News

08.10.2019 |

Unsustainable groundwater pumping threatens aquatic ecosystems

water
Groundwater is often used for irrigation (Photo: CC0)

Excessive groundwater pumping, especially in intensively irrigated regions, is posing a threat to aquatic ecosystems worldwide, new research shows. According to a study published in the journal “Nature”, the water level of rivers and streams in many catchment areas where groundwater is pumped has already decreased and has become too low to sustain freshwater ecosystems. Rising water temperatures are threatening organisms living underwater, such as fish, plankton and water plants. The international team of researchers from Utrecht University, the water institute Deltares, the University of Freiburg (Germany) and the University of Victoria (Canada) used a global hydrological model to calculate the inflow of groundwater to the world’s network of streams and rivers around the world. “If we continue to pump as much groundwater in the coming decades as we have done so far, a critical point will be reached also for regions in southern and central Europe, such as Portugal, Spain and Italy, as well as in North African countries,” says hydrologist Dr. Inge de Graaf from the University of Freiburg. Also at risk are areas where groundwater supplies have remained relatively constant but rivers are no longer able to maintain healthy ecosystems.

“When groundwater levels drop, discharges from groundwater to streams decline, reverse in direction or even stop completely, thereby decreasing streamflow, with potentially devastating effects on aquatic ecosystems,” the authors write. “The effects can be seen already in the Midwest of the United States and in the Indus Valley project between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” de Graaf explains. If we keep pumping groundwater at the current rate, the world’s groundwater sites will be unable to sustain aquatic ecosystems by 2050. The researchers used different climate change models (the driest, wettest, and average climate projections in terms of precipitation change) in order to predict how streamflow will diminish in future. Their results showed that the flow of streams and rivers in almost 20% of the catchments areas where groundwater is pumped is already too low to sustain aquatic ecosystems. By 2050, limits will be reached for more than half of the watersheds: 42% of the world’s groundwater sites will be unable to sustain aquatic ecosystems by 2050 if the wettest scenario is considered and the figure increases to approximately 79% for the driest scenario. “Climate change may even accelerate this process, as we expect less precipitation, which will further increase the extraction of groundwater and cause dry areas to dry out completely,” de Graaf says.

Over the last 50 years, population growth and economic development have led to a large increase in freshwater demand, especially for the irrigation of food crops. “About 70% of the pumped groundwater worldwide is used to sustain irrigation,” according to the study. About half the water used for irrigation is pumped from groundwater. In many dry regions around the world, more groundwater is pumped than is recovered from rain, leading to a drop in water levels. “When the groundwater level drops, pumping costs increase, potentially resulting in a rise in food prices. When wells run dry, local and possibly larger-scale food security can be threatened,” the authors warn. They point out that some agricultural wells in the USA are already up to 300 m deep. Around the globe, riverbeds are close to running dry, especially in regions in which groundwater has been extracted over many years. This could have a devastating impact for aquatic ecosystems. “It’s pretty clear that if there’s no water in your stream anymore that your fish and plants are going to die,” de Graaf told news agency AFP. Co-author Marc Bierkens, Professor of Hydrology at Utrecht University, adds: “What is striking about our results is that a small drop in the water table can cause a major reduction in groundwater influx to streams and rivers. This shows that riverine freshwater ecosystems are extremely sensitive to water table decline.” The study also shows that it often takes decades for groundwater pumping to lead to a noticeable reduction of groundwater influx. This is turning unsustainable groundwater withdrawals into a ‘ticking time bomb’ for streamflow, the authors conclude. However, there are also promising solutions, such as sustainable and efficient groundwater use in agriculture. (ab)

04.10.2019 |

Organic agriculture key to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals

Organic
Organic farming can contribute to the SDGs (Photo: CC0)

Organic agriculture can play an important role in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Thus a shift to sustainable farming practices such as organic is needed if the global community wants to maintain sustainable food systems for future generations and tackle the many challenges facing our planet, including the climate crisis. This is the message of a new report which was launched on September 25 on the fourth anniversary of the SDGs. The meta-analysis, which was commissioned by Dutch organic specialist Eosta and conducted by the University of Twente, takes a look at more than 50 scientific publications, including numerous studies from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Author Simon de Schaetzen concludes that organic agriculture has a positive impact on no less than 8 of the 17 goals including Zero Hunger (SDG 2), Good Health and Wellbeing (SDG 3), Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG 6), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8), Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12), Climate Action (SDG 13), Life Below Water (SDG 14) and Life on Land (SDG 15).

