News

13.03.2020 |

Urgent action is needed to stop insect apocalypse, scientists warn

Wild
Wild bees are in decline (Photo: CC0)

Insect declines lead to the loss of essential, irreplaceable services to humanity, the consequences of which are unpredictable, scientists have warned. They are calling for urgent action to halt population declines and further extinctions. In two papers, published in the February issue of the journal “Biological Conservation”, 30 experts from around the world review what is known about the drivers of insect decline and the consequences, and suggest practical solutions to mitigate the insect apocalypse. First of all, the researchers point to a lack of knowledge: “The current extinction crisis is deeply worrisome. Yet, what we know is only the tip of the iceberg,” they write, arguing that the number of threatened insect species is woefully underestimated because so many species are undescribed. Current estimates suggest that insects may number 5.5 million species. “It is surprising how little we know about biodiversity at a global level, when only about 10 to 20 % of insect and other invertebrate species have been described and named,” said lead author Pedro Cardoso from the Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus and University of Helsinki, Finland. “However, it is likely that insect extinctions since the industrial era are around 5 to 10%, i.e. 250,000 to 500,000 species,” the authors write. “In total at least one million species are facing extinction in the coming decades, half of them being insects.”

The main drivers of insect extinctions outlined in the paper are habitat loss, pollution, invasive species, climate change, and overexploitation. “Habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation are probably the most relevant threats to biodiversity,” the authors write. “Processes associated with deforestation, agricultural expansion, and urbanization are the proximate drivers of loss of natural or semi-natural habitats and their insect assemblages.” According to recent modelling, agro-economic pressure for land will reduce the currently very restricted natural intact vegetation by a further 50% by 2050 in one third of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Pollution, including harmful agricultural practice, is another key cause of species extinction. “Pesticides are key drivers of insect declines due to their intensive use, as well as inappropriate risk assessment regulations,” the authors find. “Pesticides impact insect populations via direct toxicity and sub-lethal effects (mainly insecticides), and indirectly through habitat alteration (mainly herbicides).”

The consequences of insect declines and extinction are dire since “the fate of humans and insects intertwine”, the scientists warn. We lose biomass, diversity, unique histories, functions, and interaction networks. “With species loss, we lose not only another piece of the complex puzzle that is our living world, but also biomass, essential for example to feed other animals in the living chain, unique genes and substances that might one day contribute to cure diseases, and ecosystem functions on which humanity depends,” highlights Cardoso. Ecosystem functions include pollination, as most crops depend on insects to survive. Insect pollination may have an economic value of $235–577 billion per year worldwide. “Insect declines can negatively affect the maintenance of food supply and put at risk human well-being,” the authors warn. Other functions are nutrient and energy cycling, pest suppression, seed dispersal, and decomposition of organic matter.

The scientists appeal for urgent action to close key knowledge gaps and curb insect extinctions. An investment in research programs that generate local, regional and global strategies that counter this trend is essential, they say. “Many solutions are now available to support insect populations at sustainable levels, especially through preserving and recovering natural habitats, eliminating deleterious agricultural practices including harmful pesticides, implementing measures for avoiding or eliminating the negative impacts of invasive species, taking aggressive steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and curbing the deleterious effects of overexploitation of many taxa.” In order to maintain insect habitats, “key is to have more expansive sustainable agriculture and forestry, improved regulation and prevention of environmental risks, and greater recognition of protected areas alongside agro-ecology in novel landscapes,” the authors write. In addition, engaging civil society and policy makers is essential. “While small groups of people can impact insect conservation locally, collective consciousness and a globally coordinated effort for species inventorying, monitoring and conservation is required for large-scale recovery” says Michael Samways, Distinguished Professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. “Solutions are now available – we must act upon them,” the scientists conclude. (ab)

11.03.2020 |

Locust swarms are threatening harvests in East Africa, FAO

Swarm
Locust swarm (Photo: CC0, bit.ly/Laikaac, bit.ly/ccBY-SA20)

