News

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

Salad
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

Potatoe
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

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

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

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

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

04.10.2019 |

Organic agriculture key to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

27.09.2019 |

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

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)

25.09.2019 |

North America has lost 2.9 billion birds since 1970, study

Bird
Common birds are in decline (Photo: CC0)

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

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

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

19.09.2019 |

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

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

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

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

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

11.09.2019 |

Area planted with genetically modified crops stagnated in 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Donors

Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
English versionDeutsche VersionDeutsche Version