With regard to SDG 15, the report warns that global land degradation and biodiversity loss are continuing to occur at an alarming rate. Amongst the main causes is agriculture and its extensive use of pesticides and herbicides. “Due to the reduced or non-existing input of mineral fertilizers and pesticides, organic fields tend to enhance biodiversity compared to conventionally managed fields, thus positively contributing to this Sustainable Development Goal,” de Schaetzen writes. He argues that it is also essential to talk about what is happening below our feet as 25% of biodiversity is found in the soil. FAO admits that intensive crop production has depleted soils in many countries, encouraging organic farming as one example of sustainable agricultural farming practices.

When it comes to climate action (SDG 13), food and farming systems also play a key role: “Under organic regulations, synthetic inputs such as mineral and chemical pesticides, which require vast amounts of fossil fuels, are prohibited. This means significant amounts of carbon dioxide emissions are spared.” Furthermore, the report highlights that “one the biggest advantages of organic farming and other sustainable forms of agriculture is the fact that the soil on these farms can take up CO2 from the atmosphere and bind it into the soil (Carbon Sequestration), increasing levels of soil organic carbon.” In addition, organic agriculture is a more climate-adaptive farming system and as such is more resilient to extreme weather events.

With regard to SDG 14, de Schaetzen points out that marine dead zones are an increasingly severe risk for life and biodiversity below water. Amongst its main drivers is agriculture and its fertilizers and pesticides. ““The main source of nitrogen pollution is run-off from agricultural land,” he cites from a European Environment Agency report. “In agriculture, the two main nitrogen inputs to agricultural land are mineral fertilizers and manure.” When organic farmers use manure fertilization, this can also reach waterbodies and contribute to dead zones. However, organic agriculture tends to leach less nutrients per unit area. The study also mentions two significant ways in which organic farmers contribute to SDG 6. “As organic agriculture prohibits the use of synthetic pesticides, there is little to no risk of synthetic pesticide pollution of ground and surface waters,” the author writes. Furthermore, organic agriculture generally contains more soil organic matter, thus providing better water holding capabilities, meaning that the soil needs less water. “So when it comes to our protecting our freshwater supplies, organic agriculture is very much part of the solution,” he concludes.

With respect to the zero hunger goal (SDG 2), organic agriculture can play a key role in the long-term provision of food, as it provides better soil quality, resulting in less farmland loss over time and a better climate-resilience. Regarding organic farming and food security in Africa, the study draws on a UN report according to which organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term. As more than 60% of Africa’s sub-Saharan population consists of smallholder farmers, organic farming has a major role to play by providing nutritious food and at the same time offering many other environmental and social advantages. FAO research also shows that organic agriculture can produce better yields during periods of drought. “When we look at the global challenges that food production faces, it is fair to say that organic agriculture can be seen as part of the solution,” the author concludes. This view is shared by Louise Luttikholt, Executive Director of IFOAM – Organics International: “Given that organic farmers work in harmony with nature, as far as possible, for example by not applying harmful agro-chemicals, it is clear that they are a major part of the solution. (…) If the global community is serious about achieving the SDGs by 2030, it is essential that we switch to more sustainable farming practices such as organic,” she added. (ab)

27.09.2019 |

Farming and food security to be affected by melting ice and rising seas

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Andean potato farmer points to once ice-covered peaks (Photo: A. Beck)

Melting glaciers and rising sea levels – climate change will have profound consequences for ecosystems and people, if we do not take urgent action in order to limit global warming. Groups with the highest exposure and vulnerability, such as the poor, farmers and indigenous peoples, will be hit hardest since they often are those with the lowest capacity to respond. This is the message of a new special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In a two-year process, more than 100 authors from 36 countries assessed the latest scientific literature related to the ocean and cryosphere (the frozen parts of the planet, including snow cover, glaciers and permafrost). The summary of the report was adopted by the 195 IPCC member governments sentence by sentence on September 24th. “The open sea, the Arctic, the Antarctic and the high mountains may seem far away to many people,” said IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee. “But we depend on them and are influenced by them directly and indirectly in many ways – for weather and climate, for food and water, for energy, trade, transport, recreation and tourism, for health and wellbeing, for culture and identity.”

