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13.07.2020 |

World hunger increases for fifth year in a row, UN report

Market
Two billion people do not have access to nutritious food (Photo: CC0)

The number of undernourished people in the world has increased by more than 60 million people since 2014 and countries around the world continue to struggle with multiple forms of malnutrition, warns a report released on Monday by five UN agencies. According to “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”, an estimated 687.8 million people, or almost one in every ten people, were chronically undernourished in 2019, up from 678.1 million in the previous year. This is the fifth increase in a row. If this trend continues, the number of undernourished people will exceed 840 million by 2030 even without the negative effects that COVID-19 will likely have on hunger. The report suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic may add up to 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world in 2020 depending on the economic growth scenario. This means that the world is not on track to achieve the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG2) which aims to end all forms of hunger and malnutrition by 2030. “Beyond hunger, a growing number of people have had to reduce the quantity and quality of the food they consume,” the heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organisation write in their joint foreword to the report. In 2019, 746 million people were facing severe food insecurity and more than 1.25 billion people experienced food insecurity at moderate levels. “This situation could deteriorate if we do not act immediately and boldly,” the UN agencies warn in the foreword.

This year’s figure of almost 690 million undernourished people is much lower than the 821 million people in 2018 from last year’s report. The authors argue that updates for many countries have made it possible to estimate hunger in the world with greater accuracy this year. The current estimate is based on new data on population (2019 revision of the World Population Prospects), food supply and more importantly, new household survey data that enabled the revision of the inequality of food consumption for 13 countries, including China. Revising the undernourishment estimate for China going back to the year 2000 resulted in a significantly lower number of undernourished people worldwide because China has one-fifth of the global population. “While still facing food security and nutrition challenges, China has made impressive economic and social development gains since the last update that were not reflected in previous assessments,” the authors write. Despite the revision, the upwards trend in the number of people affected by hunger globally continues.

The hungry are most numerous in Asia, but the figure is expanding fastest in Africa. Approximately 55.4% of the world’s undernourished people, or 381.1 million people, live in Asia, mostly in southern Asian countries, followed by Africa with 250.3 million (36.4%) and Latin America and the Caribbean with 47.7 million (6.9%). If current trends persist, the distribution of hunger in the world could change substantially, turning Africa into the region with the highest number of undernourished in 2030. By 2030, Africa could be home to 433 million undernourished people, followed by Asia with 329 million. Not only is the number of undernourished people on the rise, but also the share of undernourished people in the total population. The prevalence of undernourishment increased from 8.6% in 2014 to 8.9% of the world population in 2019. Africa remained the region with the highest share (19.1% of the total population). The situation is especially alarming in Eastern Africa, where more than a quarter of the population (27.2%) is undernourished and in Middle Africa, which includes countries such as Chad and Congo, were 29.8% of the population is undernourished. In Asia, 8.3% of the population are affected while the share is 7.4% in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report also introduces new analysis of the cost and affordability of healthy diets around the world. According to the report, the cost of a healthy diet, which for example includes the consumption of at least 400 g of fruits and vegetables per day, exceeds the international poverty line (established at USD 1.90 purchasing power parity (PPP) per person per day), making it unaffordable for the poor. The price of even the least expensive healthy diet is at five times the price of filling stomachs with starch only. Nutrient-rich dairy, fruits, vegetables and protein-rich foods (plant and animal-sourced) are the most expensive food groups globally. The latest estimates are that a staggering 3 billion people or more cannot afford a healthy diet. In sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, this is the case for 57% of the population. But not a single region, not even North America and Europe, is spared. “It is unacceptable that, in a world that produces enough food to feed its entire population, more than 1.5 billion people cannot afford a diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients and over 3 billion people cannot even afford the cheapest healthy diet. People without access to healthy diets live in all regions of the world; thus, we are facing a global problem that affects us all,” the UN agencies write. The report argues that a global switch to healthy diets would also deliver enormous savings. Such a shift would allow the health costs associated with unhealthy diets, estimated to reach US$ 1.3 trillion a year in 2030, to be almost entirely offset; while the diet-related social cost of greenhouse gas emissions, estimated at US$ 1.7 trillion, could be cut by up to three-quarters. (ab)

26.06.2020 |

HLPE calls for policy shifts to radically transform food systems

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Food systems need to change (Photo: CC0)

