests that if women farmers had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields by 20 to 30% and total agricultural output by 2.5 to 4%, lifting 100 to 150 million people out of hunger. In addition to their agricultural work, women are overburdened with domestic chores and caring for their families - roles that have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, women are more negatively affected by the social and economic impacts of the pandemic, including losing livelihoods and experiencing decreases in their personal incomes. “Investing in rural women’s leadership and involving them more in creating our post-COVID future is critical to ensure their perspectives and needs are adequately considered, so that we can build back better food systems where there is equal access to nutritious food and decent livelihoods,” said IFAD president Gilbert F. Houngbo. (ab)

26.02.2021 |

UNEP report calls on humanity to make peace with nature

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Making peace with nature (Photo: CC0)

Environmental decline is undermining progress towards ending poverty and hunger, a new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report warns. The good news is, however, that the world can transform its relationship with nature and tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises together to secure a sustainable future. The “Making Peace With Nature” report paints a bleak picture of these three environmental crises by drawing on global assessments, such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). “By bringing together the latest scientific evidence showing the impacts and threats of the climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis and the pollution that kills millions of people every year, [this report] makes clear that our war on nature has left the planet broken,” says UN Secretary-General António Guterres in the foreword. “But it also guides us to a safer place by providing a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme.” Or, as the subtitle promises, by providing a scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies.

The authors note that the world is failing to meet its commitments to limit environmental degradation. Economic growth meant that the extraction of natural resources reached damaging levels. Despite a temporary decline in emissions due to the pandemic, Earth is heading for at least 3°C of global warming this century, the report warns. In addition, more than 1 million of the estimated 8 million plant and animal species are at substantially increased risk of extinction; and diseases caused by pollution are currently killing some 9 million people prematurely each year. “Earth’s capacity to sustain growing needs for nutritious food, water and sanitation will continue to weaken in the face of ongoing environmental declines, as vulnerable and marginalized people are currently experiencing,” according the executive summary of the report. Food security, for example, is threatened by the loss of pollinators and fertile soil. Loss of pollinators could threaten annual global crop output worth between US$235 billion and US$577 billion. Environmental degradation is also impeding progress towards ending poverty and reducing inequalities. To sum up: Environmental decline is eroding progress towards almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One of the report’s key messages is that Earth’s environmental emergencies must be addressed together because they are interrelated and have common causes. “Immediate action is required to mitigate climate change, conserve and restore biodiversity, improve air and water quality, make more efficient use of resources and reduce the adverse effects of chemicals,” the authors write. One area of action mentioned is food, water and energy systems. These can and must be transformed to meet growing human needs in an equitable, resilient and environmentally friendly manner. With respect to agriculture, the report recommends agricultural systems that work with nature, are adaptive to change, resilient to shocks and minimize environmental impacts. Those systems are also critical to eliminate hunger and malnutrition and contribute to human health. The authors give examples of sustainable agricultural systems and practices, such as organic agriculture, agroecological practices, soil and water conservation, conservation aquaculture and livestock systems, agroforestry, silvopastoralism, integrated farming systems, improved water management and practices to improve animal welfare. “Sustainable agriculture conserves and restores soils and ecosystems, rather than degrading them,” they add. But they also admit that sustainable agricultural practices are often disincentivized by current systems of industrial-scale agricultural production, inappropriate subsidies, crop insurance and capital investments.

The report also identifies dozens of key actions that governments, businesses, communities and individuals can and should undertake in order to bring about a sustainable world. The authors see the current pandemic as a chance: “The COVID-19 crisis provides an impetus to accelerate transformative change. The pandemic and the ensuing economic upheaval have shown the dangers of ecosystem degradation, as well as the need for international cooperation and greater social and economic resilience,” they write. “The crisis has had major economic costs and is triggering significant investments. Ensuring that these investments support transformative change is key to attaining sustainability.” The report highlights that everyone has a part to play in the transformation to a sustainable future. Governments, for example, can include natural capital in measures of economic performance, put a price on carbon and shift trillions of dollars in subsidies from fossil fuels, non-sustainable agriculture and transportation towards low-carbon and nature-friendly solutions. Financial organisations can stop lending for fossil fuels and develop innovative finance for biodiversity conservation and sustainable agriculture. And “individuals can facilitate transformation by learning about sustainability, exercising their voting and civic rights, changing their diets and travel habits, not wasting food and resources, and reducing their consumption of water and energy.” (ab)