Agricultural droughts and conflicts have aggravated food insecurity in Africa and the desert locust outbreak in East Africa is further threatening the livelihoods and food security of millions of people. 34 countries in Africa are in need of external assistance for food, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In its latest edition of the quarterly report “Crop Prospects and Food Situation“, the agency writes that the effects of inadequate rainfall on agricultural production added two countries – Namibia and Tanzania – to the list of countries in need of external assistance for food. The list currently comprises 44 countries worldwide. FAO warns that the desert locusts have not yet fully developed their destructive potential, since so far they only had minimal impact on crops in Africa because in late 2019 the main cropping areas were largely outside of the infested areas and harvests had largely been concluded before the scourge arrived. However, there are serious concerns for 2020. In East Africa, where planting of the main 2020 cereal crop will begin in March/April, the widespread outbreak of desert locusts poses a serious risk to crops and pasture resources and the food security of the people. With the current biomass conditions at well above-average levels and weather forecasts pointing to above-average March-May rains, favourable breeding conditions are expected at least until June 2020, raising the risk of outbreaks in other areas.

“Farms in Ethiopia and Somalia can expect substantial crop losses if control measures are not scaled up, with the important seasonal ‘Gu’ harvest in Somalia at risk, which accounts for about 60 percent of the country’s total annual cereal output,” the report warns. “Locusts are already present in Somalia's key sorghum producing areas and are near the main maize growing areas.” According to FAO’s latest “Desert Locust situation update“ published on March 10, the situation remains extremely alarming in East Africa, specifically Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia where widespread breeding is in progress and new swarms are starting to form. But desert locusts are also present in Eritrea, especially at the northern coast of the Red Sea near the Sudan border. For the period March to June, the number of desert locusts is projected to increase by up to 400-fold in the Horn of Africa. This represents “an unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods at the beginning of the upcoming cropping season,” FAO warns. Desert locusts are highly mobile and can travel on the wind up to 150 km per day. They feed on large quantities of any kind of green vegetation, including crops, pasture and fodder. A typical swarm can be made up of 150 million locusts per square kilometer. But FAO says that even a very small, 1 km2 locust swarm can eat the same amount of food in one day as about 35 000 people. (ab)

26.02.2020 |

Pesticide giants making billions from highly hazardous products, report

PEsti
A worker sprays pesticides (Photo: CC0)

The world’s biggest pesticide manufacturers earn more than a third of their income from selling products that pose serious hazards to human health, the environment and bees, new research shows. Most of these sales are made in low- and middle-income countries and often with substances which have long been banned in Europe. This was revealed by a joint investigation conducted by Public Eye, a non-governmental organisation based in Switzerland, and “Unearthed”, the investigative unit of Greenpeace UK. It is based on a huge dataset from the leading agribusiness analyst company Phillips McDougall and focuses on pesticide sales of the world’s biggest agrochemical giants BASF, Bayer Crop Science, Corteva Agriscience, FMC and Syngenta. They control 65% of the global pesticide market, estimated at 57.6 billion US dollars in 2018. The data covers $23.3bn in pesticide sales of the top-selling products in the most important markets. Since the data only amounts to 40% of the global pesticide market, the NGOs describe their estimates as “highly conservative”. The organisations analysed the data using the highly hazardous pesticides (HHPs) list compiled by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) International, which is based on assessments performed by regulators.

The results of the analysis show that in 2018, the five agrochemical giants made 13.4 billion dollars in sales with their leading products in the world’s highest-spending pesticide markets. More than a third (35%) of these sales or $4.8bn involved pesticides classified by regulators as “highly hazardous” to people, animals or ecosystems. The companies made around half of their highly hazardous pesticide sales in low- and middle-income countries like Brazil and India. In 2018, the five companies made almost $3bn (22% of sales) from chemicals found by regulators to pose chronic health hazards. Pesticides classified as probable human carcinogens alone constituted 13% of the five CropLife members’ sales that year. Among the top sellers were BASF’s weedkiller glufosinate and Corteva’s fungicide cyproconazole, both classed by EU regulators as damaging to fertility, sexual function or the unborn child.

In addition, the five firms made 4% or 600 million US dollars of sales from pesticides classified as highly toxic. Such substances cause 25 million severe farmer poisonings each year, resulting in 220,000 deaths, mainly in developing countries. These estimates date back to 1990, but according to experts, the situation might now be even worse due to the massive increase in pesticide use in developing countries over the past 30 years. Syngenta is responsible for two-thirds of the sales in this category. Its top seller is an insecticide marketed as lambda-cyhalothrin, which is still permitted in the EU, but it is classified as “fatal if inhaled” by the European chemical agency (ECHA). Second comes Syngenta’s paraquat, a herbicide so toxic that even small amounts can be fatal and which has long been banned in Europe.

