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26.11.2019 |

Environmental stress limits women’s ability to adapt to climate change

Woman
Women’s ability to adapt to climate change is often hampered (Photo: CC0)

Household poverty and environmental stress can hamper women’s ability to adapt to climate change, new research highlights. According to a study, published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” on November 25, sustainable, equitable and effective adaptation to a warming climate is critical in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa. However, women’s adaptive capacity is frequently limited. “Our analysis suggests that some common conditions such as male migration and women’s poor working conditions combine with either institutional failure, or poverty, to constrain women’s ability to make choices and decisions,” said lead author Prof Nitya Rao.

The study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) involved researchers from the UK, Nepal, India, Pakistan and South Africa. The qualitative study draws on data from 25 case studies across climate change hotspots in Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tajikistan) and Africa (Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Mali, Ethiopia, Senegal). The researchers looked at how and in what ways women’s agency, or ability to make meaningful choices and strategic decisions, contributes to adaptation responses. The study focused on distinct regions which face a range of environmental risks including droughts, floods, rainfall variability, landslides, salinity ingress, coastal erosion and cyclones, among others. Peoples’ livelihoods predominantly depended on agriculture, livestock pastoralism and fishing, supplemented by wage labour, petty trade or business, and income from remittances. The scientists found that environmental stress was a key depressor of women’s agency. “Even when household structures and social norms are supportive, or legal entitlements are available, environmental stress contributes to intensifying exclusionary mechanisms, leading to household strategies that place increasing responsibilities and burdens on women, especially those who are young, less educated and belong to lower classes, or marginal castes and ethnicities,” they wrote in the article.

“Male migration has been seen as an adaptation strategy for climate change - but from a gender perspective, it is not helping in household maintenance and survival,” Prof Rao told Reuters. “Male migration does contribute to enhanced incomes, but the degree of such support is both uncertain and irregular,” the authors write. “Confronted with issues of everyday survival, in the absence of supportive infrastructure and services, women often work harder, in poorer conditions and for lower wages across the hotspots studied.” In one case study, in the Dera Ghazi Khan District of Pakistan, monsoon rains and floods destroyed the cotton crop. As a young woman noted, “Men can easily migrate for work whereas we have to stay here (at home) to take care of the family. After floods, my daily wage decreased from Rs. 200 ($1.62) per bale of cotton to Rs. 75 ($0.61).” With reduced male labour in the rural areas, feminization of agriculture was common but not always improved women’s agency. “In a sense, women do have voice and agency, as they are actively engaging in both production and reproduction, yet this is not contributing to strengthening longer-term adaptive capacities, or indeed their wellbeing,” Prof. Rao added. It can even result in poor health and nutrition, the authors warn. In semi-arid Kenya, when men moved away with livestock, women lost control over milk for consumption and sale, and had to work harder to provide nutritious food for their children. As a woman with two young children said: “I manage the shop, cook and look after the children. I have no help.”

We need to strengthen the adaptive capacities of women and enable more effective adaptation to climate change, the study concludes. The authors suggest that, firstly, effective social protection, such as the universal public distribution system for cereals in India, or pensions and social grants in Namibia, can contribute to relieving immediate pressures on survival. Secondly, such universal benefits can support processes that strengthen collective action at the community level. However, investments are needed to enable better and more sustainable management of resources. “Women’s Self Help Groups are often presented as solutions, yet they are confronted by the lack of resources, skills and capacity to help their members effectively meet the challenges they confront,” the authors caution. They add that competitive markets are not working to strengthen women’s agency. “There appears to be a clear case for regulating labour markets to ensure decent work, whether for women or migrant men, but this is proving difficult in a globalised context,” said Prof Rao. (ab)

20.11.2019 |

Nitrous oxide emissions are increasing faster than predicted

Dünger
Nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture are on the rise, scientists warn (Photo: CC0)

Emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, are increasing more rapidly than previously thought, according to a new study published in the journal “Nature Climate Change”. A team of scientists has found that global emissions of nitrous oxide (N₂O), commonly known as laughing gas, are higher and growing faster than estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Nitrous oxide is a powerful contributor to global warming. It is 265 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and depletes our ozone layer,” the authors warn. In the early 20th century the Haber-Bosch process for the synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen in the atmosphere was developed. “The increased nitrogen availability has made it possible to produce a lot more food,” explains lead author Rona L. Thompson from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU). “The downside is of course the environmental problems associated with it, such as rising N₂O levels in the atmosphere.” Since the mid-20th century, the production of nitrogen fertilizers, widespread cultivation of nitrogen-fixing crops (such as clover, soybeans, alfalfa, lupins, and peanuts), and the combustion of fossil and biofuels have greatly enhanced emissions of N₂O, the NILU states in a press release.

The researchers looked at N₂O emissions for the years between 1998 and 2016. “Conventional analysis of N₂O emissions from human activities are estimated from various indirect sources. This include country-by-country reporting, global nitrogen fertiliser production, the areal extent of nitrogen-fixing crops and the use of manure fertilisers,” the authors state in a blog article published on “The Conversation”. “Our study instead used actual atmospheric concentrations of N₂O from dozens of monitoring stations all over the world. We then used atmospheric modelling that explains how air masses move across and between continents to infer the expected emissions of specific regions,” they added. Thompson and her team found that N₂O emissions increased globally by 1.6 million tonnes of nitrogen per year between 2000-2005 and 2010-2015. The fastest growth has been since 2009.

“The regions of East Asia and South America made the largest contributions to the global increase,” the authors write in the abstract of the study. “China and Brazil are two countries that stand out. This is associated with a spectacular increase in the use of nitrogen fertilisers and the expansion of nitrogen-fixing crops such as soybean,” they point out in their blog article. The study found that the emissions reported for those two countries, based on the IPCC method, are significantly lower than those which the scientists inferred from actual nitrous oxide levels in the atmosphere. While the IPCC method assumes a constant emission factor (the amount of N₂O emitted relative to the amount of N-fertilizer used), the recent study concludes that N₂O emission may have a non-linear response when levels of nitrogen input are high. “Our results suggest that reducing nitrogen fertilizer use in regions where there is already a large nitrogen surplus, will result in larger than proportional reductions in N₂O emissions”, Thompson says. “This is particularly relevant in regions such as East Asia, where nitrogen fertilizer could be used more efficiently, without reducing crop yields”.

The authors admit that reducing N₂O emissions from agriculture will be very challenging, given the expected global growth in population, food demand and biomass-based products including energy. However, they stress that all future emission scenarios consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement require a cut in nitrous oxide emissions. In most cases, they would need to decline between 10% and 30% by mid-century. “This will require changes in human diet and agricultural practices and, ultimately, improved nitrogen use efficiency,” they write in the paper. In the United States and Europe, emissions were fairly stable over the past nearly two decades. “In Europe and North America, we have succeeded in decreasing growth in nitrous oxide emissions,” said co-author Eric Davidson of the University of Maryland. “Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Asia and South America, where fertilizer use, intensification of livestock production, and the resulting nitrous oxide emissions are growing rapidly. “The good news is that this problem can be solved, but the less good news is that it will take a global effort, and we are far from there yet,” he said. (ab)

11.11.2019 |

FAO: Global cereal production to reach record high in 2019

Cereal
World cereal output is expected to increase in 2019 (Photo: CC0)

World meat production is expected to decrease in 2019 for the first time in more than 20 years, said the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to FAO’s latest Food Outlook, published on Thursday, African Swine Fever outbreaks have decimated pig herds in China. This will lead to a reduction of at least 20% for pigmeat output in the country, which usually accounts for almost half the world’s production. The biannual report assesses market and production trends for a wide array of food commodities, including cereals, fish, sugar, oilcrops and milk. Production of bovine, ovine, poultry and pig meats is forecast to reach 335.2 million tonnes in carcass weight equivalent in 2019, a decrease of 1% compared to the previous year. In the United States, total meat production is expected to increase from 46.9 to 48.1 million tonnes. In the European Union, total meat output is also expected to expand, although slower than predicted earlier. The FAO experts predict that global production of poultry, which accounts for 39% of total meat production, will grow this year, with increases anticipated in Argentina, Brazil, the EU and the US.

