News

07.06.2019 |

Quarter of pesticides used in US are banned in the EU, study

Pesticides
US farmers use many pesticides banned elsewhere (Photo: CC0)

Pesticides banned in the EU account for more than a quarter of all agricultural pesticide use in the United States, new research has found. According to a peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Environmental Health on June 7th, the US allow the use of 85 pesticides that have been banned or are being phased out in the European Union, China or Brazil. In 2016, US farmers used 322 million pounds of pesticides that are banned in the EU (26.9% of pesticides used in US agriculture), 40 million pounds of pesticides that are banned or being phased out in China (3.3% of total) and 26 million pounds of pesticides banned or phased out in Brazil (2.2%).“It’s appalling the U.S. lags so far behind these major agricultural powers in banning harmful pesticides,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the study. “The fact that we’re still using hundreds of millions of pounds of poisons other nations have wisely rejected as too risky spotlights our dangerously lax approach to phasing out hazardous pesticides.”

The study compared the approval status of more than 500 pesticides used in outdoor applications in the US, EU, Brazil and China. It found that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to allow the use of 85 pesticides for outdoor agricultural applications that are banned or in the process of being completely phased out elsewhere. 72 pesticides were banned in the EU, 17 in Brazil and 11 in China. “Of these 85 pesticides, most are herbicides (58%) followed by insecticides (20%), fungicides/nematicides/bactericides (16%) and those having both insecticide/fungicide activity (6%),” the author writes. Examples for pesticides banned or being phased out in at least two of the three other examined parts of the world are 2,4-DB, bensulide, chloropicrin, dichlobenil, dicrotophos, EPTC, norflurazon, oxytetracycline, paraquat, phorate, streptomycin, terbufos and tribufos. The majority of pesticides banned elsewhere have not appreciably decreased in the US over the past 25 years and almost all have stayed constant or increased over the past 10 years. From 1992 to 2016, the use of four pesticides (chloropicrin, dicrotophos, oxytetracycline and paraquat) significantly increased.

The study concludes that deficiencies in the US pesticide regulatory process are the likely cause of the country failing to ban or phase out pesticides which have been considered harmful by others. The author criticizes that EPA “has all but abandoned its use of non-voluntary cancellations in recent years, making pesticide cancellation in the USA largely an exercise that requires consent by the regulated industry.” As a result, pesticide cancellations in the U.S. are more often economic decisions rather than decisions made to protect human or environmental health. “Bans are the most effective way to prevent exposures to highly hazardous pesticides and can spur the transition to safer alternatives,” said Donley. “A combination of weak laws and the EPA’s broken pesticide regulatory process has allowed the pesticide industry to dictate which pesticides stay in use. That process undermines the safety of agricultural workers and anyone who eats food and drinks water in this country.” (ab)

20.05.2019 |

On World Bee Day, UN highlights importance of bees

Bee
Be nice to bees (Photo: CC0)

Bees play an important role in agricultural production and directly contribute to food security, yet they are increasingly under threat from human activities. In order to raise awareness of the importance of bees and the threats they face, the United Nations have declared 20 May World Bee Day. The greatest contribution of bees and other pollinators is the pollination of nearly three quarters of the plants that produce 90% of the world’s food. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a third of the world’s food production depends on bees. Not all crops need pollination: rice, wheat and potatoes, for example, would survive even without pollinators. However, many of the very nutritious, micronutrient-rich foods, like fruits, some vegetables, seeds, nuts and oils, would disappear without pollinators.

Bees and other pollinators, such as butterflies, bats and hummingbirds, are increasingly under threat from human activities. In Europe, 9% of bee and butterfly species are threatened and populations are declining for 37% of bees and 31% of butterflies. According to a new report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), between $235 billion and $577 billion in annual global crop output is at risk as a result of pollinator loss. The report lists “land use change, intensive agricultural management and pesticide use, environmental pollution, invasive alien species, pathogens and climate change”, as major threats to the abundance, diversity and health of pollinators. “Increasing crop and regional farm diversity as well as targeted habitat conservation, management or restoration, is one way of combating climate change and promoting biodiversity,” says UN Environment biodiversity specialist Marieta Sakalian.