A radical transformations of food systems is needed in order to achieve food security and nutrition for all, a new report finds. According to the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), the science-policy interface of FAO’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated the challenges that food systems were already facing and made it obvious that the global community is falling short on Agenda 2030’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), especially on ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms (SDG 2). “We are currently not on track to deliver against SDG2 by 2030,” said Martin Cole, Chairperson of the HLPE Steering Committee during the online launch of the report. “The next decade must focus on accelerating the implementation of policies and innovative solutions, if we are to ensure global food and nutritional security for future generations,” Cole added. The report first looks at concepts and frameworks around food security and nutrition, analyses current trends, challenges and potential opportunities in food systems and recommends promising policy directions that are vital for meeting SDG2.

The first chapter updates conceptual and policy frameworks. Understandings of the concept of food security have changed and evolved in important ways over the past 50 years, the authors explain. The most widely used definition of the concept today is: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This definition features four dimensions that have been seen as central pillars to the concept over the past decades: Availability of food, access to food, utilization (referring to nutritional uptake) and stability (referring to the constancy of the other three dimensions). “Although the above four dimensions of food security remain central to the concept, they still miss some elements that have come to be seen as essential for transforming food systems in the direction needed to meet the SDGs,” the authors write. They call for agency and sustainability to be elevated as key dimensions of food security. Agency refers to the capacity of individuals or groups to make their own decisions about what foods they eat, what foods they produce and how that food is produced, processed and distributed within food systems. It also refers to their ability to engage in processes that shape food system policies and governance. Sustainability refers to the long-term ability of food systems to provide food security and nutrition in a way that does not compromise the economic, social and environmental bases for future generations.

The second chapter addresses current trends and challenges with regard to food systems. Progress on SDG2 has been uneven. The number of people suffering from hunger in recent years has increased. More than 820 million people in the world are chronically undernourished and the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the situation. Some 1.9 billion adults around the world are overweight, and about one-third of those people or 650 million people are obese. At the same time, approximately 1.5 billion people suffer from one or more forms of micronutrient deficiency, for example a lack of vitamin A or iron. In addition, food environments in different contexts are deteriorating and food safety is an ongoing concern. Food system livelihoods also continue to be precarious for many of the world’s most vulnerable and marginalized people and there are wide differences in productivity. The report also points to the fact that there are enormous external costs linked to the way food systems currently operate and food systems have crossed several of the “planetary boundaries” that establish a safe operating space for humanity to ensure long term sustainability.

The report recommends four policy shifts to achieve more sustainable food systems and thus SDG2. First, the most promising policies support radical transformations of food systems. According to the authors, “policies that promote a radical transformation of food systems need to be empowering, equitable, regenerative, productive, prosperous and must boldly reshape the underlying principles from production to consumption.” They point out that such policies empower the most vulnerable and marginalized food system actors, promote regenerative production practices, such as agroecology, and support the development of diverse distribution networks, such as territorial markets, which help to overcome economic and sociocultural challenges such as uneven trade, concentrated markets and persistent inequalities by supporting diverse and equitable markets that are more resilient. Second, policies that appreciate the interconnectedness of different systems and sectors are required to ensure more regenerative, productive and resilient food systems. The authors argue that initiatives and policies that build on lessons about inter-system connections from past crises, or current such as the COVID-19 pandemic, are also important.

Thirdly, the report calls for policies which have a broader understanding of hunger and malnutrition. Policies that address hunger and all forms of malnutrition require food systems that are equitable, empowering, sustainable, healthy and nutritious. The report finds that policies in this area support nutrition-driven agricultural production, food environments to encourage healthy diets and the availability of diverse, local fruits and vegetables. Other policies improve nutrition, including infant and child nutrition, and are aimed at improving rates of exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age. Measures that address specific forms of malnutrition are also important, especially for the most marginalized populations. Fourth, the HLPE calls for policies that develop context-specific solutions, taking local conditions and knowledge into account, in order to achieve more resilient, productive and empowering food systems. “Measures must tackle the distinct challenges that arise in diverse types of rural and urban contexts, including support for small-scale farming systems as well as support for access to healthy foods in urban areas that link up with small-scale producers in rural areas.” HLPE’s “theory of change” is that the four critical policy shifts together work to bring about more sustainable food systems that support the six dimensions of food security and ultimately support the realization of the right to food and the achievement of the SDGs. (ab)