World cereal production is forecast to reach a record high of 2,704 million tonnes in 2019/20, up 1.7 from an estimated 2,657 million tonnes in 2018. World cereal stocks are seen at 849.5 million tonnes by the end of the 2019/20 season, down 1.5% from their opening levels. While wheat and maize production is expected to increase in 2019, that for rice is expected to fall below the previous year’s record of 517.5 million tonnes, reaching 513.4 million tonnes in 2019. On the consumption side, per capita food use of all three cereals is forecast to keep pace and even exceed population growth. Global oilseed production, however, is anticipated to contract for the first time in three years, driven mainly by a contraction in soybean plantings and lower yields in the US as well as weaker prospects for rapeseed in Canada and the EU. “As for palm oil, global production could slow, tied to a deceleration in area expansion and modest yield prospects in Indonesia and Malaysia,” the report reads. FAO also expects world sugar production to drop by 2.8% in the year ahead.

FAO also published its monthly Food Price Index which tracks changes in the international prices of commonly traded food commodities. In October, global food prices rose for the first time in five months. The Food Price Index averaged 172.7 points in October, up 1.7% from the previous month and 6% higher than in the same month a year ago. The FAO Cereal Price Index rose by 4.2% during the month, as wheat and maize export prices increase sharply. By contrast, rice prices slipped, driven by lower demand and prospects of an abundant basmati harvest. (ab)

07.11.2019 |

Over 11,000 scientists declare a climate emergency

Climate
Scientists warn of a climate crisis (Photo: CC0)

An international team of scientists has issued a clear and unequivocal warning that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. In a declaration endorsed by more than 11,000 signatories from 153 countries, they stress that “untold human suffering” is unavoidable without deep and lasting shifts in human activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The declaration, published on November 5th in the journal BioScience, is based on scientific analysis of more than 40 years of publicly available data covering a broad range of aspects, including energy use, surface temperature, population growth, land clearing, deforestation, polar ice mass, fertility rates, gross domestic product and carbon emissions. “Scientists have a moral obligation to warn humanity of any great threat,” said Dr Thomas Newsome, a co-author of the paper from the University of Sydney. “From the data we have, it is clear we are facing a climate emergency.”

The authors point to the lack of action taken despite the many warnings issued in the past. “Exactly 40 years ago, scientists from 50 nations met at the First World Climate Conference (in Geneva 1979) and agreed that alarming trends for climate change made it urgently necessary to act. Since then, similar alarms have been made through the 1992 Rio Summit, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as scores of other global assemblies and scientists’ explicit warnings of insufficient progress,” they write in BioScience. “Despite 40 years of major global negotiations, we have generally conducted business as usual and are essentially failing to address this crisis,” said the co-lead author of the paper, Professor William Ripple from Oregon State University. “Climate change has arrived and is accelerating faster than many scientists expected.” He said that global surface temperature, ocean heat content, extreme weather and its costs, sea levels and ocean acidity are all rising. “Ice is rapidly disappearing as shown by declining trends in minimum summer Arctic sea ice, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and glacier thickness. All of these rapid changes highlight the urgent need for action.” Other signs from human activities include sustained increases in per-capita meat production, global tree cover loss and the number of airline passengers. Encouraging progress of the recent past, such as decelerated forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon, may also halt since the pace of forest loss is likely to increase again under President Bolsonaro.