On the occasion of World Bee Day, FAO highlights 6 ways to show our gratitude to bees, butterflies and other vital pollinators. The first recommendation is to give bees food they like by growing native plants in our gardens. Planting a diverse set of native plants which flower at different times of the year can make a huge difference for pollinators. The second point is about honey: The western honey bee is the most widespread managed pollinator in the world, and globally there are about 81 million hives producing an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of honey per year. Many local smallholder farmers and forest communities maintain sustainable beekeeping practices. FAO recommends supporting local farmers by buying raw honey, beeswax or other bee products directly from them. Another way of helping bees is by providing water for them. A single honeybee will typically visit around 7,000 flowers a day. Leaving a clean, shallow water bowl, with rocks or sticks in it so that bees don’t drown, is a good way to give the bees a resting spot and some necessary refreshment.

Another important measure to protect bees and other pollinators is to avoid pesticides, fungicides or herbicides in the garden. They can kill pollinators and poison hives with contaminated nectar or pollen brought by bees from contaminated plants. Try to find natural solutions to pests for the plants in your garden, FAO recommends. The organization also calls on farmers to create a good habitat for bees in order to ensure pollination. “Leave some areas of the farm as a natural habitat. Create hedgerows with native plants that flower at different times during the year and plant attractive crops such as sunflower and coffee, and fruit trees such avocado and mango. Reduce your use of pesticides, and leave bee-nesting sites untouched,” FAO says. Finally, the organization calls on everyone to respect bees and learn more about them to reduce fears. Bees are not generally dangerous and not all bees sting. Knowing more about them can help to avoid bad encounters and promotes peaceful coexistance. (ab)

17.05.2019 |

EU farming policy needs to support sustainable farms, urges report

EU
Subsidies for sustainable farming (Photo: CC0)

The EU must urgently reform its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in order to protect the environment and the climate, improve animal welfare and promote small and medium-sized sustainable farms, says a new report released on Tuesday. The Agriculture Atlas 2019, published by the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, Friends of the Earth Europe and BirdLife Europe, says that the EU promotes unsustainable farming practices with almost 60 billion euros per year. Every citizen pays 114 euros into the EU’s agriculture fund. In the budget period 2014–2020, direct payments account for 72% of the overall CAP budget. Most of these subsidies are still granted without the fulfilment of goals such as conserving the environment, keeping animals in appropriate conditions, protecting water, birds and insects, and maintaining life and livelihoods in rural areas.

Across the EU as a whole, 80% of direct payments go to just 20% of farms. Over 30% of the total goes to just 131,000 or 2% of the EU’s 6.7 million farm holdings which receive subsidies. “Today's farming policy is highly inefficient, ineffective, and inequitable,” said Barbara Unmüßig, President of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. The report explains that these direct payments are inefficient because they are paid to all farmers on the basis of hectares farmed, rather than linked to specific outcomes and objectives. “They are ineffective because they do not tackle the root problem of low incomes on some farms, which is low productivity. They are inequitable because such a large share goes to farms where incomes are well above the average both for farming and for the economy as a whole,” the report reads. The authors stress that payments tied to area disproportionately benefit large, industrialized farms, while goals to minimize and adapt to climate change, protect the environment and promote rural development are poorly served. “Instead of mainly supporting the biggest, agro-industrial players the CAP needs specific instruments and targets which coherently support sustainable farms, which are the ones that manage to link healthy food, care for the environment and employment and thus better perspectives for our European regions,” Unmüßig added.

The Agriculture Atlas 2019 also shows that the number of European farms is decreasing. Between 2003 and 2013, one-third of all farms in the EU closed down. This trend affected Europe as a whole: half of the EU’s member countries lost between one-third (Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Poland, the UK, etc.) and two-thirds (Bulgaria, Slovakia) of their farms. The land is now worked by others. Large and very large farms are increasing in number and economic importance. Average farm size has increased all over Europe, but particularly in the East. On average, the largest farms are in the Czech Republic (130 hectares, up from 80 hectares ten years earlier) and northern Europe, while the smaller ones are in southern and eastern Europe. Farms over 100 hectares account for only 3% of the EU’s farms, but their numbers have risen by 16% from 2005 to 2013. They now use 52% of all agricultural land. “Large farms often go hand-in-hand with the loss of jobs, a decline in diversity of farming systems, a rise in intensive practices – and environmental depletion,” according to the report. “Small-scale, family farmers are under threat like never before. With our natural world and the climate on the verge of breakdown, the EU needs to do everything it can to support these farmers who farm with nature, and stop subsidising dangerous industrial agriculture which leads to farming without farmers,” said Stanka Becheva, food sovereignty campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