The report provides new evidence for the benefits of limiting global warming to the lowest possible level. “If we reduce emissions sharply, consequences for people and their livelihoods will still be challenging, but potentially more manageable for those who are most vulnerable,” Lee said. According to the report, a total of 670 million people in high mountain regions, including indigenous peoples, and 680 million people in low-lying coastal zones depend directly on the ocean and the cryosphere. Four million people live permanently in the Arctic region, and small island developing states are home to 65 million people. “The world’s ocean and cryosphere have been ‘taking the heat’ from climate change for decades, and consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe,” said Ko Barrett, Vice-Chair of the IPCC. “The rapid changes to the ocean and the frozen parts of our planet are forcing people from coastal cities to remote Arctic communities to fundamentally alter their ways of life.”

“Global-scale glacier mass loss, permafrost thaw, and decline in snow cover and Arctic sea ice extent are projected to continue in the near-term,” the report warns. Smaller glaciers found for example in Europe, eastern Africa, the tropical Andes and Indonesia are projected to lose more than 80% of their current ice mass by 2100 under high emission scenarios. The Arctic sea ice is declining and getting thinner. If global warming is stabilized at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the Arctic ocean would only be ice-free in September – the month with the least ice – once in every 100 years. For global warming of 2°C, this would occur up to one year in three. Melting ice is also contributing to an increasing rate of sea level rise. While sea level has risen globally by around 15 cm during the 20th century, it is currently rising more than twice as fast – 3.6 mm per year. Sea level projections depend on the climate change scenario used. It could reach around 30-60 cm by 2100 even if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply reduced and global warming is limited to well below 2°C, but around 60-110 cm if emissions continue to increase strongly. Since 1993, the rate of ocean warming has more than doubled. Ocean warming and acidification, loss of oxygen and changes in nutrient supplies, are already affecting marine life in coastal areas, with effects on the people that depend on marine ecosystems.

The consequences for people are severe: “Food and water security have been negatively impacted by changes in snow cover, lake and river ice, and permafrost in many Arctic regions. These changes have disrupted access to, and food availability within, herding, hunting, fishing, and gathering areas, harming the livelihoods and cultural identity of Arctic residents including indigenous populations,” the authors write. Glacier retreat and snow cover changes have contributed to localized declines in agricultural yields in some high mountain regions, including Hindu Kush Himalaya and the tropical Andes. As mountain glaciers retreat, they are also altering water availability and quality downstream, with implications for many sectors such as agriculture and hydropower. In the Indus and Ganges river basins, for example, snow and glacier melt provides enough water to grow food crops to sustain a balanced diet for 38 million people, and supports the livelihoods of 129 million farmers.

The relative poverty of many mountain communities makes them vulnerable to the impacts of cryosphere changes. “High mountains have supported agricultural livelihoods for centuries. Rural communities are dependent on adequate levels of soil moisture at planting time, derived in part in many cases from irrigation water which includes glacier and snow meltwater,” the IPCC explains. The reduction in streamflow has already led to reduced water availability for irrigation of crops and declining agricultural yields in several mountain areas, e.g. in the tropical Andes, High Mountain Asia, and the Rocky Mountains in the US. The report also cites Peru as an example. Peru’s glaciers have shrunk by more than 40% since 1970 due of climate change. Especially in the Cordillera Blanca, glacier coverage has declined significantly, presenting big challenges to farmers and the local population. “Human vulnerability to these hazards is conditioned by factors such as poverty, limited political influence and resources, minimal access to education and healthcare,” the scientists say. They argue that adaptation depends on the capacity of individuals and communities and the resources available to them. The IPCC highlights the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions: “Enabling climate resilience and sustainable development depends critically on urgent and ambitious emissions reductions coupled with coordinated sustained and increasingly ambitious adaptation actions“, the authors conclude. (ab)

25.09.2019 |

North America has lost 2.9 billion birds since 1970, study

Bird
Common birds are in decline (Photo: CC0)

The number of birds in North America has fallen by almost one third over the past 50 years, new research reveals. According to a study published September 19th in the journal Science, the United States and Canada have lost 2.9 billion breeding adult birds since 1970, a decline of 29%. The scientists warn that this decline signals a broader ecological crisis. “It’s a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife,” said the study’s lead author, Ken Rosenberg, an applied conservation scientist at Cornell University. “And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.” North American birds have declined in all habitats except wetlands. However, grassland birds showed the largest magnitude of total population loss since 1970 – a decline of 53% or a total loss of 700 million adult birds in the 31 species studied. But also forest birds are dwindling with a cumulative reduction of more than 1 billion birds since 1970. Even species that occur in a wider variety of habitats, known as generalists, are part of the downward trend.