“While things are bad, all is not hopeless. We can take steps to address the climate emergency,” Dr Newsome said. The scientists have therefore outlined six steps humanity needs to take to reduce the impact of the emerging climate crisis. The first area of action is energy. We need to implement massive conservation practices; replace fossil fuels with clean renewables; leave remaining stocks of fossil fuels in the ground; eliminate subsidies to fossil fuel companies; and impose carbon fees that are high enough to restrain the use of fossil fuels. Another measure is to swiftly cut emissions of methane, hydrofluorocarbons, soot and other short-lived climate pollutants. This would have the potential to reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades, the scientists agree. Third, massive land clearing needs to be stopped. We need to restore and protect ecosystems such as forests, grasslands and mangroves, which would greatly contribute to the sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The fourth area of action is food. “Eat mostly plants and consume fewer animal products. This dietary shift would significantly reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases and free up agricultural lands for growing human food rather than livestock feed,” the scientists recommend. They also call for a reduction in food waste.

Another step to avoid the climate crisis is to reduce the economy’s reliance on carbon fuels. Goals need to be shifted away from the growth of gross domestic product and the pursuit of affluence. “Curtail the extraction of materials and exploitation of ecosystems to maintain long-term biosphere sustainability,” the scientists urge. And finally, they recommend to stabilise global population, which is increasing by more than 200,000 people a day, using approaches that ensure social and economic justice. “Mitigating and adapting to climate change means transforming the ways we govern, manage, eat, and fulfil material and energy requirements,” the paper concludes. “The best news is that there is still time for people, policymakers and the business community to make the necessary changes to ensure that future generations can enjoy living on planet Earth, our only home,” Dr Newsome said. (ab)

30.10.2019 |

Healthy diets also benefit the environment, study shows

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Plant-based foods benefit both the health of people and the planet (Photo: CC0)

Eating wholesome food is not only good for your health, it also benefits the environment, new research has confirmed. According to a study published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, the same dietary changes that could help reduce the risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases could also help meet internationally agreed sustainability goals. The scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Minnesota analysed how consuming 15 different food groups is associated with health outcomes and aspects of environmental degradation. They found that foods associated with improved health, such as whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and some vegetable oils high in unsaturated fats like olive oil, also have among the lowest environmental impacts. However, foods with the largest negative environmental impacts, such as red meat, were linked to the largest increases in disease risk. “The study adds to the growing body of evidence that stresses that replacing meat and dairy with a variety of plant-based foods can improve both your health and the health of the planet,” said co-author Dr Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford.

The researchers assessed plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, potatoes, refined grains and wholegrain cereals, and sugar-sweetened beverages, and animal-based foods such as raw and processed red meat, chicken, dairy products, eggs and fish. Using a comparison of an additional serving per day of those foods, they analysed collections of large epidemiological cohort studies – which follow populations of individuals through time – and life cycle assessments, which are used to estimate the environmental impacts per unit of food produced. With respect to health, the researchers looked at five outcomes – total mortality, heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, and colorectal cancer. The aspects incorporated in the environmental analysis were greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution (eutrophication) and acidification.

The largest health benefits were found for nuts, minimally processed whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish, which are associated with significantly reduced mortality and/or reduced risk for one or more diseases. On the contrary, “consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meat, and processed red meat are consistently associated with increased disease risk,” the authors write. “Of all of the foods examined, a daily serving of processed red meat is associated with the largest mean increase in risk of mortality and incidences of coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, and stroke.” When only environmental aspects were considered, minimally processed plant-based foods, olive oil, and sugar-sweetened beverages consistently have among the lowest environmental impacts. Producing a serving of unprocessed red meat has the highest impact for all five environmental indicators. The combination of health and environmental outcomes showed that foods associated with improved adult health also have the lowest environmental impacts. The exceptions were fish, which is a healthy food but has moderate environmental impacts, and processed foods high in sugars, which can be harmful to health but have a relatively low environmental impact.