The three publishing organisations call for a fundamental reform of the EU farming policy. They argue that a radical change in the CAP is crucial to fulfil the Paris climate commitments, prevent the dangerous consequences of environmental degradation and revive rural life in Europe. “There is enough money in EU coffers for a different type of farm policy. But it has to be used in a way that rewards agricultural services that serve the common good,” they write in the introduction to the report. They warn that current proposals of the EU Commission and the opinion of the outgoing Agricultural Committee in the European Parliament for the new CAP after 2020 disregard the environmental and social potential of the CAP by far. “The Common Agricultural Policy needs to be taken as an opportunity to unite the European continent by deconcentrating and spreading fair and equal subsidies throughout all our regions, enhance thus social cohesion, provide the rural population with long-term development perspectives and reinforce the positive perception of Europe”, says Unmüßig. “We all need to get out and vote in this month's European elections for candidates who will build a better Europe and a safer, more sustainable food and farming system,” Becheva added. (ab)

08.05.2019 |

Sustainable agriculture needed to stop biodiversity loss, UN report

Soja
Monocultures have negative impacts on biodiversity, says the report (Photo: CC0)

Nature is declining globally at unprecedented rates due to human activities, a major new UN report has warned. Up to one million plant and animal species are currently facing extinction – and the rate of extinctions is accelerating, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The report, the summary of which was approved by representatives from 130 countries at a plenary meeting in Paris last week, finds that agricultural activities are the main driver of biodiversity loss. “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture,” said IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The report was compiled over the past three years by 145 experts from 50 countries, with inputs from another 310 contributing authors. It assesses changes over the past five decades and is based on the systematic review of about 15,000 scientific and government sources. “The diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems, as well as many fundamental contributions we derive from nature, are declining fast,” warns Prof. Sandra Díaz (Argentina), one of the three co-chairs of the assessment. The report finds that around 1 million of the estimated 8 million animal and plant species on Earth are now threatened with extinction, many within decades. The average abundance of native species in most major land-based habitats has fallen by at least 20%, mostly since 1900. The authors write that more than 40% of amphibian species and more than 33% of all marine mammals are threatened. “Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life. Most of nature’s contributions to people are not fully replaceable, and some are irreplaceable,” they warn. For example, more than 75% of global food crop types, including fruits and vegetables and important cash crops such as coffee, cocoa and almonds, rely on animal pollination. The global proportion of insect species threatened with extinction is not known, but estimates suggest at least 10% are threatened.

“This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world,” said co-chair Prof. Josef Settele (Germany). “The direct drivers of change in nature with the largest global impact have been (starting with those with most impact): changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of organisms; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species,” says the report. “Land-use change is driven primarily by agriculture, forestry and urbanization, all of which are associated with air, water and soil pollution.” The report notes that, since 1970, the value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300%. More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. Although the pace of agricultural expansion into intact ecosystems has varied from country to country, losses have occurred primarily in the tropics, home to the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet. For example, from 1980 to 2000, 100 million hectares of tropical forest were lost due to agricultural expansion, mainly due to cattle ranching in Latin America (42 million hectares) and plantations in Southeast Asia (7.5 million hectares), 80% of which were used for oil palms.

The authors highlight that agriculture is not only a culprit, but also a victim of biodiversity loss. Between $235 billion and $577 billion in annual global crop output is at risk as a result of pollinator loss. In addition, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are disappearing worldwide. “This loss of diversity, including genetic diversity, poses a serious risk to global food security by undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems to threats such as pests, pathogens and climate change,” they warn. Fewer and fewer varieties and breeds of plants and animals are being cultivated, raised, traded and maintained around the world, despite many efforts, including those by indigenous peoples and local communities. By 2016, 559 of the 6,190 domesticated breeds of mammals used for food and agriculture (over 9%) had become extinct and at least 1,000 more are threatened, according to IPBES.