Grassland birds are the most affected because of the disappearance of meadows and prairies and the extension of farmland, as well as the growing use of pesticides that kill insects, thus depriving insect-eating birds of their food. “We see the same thing happening the world over, the intensification of agriculture and land use changes are placing pressure on these bird populations,” Rosenberg told the news agency AFP. “Now, we see fields of corn and other crops right up to the horizon, everything is sanitized and mechanized, there’s no room left for birds, fauna and nature.” The authors write that “agricultural intensification and urbanization have been similarly linked to declines in insect diversity and biomass, with cascading impacts on birds and other consumers. Given that birds are one of the best monitored animal groups, birds may also represent the tip of the iceberg, indicating similar or greater losses in other taxonomic groups.” The scientists say that steep declines in North American birds parallel patterns of avian declines emerging globally: “In particular, depletion of native grassland bird populations in North America, driven by habitat loss and more toxic pesticide use in both breeding and wintering areas, mirrors loss of farmland birds throughout Europe and elsewhere.”

For the study, the scientists from seven institutions from the U.S. and Canada combined two data sources. The first was annual surveys carried out each spring, during the breeding season, conducted by thousands of volunteers based on an identical methodology since 1970. The second source were observations from 143 radar stations which can detect the flocks of birds during migrations taking place at night. Another result of the study is that there has also been an erosion of the numbers of common birds. More than 90% of the losses come from 12 avian families, including sparrows, blackbirds, warblers and finches. “We want to keep common birds common, and we’re not even doing that,” said Peter Marra, a study co-author. “Put that into the context of the other declines that we’re seeing, from insects to amphibians, and it suggests that there’s an ecosystem collapse that should be troubling to everybody,” Marra said. “It’s telling us that our environment is not healthy. Not for birds, and probably also not for humans.” The authors highlight that their results signal an urgent need to address the ongoing threats of habitat loss, agricultural intensification and coastal disturbance, factors which will be exacerbated by climate change. These problems need to be tackled in order to avert continued biodiversity loss and potential collapse of the continental avifauna, they conclude. (ab)

19.09.2019 |

Child mortality rates drop but 15,000 children under 5 still die each day

Children
Children in sub-Saharan Africa face a higher risk of death (Photo: CC0)

Although the global number of child deaths remains high, the world has made tremendous progress in reducing child mortality over the past few decades. The total number of under-five deaths dropped to 5.3 million in 2018, down from 12.5 million in 1990. This is the main message of a report published today by UN organisations led by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the “Levels and trends in child mortality: Report 2019”, more women and their children are surviving today than ever before. Since 2000, child deaths have reduced by nearly half and maternal deaths by over one-third, mostly due to improved access to affordable, quality health services. However, in 2018 alone, 15,000 children died per day before reaching their fifth birthday. “It is especially unacceptable that these children and young adolescents died largely of preventable or treatable causes like infectious diseases and injuries when we have the means to prevent these deaths,” the authors write in the introduction to the report. The global under-five mortality rate fell to 39 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2018, down from 76 in 2000 – a 49% decline.

“Despite advances in fighting childhood illnesses, infectious diseases remain a leading cause of death for children under the age of 5, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia,” says the report. Pneumonia remains the leading cause of death globally among children under the age of 5, accounting for 15% of deaths. Diarrhoea (8%) and malaria (5%), together with pneumonia, accounted for almost a third of global under-five deaths in 2018. “Malnourished children, particularly those with severe acute malnutrition, have a higher risk of death from these common childhood illnesses. Nutrition-related factors contribute to about 45 per cent of deaths in children under 5 years of age,” warns the report. The estimates also show vast inequalities worldwide, with women and children in sub-Saharan Africa facing a higher risk of death than in all other regions. Level of maternal deaths are nearly 50 times higher for women in sub-Saharan Africa compared to high-income countries. In 2018, 1 in 13 children in sub-Saharan Africa died before their fifth birthday – this is 15 times higher than the risk a child faces in Europe, where just 1 in 196 children aged less than 5 die.