The investigation also found that the five companies made 10% of their leading products income ($1.3bn) from chemicals classed as highly toxic to bees. These include neonicotinoids which are adversely affecting bees and other pollinators on a large scale. According to Baskut Tuncak, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on toxic substances and human rights, the threat neonicotinoid pesticides “present to our food security and our biodiversity is a human rights concern, in and of itself”. Syngenta accounted for almost half of CropLife’s bee-toxic pesticide sales. The neonicotinoid thiamethoxam was Syngenta’s best-selling HHP in 2018, while imidacloprid was in Bayer’s top-selling list. Brazil was their main market for these chemicals which in 2018 were permanently banned from outdoor use in the EU. Unearthed and Public Eye identified a further 37 chemicals sold by the CropLife companies that are classed as highly toxic to bees. “This practice of the agrochemical giants is irresponsible and contradicts their public commitment to a more sustainable agricultural model,” said Tuncak.

The companies made the majority of its highly hazardous pesticide sales in low- and middle-income countries like Brazil and India, where experts say the risks posed by using these chemicals are greatest. “We are in the midst of an invisible explosion of pesticide use in low-and middle-income countries that are ill-equipped to manage such hazards,” Tuncak commented. “Governments do not have enough capacity to monitor conditions on countless farms and plantations, analyse food and environmental samples, track the health of seasonal and migrant workers, investigate allegations of gross misconduct on farms and plantations, or verify the integrity of the information being provided by industry-funded scientists.” The two NGOs are calling for an international legally binding treaty to phase out highly hazardous pesticides and replace them with safer alternatives. Given the refusal of the pesticide manufacturers to act voluntarily, countries in which these companies are based should enact strict measures to guarantee that the companies respect human rights and the environment in all the countries where they operate. (ab)

19.02.2020 |

Health and future of the world's children at risk, Lancet Commission

Children
A future for the world’s children? (Photo: CC0)

Today’s children are facing an uncertain future: Climate change, environmental damage, migration and conflict, economic inequality and exploitative marketing practices threaten the health and future of children across the globe. This is the sad message of “A Future for the World’s Children?”, a new report published by the WHO-UNICEF-Lancet Commission consisting of 40 child and adolescent health experts. The international team finds that not even a single country is adequately protecting children’s health, their environment and their futures. “Despite improvements in child and adolescent health over the past 20 years, progress has stalled, and is set to reverse,” according to Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Co-Chair of the Commission. “It has been estimated that around 250 million children under five years old in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential, based on proxy measures of stunting and poverty. But of even greater concern, every child worldwide now faces existential threats from climate change and commercial pressures,” she added.

The report introduces a new global index of “child flourishing” in 180 countries, assessing performance with regard to measures of child survival, wellbeing, sustainability and equity. It includes data on child health, education and nutrition, as well as data on greenhouse gas emissions or income gaps in those countries. The authors find that the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, while excessive carbon emissions, which are disproportionately caused by wealthier countries, threaten the future of all children worldwide. According to the index, children in Norway, the Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, France and Ireland have the best chance at survival and well-being. At the lower end of the scale are low-income countries, such as Central African Republic, Chad, and Somalia, which perform poorly on both child survival and thriving.

If per capita CO2 emissions are taken into account, the picture changes: Then, the top countries trail behind, with Norway ranking 156, the Republic of Korea 166, and the Netherlands 160. These three countries emit 210% more CO2 per capita than their 2030 target allows. The US, Australia and Saudi Arabia are among the ten worst emitters. If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100 in line with business-as-usual scenarios, this would have devastating health consequences for children due to the inundation of coastal cities and small island nations, increased mortality from heatwaves, the proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, as well as malnutrition caused by disrupted food production systems. The only countries on track to meet CO2 per capita emission targets, which also perform fairly (among the top 70) on child flourishing, are Albania, Armenia, Grenada, Jordan, Moldova, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Uruguay and Viet Nam.