11.06.2020 |

Report calls for shift to agroecological research in Africa

Agrar
Farmers, extension workers and researchers in Mozambique (Photo: Julio Onofre Rainde, bit.ly/2_CC_BY-NC-ND_2-0, bit.ly/JORainde)

Only a fraction of agricultural research funding in Africa is being used to support sustainable agricultural practices, while the majority of funding still goes to industrial agriculture. This is the message of a new report published by Biovision, IPES-Food and the Institute of Development Studies on June 10. The authors argue that around the world, farms, communities and regions are engaging in agroecological transitions, and delivering impressive results. Agroecology combines different plants and animals, and uses natural synergies – not synthetic chemicals – to regenerate soils, fertilize crops, and fight pests. The report estimates that around 30% of farms worldwide have redesigned their production systems around agroecological principles. However, this has not yet translated into a meaningful shift in funding flows that go to sub-Saharan Africa. Investments by philanthropic foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and major donor countries still reinforce the status quo in agricultural research, the report finds. “Most governments, both in developing and developed countries still favour ‘green revolution’ approaches, with the belief that industrial agriculture is the only way to produce sufficient food,” said Biovision president Hans Herren. “The same goes for the Gates Foundation and its development agency AGRA. But these approaches have failed. They have failed ecosystems, farming communities, and an entire continent,” Herren added.

The report found that as many as 85% of projects funded by the Gates Foundation, the world’s biggest philanthropic investor in agri-development, are limited to developing industrial agriculture, or increasing its efficiency. This was via targeted approaches such as more efficient use of water, pesticides, livestock vaccines, fertilisers or reductions in postharvest losses. Only 3% of Gates-funded projects in Africa included elements of agroecosystem redesign. In Kenya, one of Africa’s leading recipients of agricultural research money, more than 70% of projects carried out by research institutes were limited to supporting industrial agriculture and/or increasing its efficiency. “A Green Revolution narrative dominates in Kenya, leading to an emphasis on efficiency and markets rather than ecological sustainability, equity and well-being,” according to the report. But at least 13% of projects by Kenyan research institutes are agroecological and another 13% focus on replacing synthetic inputs with organic alternatives. The good news is that 51% of Swiss-funded agricultural research projects had agroecological components, and 41% of those projects also included aspects of socioeconomic and political change like decent working conditions and gender equality. Only 13% of the projects funded by the Swiss focused only on industrial agriculture and efficiency-based approaches. But there is still much room for improvement because even the better-performing Swiss programmes lacked truly systemic approaches. The authors highlight that individual components of agroecology (e.g. agroforestry, complex crop rotations) tended to be addressed in isolation.

The report calls for a meaningful shift in funding flows and argues that change can’t come soon enough. “With the compound challenges of climate change, pressure on land and water, food-induced health problems and pandemics such as COVID, we need change now. And this starts with money flowing into agroecology,” says Herren. This view is supported by Olivia Yambi, co-chair of IPES-Food, an independent expert panel that works towards the transition to sustainable food systems worldwide. “We need to change funding flows and unequal power relations. It’s clear that in Africa as elsewhere, vested interests are propping up agricultural practices based on an obsession with technological fixes that is damaging soils and livelihoods, and creating a dependency on the world’s biggest agri-businesses. Agroecology offers a way out of that vicious cycle,” Yambi said.

The report also includes a series of recommendations for bilateral donors, philanthropic funders and scientific research institutes which want to advance agroecological research in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. The first recommendation is to focus on operational elements of agroecology as a first step in a well-sequenced strategy for transformation. The authors recommend a focus on core practices and principles (e.g. closing natural resource cycles, agroforestry, inter-cropping and crop rotation, push-pull technology, system of rice intensification) to introduce agroecology to new actors. They call on donors to shift towards long-term, pooled funding models; including the removal of obstacles to funding subsequent phases of the same project or programme. The authors stress the need to co-design projects with farmers and communities and increase the share of funding going to African organisations. “Support the development and functioning of bottom-up alliances with the involvement and ownership of farmers’ groups, researchers, NGOs and social movements; use these alliances as a key partner in knowledge generation and sharing,” they write in the executive summary. Another recommendation is to introduce agroecology to research and training institutes by developing agroecological curricula at colleges and universities and launch a network of decentralised centres of excellence on agroecology in sub-Saharan Africa. (ab)