“Diets are a leading source of poor health and environmental harm,” said lead author Dr Michael Clark from the University of Oxford. “Continuing to eat the way we do threatens societies, through chronic ill health and degradation of Earth’s climate, ecosystems, and water resources.” He hopes the findings will help consumers to make better choices and enable policymakers to issue more effective dietary guidelines. “Choosing better, more sustainable diets is one of the main ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment. How and where a food is produced also affects its environmental impact, but to a much smaller extent than food choice,” Dr. Clark added. Eating those foods that are best for human health and the environment would have the greatest impact. But the researchers also stressed that foods with intermediate environmental impacts or which are not significantly associated with health outcomes, such as refined grain cereals, dairy, eggs, and chicken, could also contribute to meeting sustainability targets if they are used to replace foods that are less healthy or worse for the environment such as red meat. (ab)

23.10.2019 |

Rising levels of obesity place a heavy burden on OECD countries

Obesity
Obesity, a heavy burden (Photo: CC0)

More than half the population is overweight in most OECD countries, with almost one in four people being obese. Obesity-related diseases will claim more than 90 million lives in OECD countries in the next 30 years and reduce life expectancy by nearly 3 years. These figures were published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in a report released on October 10th. According to “The Heavy Burden of Obesity – The Economics of Prevention”, poor diets, lack of physical activity and sedentary behaviour have contributed to the obesity epidemic. The report warns that overweight and obesity are on the rise. Almost 60% of people are overweight in OECD countries. Average rates of adult obesity in OECD countries have increased from 21% in 2010 to 24% in 2016, meaning an additional 50 million people are now obese. Figures are even higher in some countries. The United Kingdom, for example, has one of the highest rates of obesity: nearly one in three adults are obese. The situation is even worse in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United States or Mexico. The authors warn that obesity places a heavy burden on individuals, society and the economy.

Over the next 30 years, overweight is projected to result in 462 million new cases of cardiovascular disease in 52 countries, and 212 million cases of diabetes, among other diseases. As a result, life expectancy in OECD countries will be reduced by 2.7 years on average. Mexicans will live 4.2 years less due to overweight, the largest reductions in life expectancy of all countries analysed. Over the next thirty years, OECD countries will have to spend 8.4% of their health budget to treat the consequences of overweight. Overweight also negatively impacts educational outcomes: “Children who are overweight do less well at school, are more likely to miss school, and, when they grow up, are less likely to complete higher education. They also show lower life satisfaction and are up to three times more likely to be bullied, which in turn may contribute to lower school performance,” OECD warns. But overweight also reduces employment and workers’ productivity. The impact is considered equivalent to a reduction in the workforce of 54 million people per year across the 52 countries covered in the report. Overall, overweight reduces the gross domestic product (GDP) by 3.3%.

The report shows that there is a wide range of policy options which, if properly implemented, can reduce the prevalence of obesity and improve the economy. “There is an urgent economic and social case to scale up investments to tackle obesity and promote healthy lifestyles,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “These findings clearly illustrate the need for better social, health and education policies that lead to better lives.” The report finds that initiatives targeting the whole population, such as food and menus displaying nutritional information and mass media campaigns, could lead to gains of between 51,000 to 115,000 life years per year up to 2050 in the 36 countries included in the analysis. Achieving a 20% reduction in calorie content in energy-dense food, such as crisps and confectionery, would have a significant positive effect: This could avoid more than 1 million cases of chronic disease per year, especially heart disease, and would save 13.2 billion US dollars each year due to reduced healthcare expenditure for the 42 countries included in the analysis. In general, for each dollar invested in prevention policies, countries will see a return of up to 6 dollars, according to the report. “By investing in prevention, policymakers can halt the rise in obesity for future generations, and benefit economies. There is no more excuse for inaction,” Angel Gurría concludes. (ab)

16.10.2019 |

FAO: 14% of the world’s food is lost between harvest and retail

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Causes of on-farm losses vary (Photo: CC0)

Reducing food loss and waste is an important way to improve food security and nutrition, promote environmental sustainability and lower production costs. Cutting back on food waste would not only help to achieve progress towards the international target of reducing food loss and waste, but also contribute to a number of other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) thanks to the positive environmental impact. This is the message of a new report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Monday. According to “The State of Food and Agriculture 2019”, we can only make informed decisions and tackle food waste effectively if we have a solid understanding of the problem. The report therefore provides new estimates of food loss at different stages of the food supply chain and offers new ways to measure progress. “The surprising fact is how little we really know about how much food is lost or wasted, and where and why this happens,” said FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu in the foreword to the report. A broad estimate from 2011 suggested that around a third of the world’s food was lost or wasted each year. “This estimate is still widely cited due to a lack of information in this field, but it can only be considered as very rough,” Qu Dongyu writes.

FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) have therefore worked on a new methodological framework to estimate more precisely how much food is lost or wasted. The results are the Food Loss Index (FLI) presented in this report, which shows how much food is lost in production or in the supply chain before it reaches the retail level, and the Food Waste Index (FWI) for the consumer and retail level which is yet to be released by UN Environment. “Food loss and waste has typically been measured in physical terms using tonnes as reporting units. Although useful for estimating environmental impacts, this measurement fails to account for the economic value of different commodities and can risk attributing a higher weight to low-value products just because they are heavier,” FAO explains. The report recognises this by adopting a measure that also accounts for the economic value of a product. It found that around 14% of the world’s food is lost after harvesting and before reaching the retail level, including through on-farm activities, storage and transportation. However, the food losses vary considerably from one region to another within the same commodity groups and supply chain stages. At the regional level, estimates range from 5-6% in Australia and New Zealand to 20-21% in Central and Southern Asia.

The report found that losses and waste are generally higher for fruits and vegetables than for cereals and pulses at all stages in the food supply chain, with the exception of on-farm losses and those during transportation in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. But evidence presented in the report also shows a vast range in terms of loss and waste percentages within commodities, supply chain stages and regions. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, on-farm losses of fruits and vegetables are ranging from 0 to 50%. This “shows that we cannot generalize about the occurrence of food loss and waste across food supply chains but must, on the contrary, identify critical loss points in specific supply chains as a crucial step in taking appropriate countermeasures,” Qu Dongyu says in the foreword. Results indicate that harvesting is the most frequently identified critical loss point for all types of food. Inadequate storage facilities and poor handling practices were also named among the main causes of on-farm storage losses. For fruits, roots and tubers, packaging and transportation also appear to be critical. But the report also points to the importance of reducing food waste, which occurs at the retail and consumption level and is linked to limited shelf life and consumer behaviour, such as demanding food products that meet aesthetic standards, and limited incentive to avoid food waste.

The report urges countries to step up efforts to tackle the root causes of food loss and waste at all stages and provides guidance on policy and interventions to reduce food loss and waste. “Reducing food loss and waste generally entails costs, and farmers, suppliers and consumers will only take necessary measures if their costs are outweighed by the benefits.” This calls for public interventions in the form of investments or policies that create incentives for private actors to reduce food loss and waste or better information on existing net benefits, the report states. But even when stakeholders are aware of the benefits of reducing food loss and waste, they may face constraints that prevent them from implementing actions. For example, without financial help private actors in developing countries, especially smallholders, may not be able to bear the high upfront cost associated with implementing loss-reducing production techniques. Improving credit access could be an option.

The report highlights that reducing food loss and waste can also improve the food security of vulnerable groups and reduce the environmental footprint of food production. According to the authors, the largest improvements in food security are likely to occur by reducing food losses in the early stages of the supply chain, especially on-farm, in countries with high levels of food insecurity. To be environmentally effective, interventions need to consider where food loss and waste has the greatest impact on the environment. “Empirical evidence at the global level on the environmental footprints for major commodity groups suggests that, if the aim is to reduce land use, the primary focus should be on meat and animal products, which account for 60% of the land footprint associated with food loss and waste. If the aim is to target water scarcity, cereals and pulses make the largest contribution (more than 70%), followed by fruits and vegetables.” In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest contribution is again from cereals and pulses (more than 60%), followed by roots, tubers and oil-bearing crops. But the environmental footprint for different products also varies across regions and countries due to differences in crop yields and production techniques (e.g. rainfed versus irrigated production or grazing for livestock versus use of animal feed).” (ab)

08.10.2019 |

Unsustainable groundwater pumping threatens aquatic ecosystems

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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

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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

Potato
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)

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