18.02.2021 |

Global organic area continues to increase, report

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Organic retail sales increased (Photo: CC0)

Organic farming is on the rise across the globe. A total of 72.3 million hectares were farmed organically at the end of 2019, representing a growth of 1.1 million hectares or almost 1.6% compared to the previous year. These are the latest figures of “The World of Organic Agriculture” published by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and IFOAM – Organics International. The report collects data on 187 countries with organic farming activities and was presented on February 17th at this year’s digital edition of BIOFACH, the world’s leading trade fair for organic food. Australia has the largest area farmed organically with 35.7 million hectares, followed by Argentina (3.7 million hectares) and Spain (2.4 million hectares). Due to the large area of organic farmland in Australia, half of the global organic area is in Oceania (35.9 million hectares), followed by Europe with 23% or 16.5 million hectares and Latin America with 11% (8.3 million hectares).

Currently, only 1.5% of the world’s agricultural land is farmed organically, but many countries have far higher shares. In sixteen countries, 10% or more of all agricultural land was under organic management in 2019. The top five countries with the largest share of organic land were Liechtenstein (41%), Austria (26.1%), São Tomé and Príncipe (24.9%), Estonia (22.3%) and Sweden (20.4%). According to the report, there were 3.1 million organic farmers worldwide and their number increased by 13% compared to the previous year. However, the authors point out that calculating precise figures is difficult here because some countries only report the number of companies, projects or growers groups which may each comprise many individual producers, hence the total number might even be higher. Around 51% of the world’s organic producers live in Asia, while Africa is home to 27% and Europe to 14% of organic producers. The country with the highest absolute numbers is India with 1.36 million farmers, followed by Uganda (210,353) and Ethiopia (203,602).

Consumer demand for organic products is also increasing across the globe. Global retail sales of organic food and drink reached 106 billion euros in 2019. The United States is the leading market (44.7 billion euros), followed by Germany (11.9bn euros) and France (11.3bn euros). High growth rate were achieved in many countries. In Estonia and France, markets increased by more than 13%. Looking at the shares the organic market has of the total market, the leader is Denmark with 12.1% while the organic market share was 10.4% in Switzerland and 9.3% in Austria. Danish and Swiss consumers spent the most on organic food with 344 and 338 euros per person respectively. “The yearbook is an outstanding reflection of the level of trust people around the world have in organic agriculture and its importance for nutrition, the environment and sustainable development,” said Knut Schmidtke, Director of Research, Extension & Innovation at FiBL Switzerland. The authors assume that the organic sector will benefit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence shows that retail sales have risen by up to 30% in some countries in 2020. “The pandemic has had a profound impact on our daily lives, as well as on the organic food industry," according to the report. “In COVID times, it almost looked as if food was regarded as a medicine. Organic agriculture has a lot to offer for systematic, positive health by reducing pesticide levels, contributing to a healthy environment and focussing on seasonality and proximity," writes Louise Luttikholt, Executive Director of IFOAM – Organics International, in the outlook section. The figures for 2020 will be published in the 2022 edition of “The World of Organic Agriculture”. (ab)

05.02.2021 |

Food system reform needed to protect biodiversity, report

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Agriculture is driving biodiversity loss (Photo: CC0)

Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history and the global food system is the main driver, making food system reform an urgent priority. This is the message of a new Chatham House report, supported by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Compassion in World Farming. The report published on February 3rd, highlights that biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate, unless we change the way we produce food to prevent further destruction of ecosystems and habitats. The authors recommend three interdependent actions needed for food system transformation: “We need to change global dietary patterns, protect and set aside land for nature and farm in a more nature-friendly and biodiversity-supporting way,” says Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Ecosystems Division. The findings were presented during an online event.