15.05.2020 |

Conventionally bred plants and animals are not patentable, EPO rules

Veg
Conventionally bred plants are not patentable (Photo: CC0)

Plants and animals derived from conventional breeding are not patentable in Europe. This is the conclusion of the Enlarged Board of Appeal, the highest judicial authority at the European Patent Office (EPO), which had repeatedly come under strong criticism for granting such patents. On May 14, the board issued its long-awaited opinion G3/19, which concludes that plants and animals exclusively obtained by means of an essentially biological process are excluded from patentability under the European Patent Convention. However, this does not apply to patents granted before 1 July 2017 and patent applications which were filed before that date and are still pending. “I strongly welcome the opinion of the Enlarged Board of Appeal. It will bring greater legal certainty for patent applicants, and the general public, on what is a sensitive and complex issue that has legal, societal and economic implications,” said António Campinos, President of the European Patent Office. He announced that the EPO will act in accordance with the clarifications provided in the Enlarged Board’s opinion and implement them in its examination practice in close consultation with stakeholders.

„No Patents on Seeds!“, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, rejoiced at the news. “For more than ten years we have been fighting against patents such as those on broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, melons and cereals. Therefore, we welcome this verdict in the name of the European public, gardeners, farmers and consumers,” said Martha Mertens from “Friends of the Earth Germany”. She stressed that plants and animals are not invented by industry. “Knowledge of methods of breeding plants and animals continues to evolve as a common good from the activities of farmers and breeders over centuries.” For this reason, conventionally bred plants and animals have to be kept available for further breeding, Mertens added. Katherine Dolan commented for the seed saving organisation ARCHE NOAH: “We hope the new verdict will help to put an end to a decade of complete legal absurdity and chaotic decision-making at the EPO. However, there is still a huge risk that big corporations, such as Bayer (previously Monsanto) will try to abuse patent law to take control of our daily food,” Dolan said. “The problem is not yet solved. Further political decisions still have to be taken to close the existing loopholes.”

The loopholes „No Patents on Seeds!“ is worried about refer to the distinction between patentable technical inventions and the random processes used in conventional breeding. Unless there are adequate definitions, ‘technical toppings’ such as those describing random mutations, can still be used to claim plants and animals as ‘inventions’. There are several examples which demonstrate how companies circumvent current prohibitions, such as European patents on barley and beer, melons or lettuce. In 2019, Carlsberg, one of the world’s largest breweries, filed further patent applications covering barley plants derived from conventional breeding, their usage in brewing as well as the resulting beer, research by ‘No Patents on Seeds!’ had shown. As with similar patents granted by the EPO, these patent applications for barley do not involve any technical inventions or the use of methods of genetic engineering which would justify patenting them. “Instead, well known processes were used to trigger random mutations: seeds from barley plants were brought into contact with chemicals to speed up the mutation rate and enhance genetic diversity. Afterwards, further crossing and selection was carried out to breed plants with desirable characteristics,” said „No Patents on Seeds!“. The NGO coalition therefore calls for further political decisions to close these existing loopholes. (ab)

07.05.2020 |

World food prices drop sharply in April, FAO

Cereal
Cereal prices dropped in April (Photo: CC0)

World food commodity prices declined for the third month in a row in April, largely due to the negative impacts on international food markets arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The FAO Food Price Index averaged 165.5 points in April, down 5.7 points (3.4%) from March. This is the lowest level since January 2019. The index, which measures monthly changes in international prices of a basket of food commodities (cereals, oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar), was published on May 7. All sub-indices of the Food Price Index registered significant declines in April – except the cereal price index which declined only marginally, as international prices of wheat and rice rose significantly while those of maize dropped sharply. The UN food agency said that international rice prices increased by 7.2% from March, mainly due to temporary export restrictions by Viet Nam, and wheat prices rose by 2.5%. Contrary to this, prices of coarse grains, including maize, fell by 10%, driven by reduced demand for its use for both animal feed and biofuel production.