The report concludes that global biodiversity and sustainability goals can only be achieved through “urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change”. “It is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global,” said Watson. The report presents a list of possible actions for achieving transformative change in different sectors. In agriculture, it recommends “promoting sustainable agricultural practices, such as good agricultural and agroecological practices”. The authors stress that “options for sustainable agricultural production are available and developing further.” These options include integrated pest and nutrient management, organic agriculture, agroecological practices, soil and water conservation practices, conservation agriculture, agroforestry, silvopastoral systems, irrigation management, small or patch systems, and practices to improve animal welfare. These practices could be enhanced through well-structured regulations, incentives and subsidies, the removal of distorting subsidies, and by integrated landscape planning and watershed management. “We need to redirect government subsidies towards more sustainable and regenerative farming. This will not only contribute towards absorbing carbon and reducing the emissions of other greenhouse gases, it can also halt a frightening trajectory where farmland is so overloaded that eventually it just stops growing crops,” Watson wrote in The Guardian. (ab)

29.04.2019 |

Rainforests the size of England lost in 2018 due to deforestation

Forest
The loss of forest cover is a threat to the climate and biodiversity (Photo: CC0)

The world lost 12 million hectares of tropical forest in 2018, an area the size of England, new data from the University of Maryland reveals. According to the figures, released on April 25 by Global Forest Watch, this is the fourth-highest annual loss since records began in 2001. The research group says that the disappearance of 3.6 million hectares of primary rainforest is of particular concern, since primary forests with old trees store more carbon than other forests and play an important role for biodiversity. Once cut down, these forests may never return to their original state. Despite a growing number of zero-deforestation commitments from governments and companies, primary rainforest loss hit record-highs in 2016 and 2017 and remained above historical levels in 2018. The main drivers are agriculture and the livestock industry, mining, infrastructure development and other commercial activities as well as fires.

Global Forest Watch highlights that the loss of primary rainforests differs from country to country. The main culprits in 2018 were Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia. In 2002, just two countries (Brazil and Indonesia) made up 71% of tropical primary forest loss, whereas the latest data shows that this is changing. Brazil and Indonesia only accounted for 46% of primary rainforest loss in 2018, while the loss rates of other countries increased remarkably. In Brazil, 1.34 million hectares of primary forest were lost in 2018. Commercial activities like ranching, mining, and soy production were reported as the main drivers. Brazil’s figure for 2018 was lower than its 2016-2017 fire-related spike, but still higher than it was between 2007 and 2015, when the deforestation rate fell by 70%. Global Forest Watch says that several hot spots of primary forest loss occurred notably near and within indigenous territories. For example, the Ituna Itata reserve saw more than 4,000 hectares of illegal clearing within its borders in the first half of 2018, more than double the total loss from 2002-2017. According to the research group, it is still too early to assess how the weakening of environmental laws and enforcement under Brazil’s new administration will impact forest loss.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, primary forest loss was 38% higher than it was from 2011-2017, reaching 481,248 hectares in 2018. Expansion of small-scale forest clearing for agriculture and fuelwood likely caused about three-quarters of this loss. Some loss patterns suggest that new, medium-sized agriculture and conflict-induced population displacement have also contributed. In Indonesia, 339,888 hectares of primary forest were cleared in 2018. Primary forest loss in the country dropped to its lowest rate since 2003 and was 40% lower in 2018 than the average annual rate of loss from 2002-2016. “The country saw an even more dramatic decline in forest loss in protected forests, suggesting that recent government policies are working. On peatlands deeper than 3 meters, which have been legally protected from development since 2016, forest loss dropped 80% from the 2002-2016 average,” Global Forest Watch wrote in their blog article. However, it is still too early to celebrate, since this year will be another El Niño year, which generally leads to dry conditions and a prolonged fire season in Indonesia, such as the one that burned 2.6 million hectares in 2015.

Several countries in South America experienced rising rates of primary forest loss since the turn of the century. In Colombia, 176,977 hectares of primary forest were lost in 2018. The loss increased by 9% compared to 2017, continuing a dramatic upward trend since 2016. “Ironically, this loss was related to the peace process, as areas in the Amazon previously occupied by the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) have opened up to development. Tinigua National Park has been an unfortunate casualty of the rampant forest clearing, experiencing around 12,000 hectares of forest loss in 2018, 6% of its total forest area,” said Global Forest Watch. In Bolivia, most of the 154,488 hectares of forest loss was related to conversion of forests to large-scale agriculture and pasture, mainly in the Chaco. Forest loss in Peru (140,185 hectares), on the other hand, was generally for small-scale agriculture – including some illegal coca production. Peru also saw a proliferation of new logging roads in remote areas of the Amazon in 2018, as well as continued clearing for illegal gold mining. Although hundreds of countries and companies have made commitments to reduce deforestation by 2020 and some progress is made, the high rate of primary forest loss in 2018 suggests that we are not on track to meet these goals, Global Forest Watch warns. “Given the urgency to prevent runaway climate change and irreversible biodiversity loss, we need to rein in deforestation – before it’s too late.” (ab)