Biodiversity loss is accelerating around the world, the report warns. The global rate of species extinction today is higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years. Around a quarter of species in most animal and plant groups are already under threat from extinction, and around 1 million more species face extinction within decades. The global food system is the primary driver of this trend. Agriculture alone is an identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinction. Over the past 50 years, the conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of habitat loss. “The biggest threats to biodiversity arise from exploitative land use – converting natural habitats to agriculture and farming land intensively – and these are driven by the economic demand for producing ever more calorie-rich, but nutritionally poor, food from fewer and fewer commodities grown at scale,” says lead author Professor Tim Benton, Research Director at Chatham House. “These commodities underpin a wasteful food system that fails to nourish us and undermines biodiversity and drives climate change.” Another problem is that current food production depends heavily on the use of inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, energy and water, and on unsustainable practices such as monocropping and heavy tilling. Our food system is also a major driver of climate change, accounting for around 30% of total human-produced emissions. Climate change further degrades habitats and causes species to disperse to new locations, creating opportunities for the emergence of infectious disease.

If we continue with business as usual, biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate, the authors warn. The reform of our food system is thus an urgent priority. The report describes three principal levers needed for food system transformation in support of biodiversity. Firstly, global dietary patterns need to move towards more plant-heavy diets, mainly due to the disproportionate impact of animal agriculture on biodiversity, land use and the environment. “Such a shift would also benefit the dietary health of populations around the world, and help reduce the risk of pandemics. Global food waste must be reduced significantly. Together, these measures would reduce pressure on resources including land, through reducing demand,” the authors write in the summary of the report. Secondly, more land needs to be protected and set aside for nature. The greatest gains for biodiversity will occur when we preserve or restore whole ecosystems. Therefore, we need to avoid converting land for agriculture. Human dietary shifts are essential in order to preserve existing native ecosystems and restore those that have been removed or degraded. “It is key to recognize that land could in effect be spared by shifting to less resource-intensive diets. Hence, land-sparing does not always require an intensification of agricultural land elsewhere to compensate,” the authors explain.

The third lever for transforming the food system is to adopt more biodiversity-supporting modes of food production, limiting the use of inputs and replacing monoculture with polyculture farming practices. The report outlines three key avenues in order to achieve this – gaining efficiency, substituting artificial processes with ecological ones, and redesigning the system. These three avenues “are about maintaining adequate food yields while reducing environmentally damaging inputs, in other words, they are about sustainably intensifying production.” The authors mention that the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’ is subject to much debate and is often used to describe practices that are far from sustainable. With regard to the third avenue which is about switching to modes of production that utilize land and other natural resources in fundamentally different ways, they mention regenerative farming practices, organic farming, agroforestry, or extensive farmed animal systems. “Many agro-ecological and regenerative farming systems – such as organic farming – are inherently more diverse, relying on polycultures and rotations,” they write. “In general, the yield–biodiversity relationship means that such systems tend to be lower-yielding than intensive farming. Hence, large-scale adoption of such techniques would require other fundamental changes to food systems to reduce overall demand for food.”

The authors stress that these three levers are in part interdependent. Dietary change is necessary to enable land to be returned to nature, and to allow widespread adoption of nature-friendly farming without increasing the pressure to convert natural land to agriculture. The more the first action is taken up in the form of dietary change, the more scope there is for the second and third actions. “The future of farming must be nature-friendly and regenerative, and our diets must become more plant-based, healthy and sustainable,” summarises Philip Lymbery, Global Chief Executive at Compassion in World Farming. The authors also sets out recommendations to embed food system reform in high level political events in 2021 that will cover food, climate and biodiversity, such as the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). They call on stakeholders to recognise the interrelationship between demand and supply, adopting a ‘food systems approach’ to drive action; and to strengthen the coherence between global agreements and local actions. “A year of unique opportunity for food system redesign is in prospect in 2021,” the authors conclude. (ab)

03.02.2021 |

Embed agroecology in EU food and farming policies, paper

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The FAO 10 Elements of Agroecology

The European Union must recognise agroecology as the key pathway to transform EU food and farming systems, according to a new policy paper published on January 28th. The paper, led by the EU Food Policy Coalition, builds on the consensual vision of a coalition of EU civil society, farmers and scientific organisations, among them ARC 2020, IFOAM Organics Europe, IPES Food or Friends of the Earth Europe. They argue that agroecology can shape and transform EU food systems and needs to be integrated into EU policies. Their four-page document suggests how this can be achieved by using the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s ‘10 Elements of Agroecology’ and ‘13 Agroecological Principles’ as a framework.