The report also highlights the threat posed to children by harmful marketing practices. “Children around the world are enormously exposed to advertising from business, whose marketing techniques exploit their developmental vulnerability and whose products can harm their health and wellbeing,” the authors write. “Companies make huge profits from marketing products directly to children and promoting addictive or unhealthy commodities, including fast foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol, and tobacco, all of which are major causes of non-communicable diseases.” Children’s exposure to commercial marketing of junk food and sugary beverages is associated with the consumption of unhealthy foods, overweight and obesity. The report links predatory marketing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. The number of obese children and adolescents increased from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016, an 11-fold increase. The authors point out that industry self-regulation does not work.

The Commission calls for a radical rethink on child health, offering 10 recommendations to build a new global movement for the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents. One specific recommendation is to stop CO2 emissions with the utmost urgency, in order to preserve the planet for the next generation. In addition, the experts call for new policies and investment in all sectors to work towards child health and rights. Countries should also tighten national regulation of harmful commercial marketing. “From the climate crisis to obesity and harmful commercial marketing, children around the world are having to contend with threats that were unimaginable just a few generations ago,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “It is time for a rethink on child health, one which places children at the top of every government’s development agenda and puts their well-being above all considerations.” (ab)

13.02.2020 |

Global organic crop area continues to grow, report

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Organic food is grown on 1.5% of the world's farmland (Photo: CC0)

Organic farming is on the rise across the globe. A total of 71.5 million hectares were farmed organically at the end of 2018, representing a growth of 2 million hectares or almost 3% compared to the previous year. These are the latest figures of “The World of Organic Agriculture” published by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and IFOAM – Organics International. The report collects data on 186 countries with organic farming activities. Australia has the largest area farmed organically with 35.7 million hectares, followed by Argentina with 3.6 million hectares and China with 3.1 million hectares. Due to the large organic area in Australia, almost half of the global organic agricultural land (36 million hectares) is in Oceania, followed by Europe with 22% or 15.6 million hectares and Latin America with a share of 11% or 8 million hectares.

Currently, only 1.5% of the world’s agricultural land is farmed organically, but many countries have far higher shares. The three countries with the largest share of organic land are Liechtenstein (38.5%), Samoa (34.5%) and Austria (24.7%). In sixteen countries, 10% or more of all agricultural land was under organic management in 2018. This top 16 countries include the European countries Estonia, Sweden, Italy, Latvia, Switzerland, Finland and Slovakia. According to the report, there were 2.8 million organic farmers in 2018. Around 47% of the world’s organic producers live in Asia, followed by Africa (28%) and Europe (15%). As in previous years, the country with most organic producers was India (1,149,000), followed by Uganda (210,000) and Ethiopia (204,000).

Consumer demand for organic products is also increasing across the globe. Global retail sales of organic food and drink surpassed 100 billion US dollars for the first time in 2018, up from 97 billion US dollars in 2017. The countries with the largest organic markets were the United States with 40.6 billion euros, followed by Germany (10.9 billion euros) and France (9.1 billion euros). The highest growth rate was achieved in France, where the organic market grew by more than 15%, whereas the highest market share of organic products was found in Denmark with 11.5% of the total food market. According to FiBL and IFOAM, the publication not only shows that 2018 was another record year for global organic agriculture. It also highlights the contribution of organic agriculture to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. “Given that organic agriculture touches on almost all of the goals, this book (...) also highlights the contribution of organic agriculture to tackling climate change, ensuring food and nutrition security, halting biodiversity loss, and promoting sustainable consumption, to name a few,” Professor Urs Niggli, Director of FiBL, and IFOAM Executive Director Louise Luttikholt wrote in the foreword to the report. (ab)

23.01.2020 |

Poorer countries will be more vulnerable to climate hazards, study warns

Drought
Drought is expected to increase (Photo: CC0)

Climate change will have substantial socioeconomic impacts across the globe and poorer countries and regions will be more at risk, according to a study released by the McKinsey Global Institute. “Food production could be disrupted as drought conditions, extreme temperatures, or floods affect land and crops,” the consulting firm warns. The authors focus on understanding the nature and extent of physical risk from a changing climate over the next one to three decades, using a higher-emission scenario which predicts that global average temperatures will reach just over 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050. “Climate change is already having substantial physical impacts at a local level,” the report says, and these impacts are likely to grow, intensify, and multiply. Since the 1880s, the average global temperature has risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius – with significant regional variations. This brings higher probabilities of extreme temperatures and an intensification of hazards. A changing climate in the next decade, and probably beyond, means the number and size of regions affected by substantial physical impacts will continue to grow.