18.04.2019 |

Study: Agroecology can help to mitigate climate change

Kohl
Agroecology, a viable solution (Photo: CC0)

Agroecology, including organic farming, can make an enormous contribution towards keeping global warming below 2°C, according to a new report from the French think tank IDDRI. The study, published on April 16th, compares different scenarios for agriculture with the aim of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, which would be required if we want to keep global warming below 2°C. The scientists write that “the sustainable intensification of agricultural production, in a land sparing logic, is most often considered as a necessary step to achieve this.” Those climate mitigation strategies rely on intensifying food production by increasing yields to free up land for afforestation and bioenergy. However, the authors question those scenarios, given the importance yield increases play therein. “Assumptions on yield increases seem very high (up to +30%) if one considers, on the one hand their recent stagnation in Europe (particularly for cereals),” they write. On the other hand, this intensification would require a high use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, which risks damaging soil health and biodiversity. This could result in potentially further degradation of organic matter content and thus lead to lower yields rather than higher ones, while potentially undermining the capacity of European farming to adapt to climate change.

The IDDRI paper demonstrates that there are viable alternatives, presenting two scenarios of a transition of European agriculture to agroecology by 2050 (Ten Years For Agroecology – TYFA). The TYFA scenario is based on the generalisation of organic farming (abandoning synthetic pesticides and fertilizers), the extension of agroecological infrastructures and the adoption of healthy diets, to feed 530 million Europeans by 2050 (despite a 35% drop in production). This scenario would lead to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, offers a potential for soil carbon sequestration of 159 MtCO2eql/year until 2035, and a reduction of bioenergy production to zero, as almost all the land would be used for food production due to lower yields. This TYFA scenario would thus be difficult to reconcile with the objective of carbon neutrality although it offers many co-benefits for biodiversity, natural resources and health.

For this reason, the researchers propose a variant of this scenario, the TYFA-GHG (for greenhouse gases), which improves these performances with a view to achieving carbon neutrality, while conserving the core assumptions of the initial scenario. TYFA-GHG is based on a greater reduction in bovine livestock (-34% compared to 2010, whereas the TYFA only included a 15% reduction in cattle numbers) and the controlled development of anaerobic digestion using grassland grasses and animal manure as feedstock. A transition to agroecological farming based on this model could lower European agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 47%, while bioenergy production would amount to 189 TWh per year. In addition, tonnes of pesticides per year would be avoided in European farming, benefitting biodiversity. The dietary changed complementing this transition to agroecology would also be good for human health.

IFOAM EU, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements at EU level, welcomed the study. “The Ten Years For Agroecology prospective scenario is a ground-breaking exercise as it shows how a full conversion of European agriculture to organic farming could contribute to climate change mitigation, while preserving our natural resources and protecting biodiversity,” said Eric Gall, Policy Manager at IFOAM EU. “It is crucial that prospective and policy debates on how to decarbonise the agricultural sector better integrate biodiversity and soil health issues and consider the need to phase out the use of pesticides.” This view is shared by Rob Percival, head of policy for food and health at the Soil Association, the UK’s leading food and farming charity and organic certification body. “Agroecological farming, including organic, offers our best hope of responding to climate change,” he stressed. “We urgently need to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, but we must also protect soil health, nurture biodiversity, and build resilience into agricultural systems. Pesticide-hungry ‘intensification’ offers a false solution,” he warned. (ab)

12.04.2019 |

Organic farming can drive transition to sustainable food systems

Organic
Organic will produce change (Photo: CC0)

Organic farming can play an important role in triggering a shift towards more sustainable food systems, according to an article published in the scientific journal “Nature Sustainability”. A team of international experts argues that there is broad consensus that we urgently need to change the way we produce and consume food. Only then will we be able to address global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and water scarcity and make progress on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, progress is currently far too slow. The authors say that a major obstacle is the deep divide between two competing schools of thought on how the change needs to happen: through step-wise improvements of the predominant agricultural systems, or through a radical system redesign based on agroecological principles. “For too long, we have been trapped in heated debates on which technology can feed the world. Transcending ideological barriers and vested interests now need to be at the top of the agenda to accelerate the necessary shift,” said lead author Frank Eyhorn.