The FAO Sugar Price Index reached a 13-year low, declining 14.6% from the previous month. The FAO experts attribute this to collapsing international crude oil prices which reduced demand for sugarcane to produce ethanol. The FAO Vegetable Oil Price Index dropped 5.2% in April, driven lower by falling palm, soy and rapeseed oil values. The FAO Dairy Price Index fell by 3.6%, “with butter and milk powder prices posting double-digit drops amid increased export availabilities, mounting inventories, weak import demand and diminished restaurant sales in the northern hemisphere,” FAO informed. The downward trend also affects the FAO Meat Price index, which declined 2.7%. “The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting both the demand and supply sides for meat, as restaurant closures and reduced household incomes lead to lower consumption and labour shortages on the processing side are impacting just-in-time production systems in major livestock producing countries,” said FAO Senior Economist Upali Galketi Aratchilage.

On Thursday, FAO also released its monthly “Cereal Supply and Demand Brief” with includes estimates for global cereal supply and demand in 2019. FAO’s estimate for 2019 world cereal production stands at around 2,720 million tonnes, up 65.3 million tonnes (2.5%) from the reduced 2018 level, mainly due to increases in wheat, maize, and barley outputs. The forecast for world cereal utilization for 2019/20 has been reduced by 24.7 million tonnes compared to the previous edition of the Brief, as a result of COVID-19 impacts on economic growth, energy markets, and, to a lesser extent, feed demand. The reduction is largely a result of the downward revision of maize utilization, mostly in the United States of America and China, reflecting a sudden slowdown in feed and industrial demand. The report points out that lower utilization rates will lead to higher world cereal stocks at the close of 2020 seasons. Stocks are projected at 884 million tonnes by the close of the 2020 seasons, slightly up from 870 million tonnes in 2018. (ab)

24.04.2020 |

COVID-19 could almost double acute hunger, food agencies warn

Girl
Acute food insecurity will increase (Photo: CC0)

In 2019, 135 million people across the globe faced acute hunger, according to a report published on April 21 by an international alliance of UN and non-governmental agencies. In 2020, this figure could double to at least 265 million people being pushed to the brink of starvation due to the Covid-19 crisis, warns the World Food Programme (WFD), one of the publishers. The Food Security Information Network (FSIN) found that last year, almost 135 million people in 55 countries or territories experienced acute food insecurity, up from 113 million people in 53 countries in 2018. The key drivers which pushed people into acute food insecurity were conflict/insecurity, weather extremes and economic turbulence. More than half (73 million) of the 135 million people covered by the report live in Africa, followed by 43 million living in the Middle East and Asia and 18.5 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. The number of people facing acute hunger whose lives are in immediate danger is just the tip of the iceberg. Worldwide, 821 million people are chronically undernourished.

Additionally, in 2019, 183 million people in 47 countries were classified in “stressed condition” which means they are at the brink of acute hunger and at risk of slipping into crisis or worse if faced with a shock or stressor, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or extreme weather events. Just ten countries – Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, the Sudan, Nigeria and Haiti – accounted for 65% of the total population of people already suffering from acute hunger. Of these 88 million people, 15.9 million were living in Yemen and 15.6 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In terms of prevalence, South Sudan was the country hit worst, with 61% of the population suffering from acute hunger, followed by 53% in Yemen. The figures in the report refer to 2019 and were prepared before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and do not yet consider the potential impact of desert locust infestations on food security in East Africa. But according to new WFP projections, the COVID-19 pandemic will see more than a quarter of a billion people in low and middle-income countries suffering acute hunger by the end of this year.

“These new projections show the scale of the catastrophe we are facing,” warned WFP chief economist Arif Husain. “We must make sure that tens of millions of people already on the verge of starvation do not succumb to this virus or to its economic consequences in terms of loss of jobs and incomes.” He is most worried about people living in conflict zones and those forced from their homes and into refugee camps. “They did not need COVID-19. Even without it their lives were hanging by a thread. They literally depend on us for their lives. If we cannot get to them for any reason they end up paying the ultimate price,” Husain added. He said the situation in poor countries is too gruesome to comprehend. “We need to get ready for the second and the third wave of this disease,” he urged. “People are losing their livelihoods and their incomes and, at the same time, supply chains are disrupted. This translates into a double whammy which has both the breadth and the depth of hunger increasing around the world.” (ab)