McKinsey says climate change will have direct effects on five socioeconomic systems: livability and workability, food systems, physical assets, infrastructure services, and natural capital. With respect to livability and workability, for example, a warming climate means that hazards like heat stress could affect the ability of people to work outdoors or, in extreme cases, could put human lives at risk. Physical assets like buildings could be damaged or destroyed by extreme precipitation, tidal flooding, forest fires, and other hazards. The authors project that “socioeconomic impacts of climate change will likely be nonlinear as system thresholds are breached and have knock-on effects”. In India, for example, under a business-as-usual scenario, 160 to 200 million people could live in regions with an average 5% annual probability of experiencing a heat wave that exceeds the survivability threshold for a healthy human being. Ocean warming could reduce fish catches, affecting the livelihoods of 650 million to 800 million people worldwide who rely on fishing revenue.

The risk-assessment finds that all 105 countries examined are expected to experience an increase in at least one major type of impact on their stock of human, physical, and natural capital by 2030. “Intensifying climate hazards could put millions of lives at risk, as well as trillions of dollars of economic activity and physical capital, and the world’s stock of natural capital. The intensification of climate hazards across regions will bring areas hitherto unexposed to impacts into new risk territory,” the consultants warn. By 2050, under the high-emission scenario, the number of people living in areas with a non-zero chance of lethal heat waves would rise from zero today to between 700 million and 1.2 billion. In addition, the average share of annual outdoor working hours lost due to extreme heat and humidity in exposed regions globally would increase from 10% today to 15 to 20%. According to the report, “food systems are projected to see an increase in global agricultural yield volatility that skews toward worse outcomes”. McKinsey projects the probability of a 10% drop in wheat, corn, soybean and rice yields in any given year will rise from 6% to 18% in 2050. These trends are not uniform across countries and some countries could see improved agricultural yields. The average breadbasket region of Europe and Russia is expected to experience a 4% increase in average yields by 2050.

Within regions, the poorest countries are the most vulnerable to climate events, says McKinsey. “Poorer regions often have climates that are closer to physical thresholds. They rely more on outdoor work and natural capital and have less financial means to adapt quickly.” When looking at the share of effective annual outdoor working hours lost to extreme heat and humidity, the top quartile of countries (based on GDP per capita) have an average increase in risk by 2050 of approximately 1 to 3 percentage points, whereas the bottom quartile faces an average increase in risk of about 5 to 10 percentage points. In poorer countries, McKinsey estimates that the chance of a greater than 15% yield shock once in the next ten years could rise from 10% today to 18% in 2030, while the chance of a greater than 10% yield shock could rise from 46 to 69%. Thanks to currently high cereal stocks, the world would not run out of food. “However, historical precedent suggests that prices could spike by 100% or more in the short term, in the event of a greater than 15% decline in global supply that reduces stocks,” they write. This would particularly hurt the poorest communities, including the 750 million people living below the international poverty line. (ab)

17.01.2020 |

EU-Mercosur trade deal will harm the climate and small producers

Ship
More goods will cross the Atlantic (Photo: CC0)

The trade agreement between the EU and the Mercosur countries is a bad deal for the climate and the environment. This is the message of a study written by two Argentinian researchers from the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET). “The agreement will not only contribute to higher greenhouse gas emissions because of deforestation,” they warn. “The increased trade flows between the two blocs due to the reduction of tariffs to zero for a large number of products will also affect the climate.” In June 2019, after 20 years of negotiations, the EU and the Mercosur member countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) concluded talks on a free trade agreement between the two blocs. The study, commissioned by the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, analyses the agreements and mechanisms contained in the several hundred pages of text which make up the agreement, and looks at possible consequences if it were to enter into force. Dr Luciana Ghiotto and Dr Javier Echaide also looked at secondary literature, impact assessments and analyses of the different stakeholders. They arrive at the conclusion that the trade deal is fundamentally undermining global efforts to tackle climate change.