In 2015, the 193 UN Member States adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The third SDG calls for an end to preventable deaths of newborns and children under age 5, with all countries aiming to reduce under-five mortality to at least as low as 25 deaths per 1,000 live births by 2030. The global target for ending preventable maternal mortality is to reduce the mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100 000 live births by 2030. The world will fall short of this target by more than 1 million lives if the current pace of progress continues. “A skilled pair of hands to help mothers and newborns around the time of birth, along with clean water, adequate nutrition, basic medicines and vaccines, can make the difference between life and death. We must do all it takes to invest in universal health coverage to save these precious lives,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. (ab)

11.09.2019 |

Area planted with genetically modified crops stagnated in 2018

Soy
GM soybeans grow on 95.9 million hectares worldwide (Photo: CC0)

The global area planted with genetically modified crops reached 191.7 million hectares in 2018, according to the annual report of the GMO-friendly organisation “International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA)”. The global hectarage only increased by 1% from 189.8 million hectares in 2017. The figures published in August show that 91% of the cultivation of GM crops is still concentrated in just five countries. The United States top the list with 75 million hectares or 39 per cent of the global area. Brazil ranks second with 51.3 million hectares (27%), followed by Argentina (23.9 million hectares or 12%), Canada (12.7 million hectares) and India (11.6 million hectares). Other GM producing countries with an area of over one million hectares include Paraguay, China, Pakistan, South Africa, Uruguay and Bolivia.

In Brazil, the area planted with GM crops increased by 2% or one million hectares while the area in Argentina grew by 1.3% to 309,540 hectares. In Canada, however, the area planted with GM crops saw a 3% decrease from 13.11 million hectares in 2017. In Asia, increases were registered in India and China, with a growth of 2% and 4% respectively. In Pakistan, the GM crop area decreased even by 7% as compared to 2017. In the European Union, where Spain and Portugal remain the only countries planting the insect-resistant maize MON810, the area decreased to 120,990 hectares, down 8% from 131,535 hectares in 2017. Almost 95% of the total area planted with GM maize was in Spain. ISAAA, which is sponsored by CropLife International, an association of agrochemical companies such as Bayer, BASF and Syngenta, is disappointed that “the acceptance of biotech crops in the EU is still far from improving”. The organization writes that “there was less motivation to plant biotech maize in the EU since the market calls for non-biotech raw materials.”

Across the globe, soybean remained the most adopted GM crop, covering 95.9 million hectares or 50% of the total GM crop area. Genetically modified maize occupied 58.9 million hectares in 2018, down 1.3% from the previous year, followed by cotton (24.21 million hectares) and rapeseed (10.2 million hectares). Based on the global crop area for individual crops, 78% of soybeans, 76% of cotton, 30% of maize and 29% of canola were genetically modified crops in 2018. The good news is that the share of GM cotton, maize and canola decreased as compared to 2017, when 80% of cotton, 32% of maize and 30% of canola were still genetically modified. Insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are the only two traits that have been developed and cultivated on a large scale. 46% of GM crops grown in 2018 were herbicide tolerant, 12% were insect resistant and 42% had a combination of both traits (stacked traits). The area planted to GM crops with stacked traits increased by 4% as compared to 2017.

As every year, the report praises the alleged benefits of GM crops to the skies. ISAAA claims that the adoption of GM crops made important contributions to food security, sustainability and climate change solutions. According to the report, GM crops helped to decrease herbicide and insecticide use by 8.4% in the period 1996 to 2016. The organization also claims that, since their commercial introduction in 1996, GM crops conserved biodiversity by saving 183 million hectares of land from plowing and cultivation. Additionally, in developing countries, planting GM crops is reported to have helped alleviate hunger by improving the economic situation of 16-17 million small farmers and their families, totaling more than 65 million people. At least this is what ISAAA says. However, the good news is that the 191.7 million hectares planted with GM crops in 2018 only made up roughly 3.9% of the total agricultural area and 13.7% of arable land while the rest still remains GMO-free. (ab)

06.09.2019 |

Climate change threatens farming in southern Europe, report

Drought
Droughts will affect yields (Photo: CC0)

Climate change will threaten the future of farming in Europe and crop production may even have to be abandoned in parts of southern Europe, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has warned. According to a report published this week, a cascade of impacts from climate change on agro ecosystems and crop production will have negative effects on the price, quantity and quality of products, thus affecting agricultural incomes and farmland prices in Europe. “New records are being set around the world due to climate change, and the adverse effects of this change are already affecting agricultural production in Europe, especially in the south,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director. Extreme weather and heatwaves in many parts of the EU are already causing economic losses for farmers. The bad news is that these impacts are expected to increase in the years to come.