16.04.2020 |

Carlsberg has once again applied for patents on barley and beer

Beer
Beer and barley: Carlsberg‘s invention? (Photo: CC0, Fine Mayer/Pixabay)

Carlsberg, one of the world’s largest breweries, has filed further patent applications covering barley plants derived from conventional breeding, their usage in brewing as well as the resulting beer, new research by the NGO coalition ‘No Patents on Seeds!’ shows. In 2016, the company had already faced severe criticism from civil society groups because, together with Heineken, Carlsberg successfully applied to the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich for patents on barley plants from conventional breeding, which are used for the production of beer and other beverages. In 2017, together with 40 other organisations, ‘No Patents on Seeds!’ filed oppositions against the patents EP2384110 and EP2373154. Hearings were held in October 2018 and, as a result, the patents were restricted and reduced to certain plants with specific mutations concerning the flavour of the beer. ‘No Patents on Seeds!’ filed a complaint against the decision arguing that the patents have to be revoked completely. Even though no final decisions have been taken, Carlsberg in 2019 once again tried to claim seeds, barley and beer as its ‘invention’ and filed further applications (WO2019129736, WO2019129739, WO2019134962) for patents on barley.

This is strongly criticised by the member organisations of ‘No patents on seeds!’ which see a great danger in the increasing number of patents on plants, seeds and farm animals and their effects on farmers, breeders, innovation and biodiversity. They consider such patents as an abuse of patent law and fear that the basic resources in agriculture and food production will be threatened. “Patents create monopolies. If conventionally bred plants and animals are claimed in patents as ‘inventions’, they cannot be used for further breeding without the permission of the patent holder,” said Christoph Then, spokesperson for ‘No Patents on Seeds!’. “The patent holder can control, hinder and even block access to biological diversity in food plants and farm animals. As a result, a handful of big corporations can acquire far-reaching control over our daily food production.”

As with the patents already granted by the EPO, the three new patent applications for barley do not involve any technical inventions or the use of methods of genetic engineering which would justify patenting them. “Instead, well known processes were used to trigger random mutations: seeds from barley plants were brought into contact with chemicals to speed up the mutation rate and enhance genetic diversity. Afterwards, further crossing and selection was carried out to breed plants with desirable characteristics,” says a press release published by ‘No patents on seeds!’. According to the coalition, barley kernels with changed starch composition are supposedly more suitable for brewing beer. Even though there is nothing new or technical in the process described in the patent, Carlsberg is claiming the resulting seeds, plants, the harvest as well as food and beverages, such as beer, as its invention.

The patents granted on barley in 2016 are an example of the legal chaos and questionable patent granting practice of the EPO with its 38 member states. According to European patent law, plants and animals “obtained from essentially biological processes”, unlike genetically engineered crops, are not patentable. However, EPO continued to grant patents on conventionally bred plants and animals. In 2017, due to pressure from the EU and civil society, EPO adopted new rules in order to exclude from patentability plants and animals derived from conventional breeding using methods like crossing and selection. But legal loopholes remained since patents on random genetic variations were not excluded. In December 2018, the problems were exacerbated when the Technical Board of the EPO decided that plants and animals derived from conventional breeding should generally be considered to be patentable ‘inventions’. In 2019, the EPO president decided to suspend all the proceedings on patents and animals from essentially biological processes until EPO’s highest legal institution, the Enlarged Board of Appeal, decides. A decision is expected in the first half of 2020. (ab)

09.04.2020 |

Human impact on wildlife increases risk of virus spillover, study

Monkey
There must have been close contact with humans (Photo: S. Hermann & F. Richter, CC0)

Human impact on wildlife through activities such as hunting, farming and the destruction of habitats has increased the risk of viruses spilling over from animals to humans, new research shows. According to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society on April 8, there is a link between environmental change and the transmission of animal viruses to humans: “Exploitation of wildlife through hunting and trade facilitates close contact between wildlife and humans, and our findings provide further evidence that exploitation, as well as anthropogenic activities that have caused losses in wildlife habitat quality, have increased opportunities for animal-human interactions and facilitated zoonotic disease transmission,” the authors write in the abstract of the study. “Spillover of viruses from animals is a direct result of our actions involving wildlife and their habitat,” said lead author Christine Kreuder Johnson from the University of California, Davis. “The consequence is they’re sharing their viruses with us. These actions simultaneously threaten species survival and increase the risk of spillover,” she added.