“The EU will import more meat and other agriculture products. With them, we will import emissions, deforestation, soil contamination, and human rights abuses, while endangering local farmers’ livelihoods,” writes Anna Cavazzini, a Member of the European Parliament who published the report. “In exchange, the Mercosur block will import more European cars, chemicals and machines, will risk the dislocation of its regional value chains and the disruption of its economy,” she says in the foreword. A chapter of the study covers the trade with agricultural commodities. “Regarding market access for agricultural goods, the agreement will generate winners and losers in both blocs,” the authors project. Mercosur agreed to liberalise 93% of its tariff lines for agri-food imports from the EU. The EU will liberalise 82% of agricultural imports. The remaining imports will be subject to partial liberalisation commitments, including tariff quotas for products such as beef, poultry, pork, sugar, ethanol, rice and honey.

The Mercosur countries already account for almost 80% of all beef imports to the EU today, with a total amount of close to 270,000 tonnes of beef in 2018. For poultry, the EU has granted them a quota of 180,000 tonnes of additional poultry meat under the agreement, which will benefit Brazil. A higher trade in poultry is likely to produce an increase of 6% in emissions, the study finds. For pork, the EU granted 25,000 tonnes at a low tariff of 83 Euros per tonne. The amount might seem small given that the EU is a net exporter of pig meat (more than 3.3 million tonnes a year), but it almost doubles pig meat imports from the Mercosur. “This strange logic of importing food products that are already produced in and even exported by the EU (due to overproduction), is fuelling climate change and putting extra pressure on EU farmers,” the authors warn.

In the case of ethanol, the agreement grants a quota of 650,000 tonnes per year for imports into the EU. Of this, 450,000 tonnes will be reserved for ethanol for chemical purposes, which will be duty-free, while the remainder will be subject to a reduced rate. These quotas are substantial when compared to current trade, as they represent almost half of Mercosur’s total exports of ethyl alcohol to the world. The authors therefore expect an increase in the production of sugarcane and corn for ethanol in Brazil, which will lead to increased deforestation. The increase in trade of ethanol might generate an extra 4% of CO2 emissions. The deal will especially promote increased trade with agricultural products which are linked to deforestation, e.g. because forests are cut down to make room for cattle grazing, or which depend on vast amounts of pesticides and fertilisers, such as monocultures of genetically modified crops. However, the agreement will not only contribute to higher greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation and land use changes in Mercosur countries but also through increased trade flows between the two blocs. “Certain food products that are traded internationally are also produced a few kilometres away from consumers in the Mercosur or EU countries, such as tomatoes, potatoes and fresh fruits, but will now travel 10,000 kilometres in vessels from, for example, Rome to Montevideo.”

In addition, the deal would also increase the economic reliance of Mercosur countries on the export of primary resources (raw materials and agricultural products). “The agreement will make these countries even more dependent on an agricultural model responsible for environmental destruction, deforestation and loss of food sovereignty. At the same time, it will also increase Mercosur’s dependence on imports of manufactured products from the EU,” the authors write. “Mercosur and the EU have undeniable economic asymmetries. Once it enters into force, this agreement will maintain and deepen the existing asymmetries. The sectors that will benefit in both blocs are the ones that are already the most competitive – in the EU, the industrial and capital-exporting sector, in Mercosur, agribusiness,” the authors warn. “Moreover, the agreement will have a substantial impact on small agricultural producers on both sides of the Atlantic. While economic power will be concentrated in the hands of a few large-scale exporters of agricultural products, small farms will face the detrimental consequences of further agricultural liberalisation. In the EU, sugar and ethanol producers as well as the poultry and the pork sectors will likely be affected, as they will have to deal with even more intense competition with Brazil,” a major producer and export nation of these products. (ab)

27.12.2019 |

Interactions between planetary boundaries amplify human impact on Earth

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Planetary boundaries (based on Steffen et al.)

In 2009, a group of scientists proposed the planetary boundaries concept, identifying nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes, they warned. In an update of the framework, the scientists argued that the safe operating space for four of the nine systems has already been clearly exceeded, namely in the area of climate change, land-system change, human interference with the biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen) and, in particular, the loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinctions). Now a new study, published in the journal “Nature Sustainability” on December 16, shows that transgressing one planetary boundary can also amplify human impacts on another one. “We found a dense network of interactions between the planetary boundaries,” said Johan Rockström, co-author of the study. According to the scientists, two core boundaries – climate change and biosphere integrity – contribute more than half the combined strengths of all the interactions in that network. “This highlights how careful we should be in destabilizing these two,” Rockström added.