According to the experts, both approaches – improving efficiency in conventional agriculture as well as transforming farming systems based on agroecology – can go hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other. They argue that policies aligned with the SDGs are needed to promote a transition. “Agriculture and food-related policies play a crucial role both in perpetuating unsustainable systems and in triggering more sustainable ones, since they greatly influence farming and business practices, costs, prices and consumer choice.” The authors identify four important groups of policy interventions to make food systems more sustainable. First, they recommend supporting transformative systems while improving their performance. “Given that the conversion costs of alternative farming systems can be quite high – including higher labour requirements and the need for increased knowledge and training – economic incentives and technical advice are crucial to enhance adoption by farmers”, they write in the journal. “At the same time, the performance of these systems should be improved further, particularly in terms of yields, water management and consumer accessibility.” Some governments are already implementing policies and action plans that set targets for reaching specific organic land area shares and Bhutan and some Indian states are even targeting a 100% conversion. Strategies include push measures, for example support to research and advisory services to facilitate the uptake of organic farming practices, as well as pull measures such as consumer information campaigns.

The second measure is increasing market demand for sustainable products. This can be done through two main mechanisms: raising consumer awareness on the linkages between agriculture, environment, health and social wellbeing, as well as enhancing the commitment of retailers and caterers to offer such products, for example by setting targets in public procurement. Organic farming is the most prominent alternative farming system. However, because conventional agriculture is heavily subsidized and market prices do not yet reflect externalities, organic products are usually more expensive for consumers. “As a society we spend enormous amounts on subsidies for agricultural systems that negatively impact people and planet, and still keep farmers poor”, said co-author Adrian Müller from the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture. “We can no longer afford seemingly cheap food resulting in high environmental costs.” Third, incentives are needed to make improvements in agriculture. Practices that contribute to the SDGs, both of conventional and organic producers, should be incentivized, and unsustainable practices should be discouraged. The authors suggest that payments to agricultural production units could be linked to their ability to provide public goods, and taxation could be linked to their negative external costs. One example of the former are payments for ecosystem services, such as increasing soil organic matter or implementing biological pest control. Taxes on harmful pesticides or excessive nitrogen inputs are examples of disincentives. Fourth, the authors recommend raising legal requirements and industry norms in order to rule out highly unsustainable practices, such as using highly hazardous pesticides or clearing primary forests.

The experts highlight that a paradigm shift is already under way. UN institutions are recognizing the role of agroecology as a science, a practice and a social movement that contributes to making agriculture and food systems more sustainable. “It is time to recognize that transformative systems such as organic agriculture are not an irrelevant niche but can play an important role in this transition. They can be utilized as important drivers for developing more sustainable options, changing consumer demand, inspiring mainstream systems to improve their sustainability performance and altogether lifting the bar of what is acceptable in farming in the 21st century”, the authors write. (ab)

03.04.2019 |

Report: 113 million people worldwide face severe food insecurity

Child
Many children are affected by malnutrition (Photo: CC0)

Around 113 million people in 53 countries worldwide faced severe food insecurity in 2018, finds a new report released by the Food Security Information Network (FSIN), an initiative of food security and development institutions, UN agencies and the EU. According to the “2019 Global Report on Food Crises”, the figure is down slightly from the 124 million people in 51 countries who faced acute hunger in 2017. However, the number of acutely food-insecure people has remained well over 100 million in the last three years, and the number of countries affected has risen. Moreover, an additional 143 million people in another 42 countries are just one step away from facing acute hunger. “It is clear from the Global Report that despite a slight drop in 2018 in the number of people experiencing acute food insecurity – the most extreme form of hunger – the figure is still far too high. We must act at scale across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus to build the resilience of affected and vulnerable populations. To save lives, we also have to save livelihoods,” said José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The number of people facing acute hunger whose lives are in immediate danger is just the tip of the iceberg. Worldwide, 821 million people are chronically undernourished.

Almost two-thirds of those facing acute hunger, or 72 million people, live in just 8 countries: Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Sudan, South Sudan and northern Nigeria. In 17 countries, acute hunger either remained the same or increased. Conflict and insecurity remained the key driver in 2018. Some 74 million people were located in 21 countries and territories affected by conflict or insecurity, mostly in Africa and Western Asia/Middle East. Climate and natural disasters pushed another 29 million people into acute food insecurity in 2018. Most of these individuals were in Africa, where nearly 23 million people in 20 countries were acutely food insecure due to climate shocks. Economic shocks were the primary driver of acute food insecurity for 10.2 million people, mainly in Burundi, the Sudan and Zimbabwe. Some countries, such as North Korea and Venezuela, are not in the analysis due to data gaps. “Venezuela has experienced severe economic and political turmoil that triggered massive increases in the price of food and other basic commodities. This hyperinflation has drastically cut people’s purchasing power, curbing access to food. Many of the Venezuelans seeking refuge in neighbouring countries have exhausted their means to buy food,” the report warns.