For the study, the scientists assembled a large dataset of the 142 known viruses that are transmitted from animals to humans and the species that are involved as potential hosts. They used the Red List of Threatened Species, compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and examined patterns in those species’ abundance, extinction risks and underlying causes for species declines. The researchers found that the top 10 mammalian species with the highest number of viruses shared with humans included eight domesticated species: pigs, cattle, horses, sheep, dogs, goats, cats and camels. This is likely a result of our frequent close interactions with these species for centuries. Wild animals that have increased in abundance and adapted well to human-dominated environments also share more viruses with people. This group includes, for example, some rodent, bat and primate species which live among people, close to human settlements and near farms and fields, making them high-risk for ongoing transmission of viruses to people. Bats have often been implicated as a source of “high consequence” pathogens, such as SARS.

At the other end of the spectrum are threatened and endangered species, the study notes. This includes animals whose population declines were connected to hunting, wildlife trade and decreases in habitat quality. These species “were also predicted to host nearly twice as many zoonotic viruses compared to threatened species declining for other reasons,” the authors write. “Anthropogenic activities that have altered the landscape, such as forest fragmentation, development and conversion to cropland, have caused declines in wildlife habitat quality, and, as with exploitation, are likely to also increase the probability of animal-human interactions during and subsequent to land conversion activities.” The scientists warn that human encroachment into biodiverse areas increases the risk of spillover of novel infectious diseases by enabling new contacts between humans and wildlife. “We need to be really attentive to how we interact with wildlife and the activities that bring humans and wildlife together,” Johnson said. “We obviously don’t want pandemics of this scale. We need to find ways to co-exist safely with wildlife, as they have no shortages of viruses to give us.” (ab)

27.03.2020 |

Coronavirus measures could disrupt food chains, FAO warns

Onion
Onions waiting to be harvested (Photo: CC0)

Coronavirus measures imposed by national governments could disrupt food chains around the world, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned. On March 26, the food agency’s Director-General, QU Dongyu, urged leaders of the G20 countries to take measures in order to ensure that food systems continue to work well, especially in relation to access to food for the world’s poor during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have to ensure that food value chains are not disrupted and continue to function well and promote the production and availability of diversified, safe and nutritious food for all,” he said in an online address. “The poor and the vulnerable will be the hardest hit, and governments should strengthen social safety mechanisms to maintain their access to food,” he added.

QU Dongyu stressed that the supply of food is functioning well but there is growing concern that protectionist policies and restrictions on movement could disrupt food production, processing, distribution and sales, both nationally and globally. He drew a parallel to the 2007-08 global food price crisis, saying that uncertainty at that time triggered a wave of export restrictions by some countries, while others started importing food aggressively. This contributed to excessive price volatility, with negative consequences for low-income food-deficit countries. The same warnings are issued by Maximo Torero, chief economist at FAO, who underlined that governments must resist calls from some quarters to protect their own food supply by restricting exports. “Trade barriers will create extreme volatility. (…) That’s what we observe in food crises,” he told British newspaper The Guardian.

Torero warned that some countries have already introduced tariffs and export bans. Kazakhstan, for instance, has halted exports of wheat flour, and has imposed restrictions on buckwheat and vegetables including onions, carrots and potatoes, The Guardian reports. According to the newspaper, Vietnam, the world’s third biggest rice exporter, has temporarily suspended rice export contracts. It is suspected that Russia, the world’s biggest wheat exporter, might also threaten to restrict exports, as it has done before, not to mention measures which could be taken by US president Donald Trump. Another problem that could arise quickly in the coming weeks is the shortage of field workers caused by the corona pandemic. As governments close borders, recruiting seasonal workers is becoming impossible. “We need to be careful not to break the food value chain and the logistics or we will be looking at problems with fresh vegetables and fruits soon,” Torero told the Guardian. “Fruit and vegetables are also very labour intensive, if the labour force is threatened because people can’t move then you have a problem.” These types of produce often have short ripening times and are highly perishable, and need skilled pickers to work quickly at the right time. Torero said measures need to be taken to ensure workers can still move around, while preventing the virus from spreading. (ab)