The scientists quantified interactions between the Earth system processes represented by the planetary boundaries. They concluded that biophysical interactions have in fact almost doubled direct human impacts on the nine planetary boundaries. One example for how human impacts on the Earth system are amplified is the interconnection between deforestation and climate change. Burning down tropical forests to expand agricultural lands increases the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The additional greenhouse gases then contribute to global warming – harming the forests thus also affects climate stability. The temperature increase can in turn further enhance stress on tropical forests, with negative consequences for agriculture. The resulting amplification of effects is substantial. But the situation could even get worse since the study does not yet take tipping points into account. Beyond a certain threshold, for instance, the Amazon rainforest might show rapid, non-linear change. Such a tipping behaviour would come on top of the amplification analysed in the study.

Another distressing example of connections between global environmental problems that amplify human impacts on the Earth System are the disastrous bushfires which are currently raging across eastern Australia “Climate change, through increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, has played a significant role in creating the conditions conducive for such massive and widespread fires,” said lead author Dr Steven Lade from The Australian National University (ANU). “In turn, the bushfires are having an impact on the climate system by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to further climate change in what scientists call a 'feedback loop'.” He also points to the fact that smoke, unlike some other types of aerosols, also absorbs solar radiation, accelerating climate change even further. “The severity of the fires coupled with ongoing climate change could lead to ecosystem shifts as the landscape eventually recovers,” Dr Lade warns. “If new ecosystems store less carbon than the forests that were burnt, a long-term, net increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will occur.”

“Our results show that an integrated understanding of Earth system dynamics is critical to navigating towards a sustainable future,” the authors write. They express the hope that their insights will now be applied in policy design for safeguarding the livelihoods of generations to come. “We offer our survey of planetary boundary interactions to policymakers and the scientific community,” they conclude, “as a summary of current scientific knowledge, a call for future research to better characterize interactions and as a framework to prompt policy discussions and planning towards a sustainable future.” Rockström highlights that there is good news for policy-makers in the study’s findings. “If we reduce our pressure on one planetary boundary, this will in many cases also lessen the pressure on other planetary boundaries. Sustainable solutions amplify their effects – this can be a real win-win.” (ab)

16.12.2019 |

Poorest countries suffer from double burden of malnutrition

Ernährung
Healthy diets are needed (Photo: CC0)

Low and middle-income countries are increasingly facing the double burden of undernutrition and obesity due to rapid changes in countries’ food systems. According to a new four-paper report published in the medical journal “The Lancet” on December 16, more than a third of such countries had overlapping forms of malnutrition, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, south and east Asia and the Pacific. “We are facing a new nutrition reality,” said lead author Dr Francesco Branca from the World Health Organization (WHO). “We can no longer characterize countries as low-income and undernourished, or high-income and only concerned with obesity. All forms of malnutrition have a common denominator – food systems that fail to provide all people with healthy, safe, affordable, and sustainable diets.” He said that changing this would require action across food systems – from production and processing, through trade and distribution, pricing, marketing, and labelling, to consumption and waste. “All relevant policies and investments must be radically re-examined,” he added.

Worldwide, almost 2.3 billion children and adults are overweight, and more than 150 million children are stunted. However, in low- and middle-income countries, overnutrition (overweight and obesity) does increasingly coexist alongside undernutrition (stunting and wasting) at all levels of the population. The Lancet report looks at the trends and drivers behind this double burden. The authors used survey data from low- and middle-income countries in the 1990s and 2010s to estimate which countries faced a double burden of malnutrition. A severe double burden of malnutrition was defined as wasting in more than 15% and stunting in more than 30% of children aged 0 to 4 years, a body-mass index below 18.5 in more than 20% of women aged 15–49 years, and more than 20% of people being overweight. The researchers found that in 2010, more than a third of low and middle-income countries (48 out of 126 countries) had overlapping forms of malnutrition. In the 2010s, 14 countries with some of the lowest incomes in the world had newly developed a double burden of malnutrition, compared with the 1990s, whereas fewer low- and middle-income countries with the highest incomes were affected than in the past. This reflects a growing prevalence of overweight in the poorest countries, where populations still face stunting, wasting and thinness.