Future climate change might also have some positive effects due to longer growing seasons and better crop conditions, mainly for farmers in parts of northern Europe. “The projected climate change conditions will determine an increase in crop productivity by 2050 for cereal crops (such as wheat, maize and barley) and root and tuber crops (such as sugar beet and potato),” the authors write. They also expect a gradual northwards shift of current olive cultivation areas in the coming decades. But any advantages will largely be outweighed by the losses from extreme events and decreasing crop productivity in southern Europe. “According to projections using a high-end emission scenario, yields of non-irrigated crops like wheat, corn and sugar beet are projected to decrease in southern Europe by up to 50% by 2050,” the authors warn. Across Europe, the overall economic loss to agriculture from climate change could be as high as 16% by 2050, with large regional variations.

In addition, farmland values could decrease in parts of southern Europe by more than 80% by 2100, which could result in land abandonment. “Two thirds of the loss in land values in the EU could be concentrated in Italy, where the revenues of Italian farms are very sensitive to seasonal changes in climate parameters, especially under more severe climate scenarios,” the report says. On the contrary, land values could increase in western Europe and by an even higher percentage in northern European countries. Climate change will also have an impact on trade patterns, which in turn affects agricultural income. According to the EU agency, fodder and food security in the EU will probably not be an issue, but increased food demand worldwide could exert pressure on food prices in the coming decades.

The study says that adapting to climate change must be made a top priority for the EU’s agriculture sector if it is to improve resilience to extreme events like droughts, heatwaves and floods. “Despite some progress, much more must be done to adapt by the sector itself, and especially at farm-level, and future EU policies need to be designed in a way to facilitate and accelerate transition in this sector,” said Hans Bruyninckx. The EEA report stresses that adaptation at the farm level often does not take place due to of lack of financing, policy support, knowledge and awareness. It gives examples of adaptation measures for the agriculture sector. Crop diversification and rotation, for example, improve the resilience of crops and deliver a range of ecosystem services, such as efficient nutrient cycling, conservation of biodiversity and improved soil quality. Another measure is the use of cover crops, which can significantly reduce the risk of soil degradation. “The use of cover crops can also reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilisation required, and in turn the emissions of nitrogen not used by preceding crops, which can decrease nitrate leaching. Cover crops can improve wildlife habitats and diversity by decreasing erosion,” the authors explain.

EEA also recommends using adapted crops to adapt to the impact of extreme weather and climate events, such as frost or droughts. “This measure has synergies with mitigation in that soil carbon storage can increase. Introducing new crops or bringing back heritage crops has positive effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services and increases the genetic diversity of species, which in turn can become more resilient to extreme weather and climate conditions.” Another adaptation option is organic farming: “Using organic fertilisers in organic farming promotes organic carbon storage in soils. Organic farming practices generate high levels of soil organic matter. This enhances water storage capacities and increases resilience against droughts and floods.” The report notes that modifying the timing of sowing and harvesting can help to make use of better soil moisture conditions and improve yields. Adaptation measures also include field margins and agroforestry as well as improved irrigation efficiency, rainwater harvesting and water reuse. However, adaptation measures focused on delivering wider public benefits need to be made more attractive to farmers. The report suggests that EU Member States should better prioritise adaptation in the farming sector, for example by increasing the financing of measures in the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy. (ab)

04.09.2019 |

US agriculture 48 times more toxic to insects than 25 years ago

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Neonics pose a threat to insects (Photo: CC0)

US agriculture is 48 times more toxic to bees and other insects than it was 25 years ago, new research shows. According to a study published in the journal PLOS One, neonicotinoid pesticides are to blame for most of the increase in toxicity. “It is alarming that U.S. agriculture has become so much more toxic to insect life in the past two decades,” said study co-author Kendra Klein, who is also a senior staff scientist at Friends of the Earth. “We need to phase out neonicotinoid pesticides to protect bees and other insects that are critical to biodiversity and the farms that feed us.” The peer-reviewed study, published on August 6, quantifies how hazardous US agricultural lands and surrounding areas have become for insect by calculating the Acute Insecticide Toxicity Loading (AITL). This new method accounts for the total mass of insecticides used in the US, acute toxicity to insects (bees) and the environmental persistence of the pesticides. It provides a way to compare changes in the toxicity of U.S. agriculture for insects on a yearly basis from 1992 through 2014.