23.03.2020 |

Water plays a key role in climate change adaptation and mitigation, UN

Water
Agricultural water management plays a key role (Photo: CC0)

Climate change will affect the availability, quality and quantity of water for basic human needs, undermining the enjoyment of the human rights to water and sanitation for billions of people, says a new UN report. The alteration of the water cycle will also pose risks for energy production, food security, human health, economic development and poverty reduction, thus seriously jeopardizing the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is the message of the UN World Water Development Report, published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water ahead of World Water Day, which was celebrated on March 22. The authors call on states to make more concrete commitments to address the challenge. According to SDG 6, access to safe drinking water and sanitation must be guaranteed for all by 2030. However, this will be difficult to achieve since 2.2 billion people currently do not have access to safely managed drinking water, and 4.2 billion or 55% of the world population are without safely managed sanitation.

According to the report, water use has increased six-fold over the past 100 years and will continue to grow at a rate of about 1% per year as a result of population growth, economic development and shifting consumption patterns. Climate change, along with the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events such as storms, floods and droughts, will affect the availability and distribution of water resources. This will aggravate the situation in countries which are already experiencing ‘water stress’ and generate problems in regions where water is still abundant. Changes in water supply will not only hit agriculture but also industry, energy production and fisheries. Water quality will also be affected by increased water temperatures and a decrease in dissolved oxygen, leading to a reduction in the self-purification capacity of freshwater basins, the authors warn. “We will see increased risks of water pollution and pathogen contamination caused by floods or higher concentrations of pollutants during periods of drought. In addition to the impact on food production, the effects on physical and mental health – linked to disease, injury, financial loss and the displacement of people – are therefore likely to be considerable,” they write. Many ecosystems, particularly forests and wetlands, are also under threat. The degradation of ecosystems will not only lead to biodiversity loss, but also affect the provision of water-related ecosystem services.

The report includes a chapter on food and agriculture which highlights where land-water linkages are expected to become apparent in terms of climate impacts and where practical approaches to land and water management offer scope for both climate adaptation and mitigation through agriculture. Agriculture, which accounts for 69% of freshwater withdrawals, still dominates global water use, but competition from other sectors is slowing the growth of freshwater allocations to the agriculture sector. Expansion and intensification of crop production on irrigated land is the most significant driver of agricultural water demand. According to the authors, the specific challenges for agricultural water management are twofold. The first is the need to adapt existing modes of production to deal with higher incidences of water scarcity and water excess. The second is to ‘decarbonize’ agriculture through mitigation measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance water availability.

With respect to adaptation, the authors propose approaches to land and water management, soil conservation and agronomic practice that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These measures are summarized under the umbrella of Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA), a concept which has also earned criticism from NGOs. The report claims that CSA practices help to retain soil structure, organic matter and moisture under drier conditions, and include agronomic techniques (including irrigation and drainage) to adjust or extend cropping calendars to adapt to seasonal and interannual climate shifts. The authors point out that the role of agricultural water management is central to agriculture’s adaptive response. In rainfed agriculture, adaptation is determined largely by the ability of crop varieties to cope with shifts in temperature, as well as by soil moisture management which is crucial in maintaining soil structure and promoting root growth and plant establishment to sequester carbon. Irrigation would allow cropping calendars to be rescheduled and intensified, thus providing a key adaptation mechanism for land that previously relied solely on precipitation.

In terms of mitigation, the authors mention two paths for reducing emissions: carbon sequestration through organic matter accumulation above and below the ground, and emission reduction through land and water management, including adoption of renewable energy inputs. Increased use of renewable energy in agriculture, such as solar pumping, provides additional opportunities to cut emissions and to support the livelihoods of smallholders, the authors argue. They propose specific agroforestry and agronomic practices targeted at carbon sequestration and emission reduction. One of them is agroforestry, which exists in multiple forms, from productive trees for fruit products to native trees for wind breaks and shade. “Agroforestry can have positive impacts on soil water infiltration, soil water storage, groundwater recharge, runoff and erosion control, soil nutrient cycling, and biodiversity,” the authors highlight. In addition, alternate wet-dry cultivation of rice has been shown to reduce methane emissions, maintain yields and reduce water demand by up to 24% when compared with continuous flooding. In forestry, the best options for mitigation are reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and afforestation to sequester carbon. (ab)

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