The authors highlight that food systems in the EU and around the world a currently facing a lot of “severe environmental and social challenges, and are falling short on sustainably providing healthy, safe, adequate and culturally appropriate food and nutrition for all”. They warn that these systems are causing environmental degradation and loss of vital ecosystem services, economic hardship for farmers and socio-economic inequities, and thus urgently need to be redesigned. The agroecology approach could be the solution to those problems. The paper points out that “agroecology, ‘the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems’, has been identified by a series of landmark international reports as a key enabler for this urgently needed food systems transformation. The paper explains that “agroecology encompasses various approaches, including organic and regenerative farming, and includes amongst its goals the need to maximize biodiversity and stimulate interactions between different plant and animal species as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, reduce pest and disease risk, protect freshwater systems, secure pollination services, safeguard healthy agroecosystems and secure livelihoods”.

According to the authors, agroecology has the potential to succeed where current systems are failing, and can thus can “serve as a pivotal strategy to achieve a number of crucial EU policy objectives”. On 20 May 2020, the European Commission published the “EU Biodiversity Strategy” and the “Farm to Fork Strategy” as key components of the European Green Deal. Both strategies acknowledge the significant role that agroecology can play in underpinning a food systems transformation. In order to embed agroecology into these strategies and future EU policies, FAO’s 10 elements and the 13 principles of agroecology should be used because they can “support the planning, management, and evaluation of an agroecological transition”. The 10 elements of agroecology are diversity; synergies; efficiency; resilience; recycling; co-creation and sharing of knowledge; human and social values; culture and food traditions, responsible governance and circular and solidarity economy. According to the authors, the 10 Elements and the 13 Principles are complementary. The elements define agroecology in a global and inclusive way, while the principles list the practices and the concepts that must be applied for agroecological transition to take place. The 26 signatory organisations support the view that those elements and principles “should be taken into account in all relevant policies to support agroecology, whether at international, European, national, regional or local levels.” One example mentioned in the paper is the FAO Tool for Agroecological Performance Evaluation (TAPE), which is based on the 10 elements and uses the 13 principles to monitor and evaluate the impacts of projects and policies, as well as to identify strengths and weaknesses in sustainable production.

The organisations behind the paper demand that tools such as TAPE should be used to guide the design of policy interventions across Europe, and enable national authorities to address the EU targets stemming from the EU Green Deal framework. In addition, funds – especially from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – should be made available in member states to design new schemes for agroecological transition. In this context, the 10 Elements and the 13 Principles should be used by Member States as a guide to define their strategies and interventions, the organisations recommend. In addition, under the guidance of the EU Commission, Member States should be actively encouraged to set up programmes where a combination of rules and financial supports fit within the logic of agroecology. “Agroecology is not one of the tools in a toolbox, it is a different toolbox altogether. The EU must recognise agroecology as the key pathway to transform EU food and farming systems, embracing the whole potential of agroecology through the framework proposed above, and translate this commitment into all its future policies relating to food systems,” the paper concludes. (ab)

13.01.2021 |

Mexico bans glyphosate and genetically modified corn

Corn
Mexico is the cradle of corn (Photo: CC0)

Mexico has banned the use of both glyphosate and genetically modified corn in the country. On December 31, a decree was published in the official gazette which states that the use of the herbicide glyphosate and genetically modified (GM) maize will be phased out by January 2024 at the latest. “With the purpose of contributing to food security and sovereignty and as a special measure to protect native corn, the milpa, the biocultural wealth, the peasant communities, the gastronomic heritage and the health of the Mexican people, the biosafety authorities (…) will revoke and refrain from granting permits for the release into the environment of genetically modified corn seeds,” announces article 6 of the decree. The decision was welcomed by environmental campaigners, while Mexican agroindustry representatives criticised the government’s decision.