The study reveals that the toxicity load has increased dramatically since neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides which affect the central nervous system of insects, were introduced in the 1990s. The authors found a 48-fold increase in toxic load from 1992 to 2014. Neonicotinoids are primarily responsible for this increase, representing between 61 to nearly 99% of the total toxicity loading in 2014. The study also shows a dramatic increase in the toxicity load beginning in the mid-2000s, which is when the practice of using neonicotinoids to coat the seeds of commodity crops like corn and soy started. Seed coatings now account for approximately 80-90% of total neonicotinoid use in the US. The three neonicotinoids that contributed most to the increasing toxic load were imidacloprid and clothianidin, manufactured by Bayer, and thiamethoxam, a product of Syngenta-ChemChina. In their press release, Friends of the Earth point to research, including an Environmental Protection Agency assessment, which shows that neonicotinoid seed coatings provide little to no economic benefits to farmers but come at a high cost to the environment. Only about 5% of the neonicotinoid coating is absorbed by the plant, the remainder is left in the soil where it can harm wildlife and run off to contaminate rivers, lakes and drinking water sources.

According to the study, the persistence of neonicotinoids creates a cumulative toxic burden in the environment that is much higher than that experienced by insects 25 or more years ago. While other commonly used insecticides break down within hours or days, neonicotinoids can be effective at killing insects for months to years after application. The authors state that the increase in toxic load measured by the study is consistent with recent reports of dramatic declines in beneficial insects and bird populations. “Our screening analysis demonstrates an increase in pesticide toxicity loading over the past 26 years, which potentially threatens the health of honey bees and other pollinators and may contribute to declines in beneficial insect populations as well as insectivorous birds and other insect consumers,” the authors warn. They assert that existing regulations for the registration of pesticides in the US are not adequate to prevent the introduction of chemicals that can cause harm in the environment. “Congress must pass the Saving America’s Pollinators Act to ban neonicotinoids,” said Klein. “In addition, we need to rapidly shift our food system away from dependence on harmful pesticides and toward organic farming methods that work with nature rather than against it.” (ab)

21.08.2019 |

Paraguay blamed for human rights violations related to pesticide spraying

Cropduster
Aerial pesticide spraying of crops (Photo: CC0)

Paraguay must take action to prosecute those responsible for the massive use of pesticides which led to the poisoning of citizens, the contamination of water, soil and food, a UN body has ruled. In a landmark decision published on August 14th, the UN Human Rights Committee said that the South American country failed to protect its citizens from the effects of toxic agrochemicals. The Committee, which is made up of 18 independent human rights experts, urged the Paraguayan government to undertake an effective investigation, to make full reparation to the victims, and to publish the decision in a daily newspaper with a large circulation. The case concerns a family of rural workers in Canindeyú Department, an area of major expansion of agribusinesses and extensive mechanized cultivation of genetically modified soybeans. The victims complained that the pesticide use at soy farms in the area resulted in the death of a 26-year old farmer and the poisoning of 22 other community members.

“The large-scale use of toxic agrochemicals in the region has had severe impacts on the victims’ living conditions, health, livelihoods, contaminating water resources and aquifers, preventing the use of streams, and causing the loss of fruit trees, the death of various farm animals and severe crop damage,” the UN Committee said in a press release. The victims experienced a range of physical symptoms, including nausea, dizziness, headaches, fever, stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing and skin lesions. The death of Rubén Portillo Cáceres and the poisening occurred in 2011. The family filed an “amparo”, a remedy for the protection of constitutional rights, and the Paraguayan courts found that the State had violated its obligations “to protect the constitutional right to health, to physical and psychological integrity, to quality of life and to live in a healthy and ecologically sound environment”. The court said that the Ministry of the Environment (SEAM) and the National Plant and Seed Quality and Health Service (SENAVE) had allowed serious physical harm by failing to protect citizens. The court ordered both institutions to protect environmental resources and ensure that buffer zones separate the areas where agrochemicals are used from human settlements and waterways. The family also lodged a criminal complaint and samples were collected from the well at the victims’ house. The results showed the presence of agrochemicals banned many years ago.