According to the authors, the poorest low- and middle-income countries are seeing a rapid transformation in the way people eat, drink, and move at work, home, in transport and in leisure. “The new nutrition reality is driven by changes to the food system, which have increased availability of ultra-processed foods that are linked to increased weight gain, while also adversely affecting infant and pre-schooler diets,” said report author Professor Barry Popkin from the University of North Carolina. “These changes include disappearing fresh food markets, increasing supermarkets, and the control of the food chain by supermarkets, and global food, catering and agriculture companies in many countries.” The authors highlight that a food system transformation is needed in order to end malnutrition in all its forms. The report identifies a set of ‘double-duty actions’ that simultaneously prevent or reduce the risk of nutritional deficiencies. These range from improved antenatal care and breastfeeding practices, to social welfare, and to new agricultural and food system policies with healthy diets as their primary goal. To create the systemic changes needed to end malnutrition, the authors call on governments, the UN, civil society, academics, the media, donors, the private sector and economic platforms to address the double burden of malnutrition. They recommend to bring in new actors, such as grass-roots organizations, farmers and their unions, faith-based leaders, advocates for planetary health, innovators as well as investors who are financing fair and green companies. “Without a profound food system transformation, the economic, social, and environmental costs of inaction will hinder the growth and development of individuals and societies for decades to come,” warns Dr Branca. (ab)

11.12.2019 |

Simultaneous heatwaves could threaten global food production

Droughts
Droughts are affecting yields (Photo: CC0)

Simultaneous heatwaves in several breadbasket regions of the world could “fuel multiple harvest failures posing risks to global food security”, according to a study published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” on December 9th. The regions most affected by crop damages could be Western North America, Western Europe, Western Russia and Ukraine. For the study, an international team of scientists analysed large amounts of climate data covering the period 1979 to 2018. They focused on recurrent patterns in the jet stream, a fast-moving river of air that continuously circles the northern hemisphere from west to east. The wind system can develop large meanders, so-called Rossby waves. The researchers looked at two particular wave patterns which produce north-south wobbles in the jet stream: The wave-5 patterns tend to hover over central North America, eastern Europe and eastern Asia, whereas the wave-7 patterns affects mainly central/west North America, western Europe and western Asia. Both wave patterns have the same result: hot air swirls up from the south into the peaks, producing abnormal spikes in temperature that can last for weeks. This in turn reduces rainfall, dries up soils and vegetation, and kills crops in each region. As a consequence, food prices can soar, leading to social unrest, the authors warn.

“We found an underexplored vulnerability in the food system: when these global scale wind patterns are in place, we see a twenty-fold increase in the risk of simultaneous heatwaves in major crop producing regions,” said lead author Kai Kornhuber, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “During these events there actually is a global structure in the otherwise quite chaotic circulation,” said Kornhuber who is also a guest scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). “What makes this particularly relevant: the bell can ring in multiple regions at once,” he added. Those patterns can induce simultaneous heat extremes across several major breadbasket regions which account for up to a quarter of global food production. “Normally, low harvests in one region are expected to be balanced out by good harvests elsewhere,” said study co-author Dim Coumou from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and PIK. “These waves can cause reduced harvests in several important breadbaskets simultaneously, creating risks for global food production.”

The scientists showed that in years when amplified waves occurred during two or more summer weeks, crop production was affected negatively. The waves have hit in 1983, 2003, 2006, 2012 and 2018, when many temperature records fell across the United States, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. “During years in which two or more summer weeks featured the amplified wave pattern, cereal crop production was reduced by more than 10% in individual regions, and by 4% when averaged across all crop regions affected by the pattern,” said co-author Elisabeth Vogel from Melbourne University. Food-price spikes often followed. The authors warn that heat waves will almost certainly become worse in coming decades, as the world continues to warm. “We will see more and more heatwaves striking different areas at the same time, and they will become even more severe,” said Jonathan Donges, co-author from PIK. “This can impact food availability not only in the regions directly affected. Even remoter regions may see scarcities and price spikes as a result.” According to the authors, a thorough understanding of what drives jet stream behaviour in needed. This could help improve seasonal predictions of agricultural production at the global scale and contribute to better risk assessments of harvest failures across multiple breadbasket regions. (ab)

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