With regard to the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, article 1 of the decree aims “to gradually replace the use, acquisition, distribution, promotion and importation of the chemical substance called glyphosate and of agrochemicals used in our country that contain it as an active ingredient, with sustainable and culturally appropriate alternatives that allow to maintain production and are safe for human health, the country’s biocultural diversity and the environment.” A transition period until 31 January 2024 is granted to achieve the total replacement of glyphosate. Based on article 2, glyphosate may not be used in any public programmes or government activities during this period. The decree also calls on agricultural producers and agroindustry to use and develop sustainable alternatives. “In order to reduce the possible impact of the gradual substitution of the use and import of glyphosate in commercial agriculture, the Secretariats of Agriculture and Rural Development and of Environment and Natural Resources will promote and implement sustainable and culturally appropriate alternatives to the use of glyphosate, either with other low toxicity agrochemicals, with biological or organic products, with agroecological practices or with intensive use of labor,” outlines article 3.

The decree also introduces a ban on genetically modified corn with the same transition period as for glyphosate. Mexico will not only revoke existing permits and stop new authorizations for the release of GM corn, but also gradually reduce imports “in accordance with the applicable regulations and based on criteria of sufficiency in the supply of corn grain without glyphosate”. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced policies to strengthen the country’s food self-sufficiency. Mexico, the birthplace of corn and home to dozens of local varieties, is largely self-sufficient in corn for human consumption, a staple food used to prepare tortillas and other traditional dishes. However, the country depends on imports of GM corn from the United States to feed livestock. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US exported corn worth $2.7 billion to Mexico in 2019. There is no cultivation of GM corn in Mexico and the cultivation of genetically modified soybean was suspended in the country in 2017 following a court injunction. However, an area of 223,000 hectares was planted with GM cotton in 2019 according to biotech lobby organization ISAAA.

Opponents of GM crops and environmental organisations hailed the ban. Environmental group Greenpeace Mexico said that, after countless battles over the last 21 years, the decree is a reason to celebrate. “The time has come to settle the historical debt to genetic diversity in Mexico, and we celebrate the ban on genetically modified maize and the progressive ban on glyphosate by 2024, as these are important steps in moving towards ecological production that preserves the biodiversity and agro-biodiversity that has been cultivated by peasants over millennia, giving us the opportunity to enjoy a healthy environment and a green and fair agro-food system.” Homero Blas Bustamante, president of the Mexican Society of Organic Production (SOMXPRO), also welcomed the ban of glyphosate and GM corn. “It’s a huge victory”, he told Reuters. He said that organic farmers both in Mexico and globally are demonstrating that glyphosate is not necessary in agriculture and that like other agrochemicals it should be banned on the basis of the precautionary principle. In contrast, agroindustry and the private sector were not amused. The Mexican organisation Proccyt which represents the crop protection industry, called the decree a backward step, warning it could affect the entire Mexican countryside and endanger the stability of prices and the availability of corn. (ab)

23.12.2020 |

Food system changes needed to reduce biodiversity loss, study finds

Habitat
Demand for agricultural land drives deforestation (Photo: CC0)

What we eat and how it is produced will need to change dramatically to prevent widespread biodiversity loss, according to new research published in “Nature Sustainability” on 21 December. If current agricultural trends continue, between 2 and 10 million square kilometres of new agricultural land could be cleared by 2050, mainly at the expense of natural habitats. An international research team has now projected that almost 90% of species could lose part of their habitats. “We estimated how agricultural expansion to feed an increasingly wealthy global population is likely to affect about 20,000 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians,” explains lead author Dr David Williams from the University of Leeds. “Nearly 1,300 species are likely to lose at least a quarter of their remaining habitat, and hundreds could lose at least half. This makes them far more likely to go extinct,” he warned. But there is hope: Future biodiversity losses could be reduced by adopting healthier diets, cutting down on food loss and waste, increasing crop yields and implementing global land-use planning. “We need to alter both our diets and food production methods,” says Williams.