Eight years later, the UN Human Rights Committee looked into the case and found that the decision of the Paraguayan court had not been implemented. “The investigations have made no substantive progress and have not led to any finding of criminal responsibility or to the redress of the harm,” the Committee writes in its statement. “Fumigations have continued without any environmental protection measures, and soybean producers located next to the victims’ home are still applying massive amounts of agrochemicals without environmental permits.” The Committee noted that the State failed to honour its obligations and did not exercise adequate controls over illegal polluting activities. The human rights body concluded that “heavily spraying the area with toxic agrochemicals poses a reasonably foreseeable threat to the victims’ lives” and declared that the right to life and the right to private life, family and home had been violated.

“This is a landmark decision in favour of the recognition of the link between severe harms to environment and the enjoyment of core civil and political rights”, said Hélène Tigroudja, Member of the Committee. “Hundreds of similar cases around the world could be submitted for our consideration. We deeply encourage States to protect the right to life understood as the right to enjoy a life with dignity against environmental pollution”, she added. The Committee has requested Paraguay to report back within 180 days, detailing the measures it had been taken to implement the decision. Paraguay is one of the 173 States parties which have signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Since Paraguay also acceded to the Optional Protocol to this Covenant, the Committee has the mandate to examine allegations of human rights violations by the State party. “Although the Human Rights Committee’s decisions aren’t binding, it’s usually awkward and embarrassing for countries to ignore or discount them,” Professor John Knox, the Former Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, explained on Twitter. “The decision is the first one in which a treaty body has so clearly stated that a State’s failure to protect against environmental harm can violate its obligations to protect rights of life and of private/family life.” (ab)

14.08.2019 |

Small fields increase biodiversity in agricultural landscapes

Fields
Small fields and diverse crops (Photo: Jordi Recasens)

Making fields smaller is an effective way to produce greater biodiversity in agricultural landscapes, since farmed landscapes with smaller fields and more diverse crops harbour more species. This was the finding of an international team of scientists, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). “Agricultural intensification and the destruction of semi-natural habitats (shrubland, hedges, herb-rich strips) is one of the principal causes of observed biodiversity loss,” the authors explain in the abstract of the study. Increasing agricultural landscape heterogeneity by increasing semi-natural cover can help to mitigate biodiversity loss. However, the amount of semi-natural cover is generally low and difficult to increase in many intensively managed agricultural landscapes. But there is another option: The researchers showed at a large geographical scale that increasing the complexity of the crop mosaic by making field sizes smaller is as beneficial for biodiversity as increasing the quantity of semi-natural habitats.

The researchers selected eight contrasting agricultural regions in Europe and Canada in which average field size, crop diversity and semi-natural habitat area varied. They collected data from three sampling sites (i.e. agricultural fields) within 435 different agricultural landscapes of 1 x 1 km, identifying more than 2,795 species spread across seven taxonomic groups (birds, butterflies, bees, hoverflies, spiders, ground beetles and plants). They found that a complex crop mosaic, with small fields and diverse crops – dubbed “crop heterogeneity” by the scientists – was associated with an increase in biodiversity. For instance, the effect of decreasing field size from 5 to 2.8 hectares was as strong as that observed when the cover semi-natural habitat rises from 0.5 to 11%. The study showed that small fields also had a positive effect on biodiversity even in the absence of semi-natural vegetation between the fields, such as hedges or grassy margins.

The scientists also found that increasing the number of crop types also had a positive effect on biodiversity. “Crop diversity also had a positive effect on biodiversity because different crop types often harbour different species, but also because different crops supply complementary and necessary resources to support certain species in farmed landscapes,” said team member Jordi Recasens from the Universitat de Lleida. However, the effect of increasing crop diversity in the landscape surrounding fields sampled depended on the amount of seminatural cover. “Increasing the complexity of crops therefore represents an as yet unrecognized but valuable measure to conserve and restore farmland biodiversity,” the researchers write in the abstract. They argue that agri-environmental policies favouring a reduction in the average size of cultivated fields and, in some conditions, more diverse cropping, make it possible to maintain high biodiversity as well as to maintain the existing surface areas under agricultural production. The researchers hope that their results will contribute to informing the ongoing debate around the reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. (ab)

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