The researchers developed a model to forecast where agricultural land is likely to expand based on observed historical changes in agricultural land cover from 2001 to 2013 and data on likely determinants of land-cover change, such as the suitability of an area for agricultural production, proximity to other farmland or market access. By linking this model to country-level estimates of agricultural land demand between 2010 and 2050, based on population sizes, per capita GDP and agricultural yields, they were able to project where, and by how much, agricultural land was likely to change in the future. The scientists then overlaid these forecasts with habitat maps for almost 20,000 species of amphibians, birds and mammals. They used a very fine spatial resolution of 1.5 × 1.5 km which allowed them to determine exactly which species and landscapes are likely to be threatened and they looked at whether those specific species can survive in farmland or not. This allowed them to calculate the proportion of habitat each species would lose from 2010 to 2050.

The researchers found that under business-as-usual, global cropland could increase by 26% or 3.35 million km2 from 2010 to 2050. Large increases are projected to occur throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia (particularly Bangladesh, Pakistan, and southern Malaysia) and in northern Argentina and much of Central America. These increases are driven by “income-dependent transitions towards diets that contain more calories and larger quantities of animal-based foods, combined with high levels of projected population growth and low crop yields that are projected to increase slowly, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,” the authors write. The scientist projected that, if current trajectories continue, 87.7% of species (17,409 species) would lose some habitat by 2050, while 6.3% would have no change in habitat area and 6.0% would see an increase because they can live on agricultural land. However, the authors highlight that mean values conceal the severity of projected habitat losses for many species. By 2050, 1,280 species could lose at least 25% of their remaining habitat area and could be at increased risk of global extinction in the coming decades. More alarmingly, 347 species were projected to lose at least 50% of their remaining habitat, 96 at least 75%, and 33 at least 90%. Many of the species that are likely to be most affected are not listed as threatened with extinction, and so are unlikely to be currently targeted by conservationists.

The scientists highlight that “proactive policies targeting how, where, and what food is produced could reduce these threats, with a combination of approaches potentially preventing almost all these losses while contributing to healthier human diets.” To investigate the potential of such proactive approaches, they developed a scenario that implemented four changes to food systems: closing crop yield gaps globally, a global transition to healthier diets, halving food loss and waste, and global agricultural land-use planning to avoid competition between food production and habitat protection. They examined both a ‘combined approach’ scenario and the impacts of each approach individually. The simultaneous adoption of all four scenarios would reduce global land demand by 2050 by nearly 3.4 million km2 relative to 2010, and by 6.7 million km2 relative to business as usual. Under the combined approach, all regions would just see mean habitat losses of 1% or less by 2050 – only 33 species were projected to lose more than 25% of their habitat, compared with 1,280 under business-as-usual.

The impacts of individual approaches varied regionally. For example, increasing yields would bring huge benefits in North Africa, West Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where large yield gaps remain, but the scientists also warn that increasing yields often has negative consequences for species within agricultural lands. In contrast, yield increases would have a small impact on biodiversity in North America, where yields are already close to their maximum. Transitioning to healthier diets and reducing food waste were projected to have considerable benefits particularly in wealthier regions with high per capita consumption of both calories and animal-based foods. However, shifting to healthier diets is less likely to have a large benefit in regions where meat consumption is low and food insecurity is high. Global land-use planning had smaller impacts, with 1,026 species still projected to lose at least 25% of their 2010 habitat. Sub-Saharan Africa would benefit most from this measure. The scientists say that looking at the impact of each approach individually can help policy makers and conservationist to identify which changes are likely to have the largest benefit in their country or region. “Importantly, we need to do all of these things,” said Dr Michael Clark from the University of Oxford, who is also a lead author on the paper. “No one approach is sufficient on its own.” The authors stress that focusing on conventional conservation actions, such as establishing new protected areas or legislation for threatened species, is not enough. The underlying drivers of agricultural expansion need to be addressed. “The good news is that if we make ambitious changes to the food system, then we can prevent almost all these habitat losses,” Clark added. The authors conclude: “These proactive efforts to change how we produce and consume food will be a major challenge, but one which cannot be avoided if we are to safeguard species for future generations.” (ab)

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