Ending conflicts, empowering women, nourishing and educating children, improving rural infrastructure and reinforcing social safety-nets are essential for a resilient, stable and hunger-free world, the report says. It further highlights the need for a unified approach and action across the humanitarian and development dimensions of food crises, and for more investment in conflict mitigation and sustainable peace. “Programmes that make a community resilient and more stable will also reduce the number of hungry people,” said David Beasley, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme. Reacting to the report, international development organisation Oxfam said the response to this human-made crisis caused by conflict, climate change and a broken global food system has been tragically inadequate. “Governments in rich and poor countries alike have promised bold reforms, but delivered little. That must change,” said Oxfam France’s Executive Director Cécile Duflot. “Decades of bad policy making have led to the corporate takeover of our food and agricultural systems where ensuring a decent income for farmers or a sustainable food supply comes a poor second to securing shareholder returns. At the same time, governments have failed to invest in, or provide development aid for, smallholder agriculture – even though smallholder farmers, many of which are women, play a critical role in feeding hundreds of millions of people across the globe.” (ab)

22.03.2019 |

UN report calls for better access to water for small-scale farmers

Farmer
Farmers need access to water (Photo: CC0)

Access to water and sanitation is a human right. However, billions of people are still living without safe water and sanitation facilities, with wide disparities between the rich and the poor. This is the message of the UN World Water Development Report, launched on 19 March three days ahead of World Water Day. Some 2.1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation facilities. “The stakes are high: nearly a third of the global population do not use safely managed drinking water services and only two fifths have access to safely managed sanitation services. The intensification of environmental degradation, climate change, population growth and rapid urbanisation also pose considerable challenges to water security,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay wrote in the foreword to the report. “The numbers speak for themselves. As the report shows, if the degradation of the natural environment and the unsustainable pressure on global water resources continue at current rates, 45% of global Gross Domestic Product and 40% of global grain production will be at risk by 2050. Poor and marginalized populations will be disproportionately affected, further exacerbating already rising inequalities” warned Gilbert F. Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water.

The report highlights that the global figures hide significant inequities between and within regions, countries, communities and even neighbourhoods. Of the 159 million people still collecting untreated drinking water directly from surface water sources, 58% live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Only 24% of the population there have access to safe drinking water, and only 28% have basic sanitation facilities that are not shared with other households. Significant discrepancies in access also exist within countries, notably between the rich and the poor. In urban areas, the disadvantaged living in slums without running water often pay 10 to 20 times more for water purchased from water vendors or tanker trucks than people in wealthier households with running water. Women and girls regularly experience discrimination and inequalities in the enjoyment of their human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the burden of collecting water lies mainly on women and girls, many of whom spend more than 30 minutes on each journey to fetch water. Without safe, accessible water and sanitation, these people are likely to face multiple challenges, including poor health and living conditions, malnutrition, and lack of opportunities for education and employment, the report warns.

The world’s water is a stressed resource. Water use has been increasing worldwide by about 1% per year since the 1980s, driven by a combination of population growth, socio-economic development and changing consumption patterns. Global water demand is expected to continue increasing at a similar rate until 2050, accounting for an increase of 20 to 30% above the current level of water use, mainly due to rising demand in the industrial and domestic sectors. Over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and about 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year. Stress levels will continue to increase as demand for water grows and the effects of climate change intensify. The report observes a significant rise in water-related conflicts: During the period 2000–2009, there were 94 registered conflicts where water played a role. This figure increased to 263 registered conflicts in the period 2010–2018.

Access to water is particularly important for small-scale farmers across the globe. “Smallholder family farmers constitute the backbone of national food supplies, contributing more than half of the agricultural production in many countries. Yet, it is in the rural areas that poverty, hunger and food insecurity are most prevalent,” according to the report. “Equitable access to water for agricultural production, even if only for supplemental watering of crops, can make the difference between farming as a mere means of survival and farming as a reliable source of livelihoods.” This is even more important in the context of climate change. However, water infrastructure remains extremely sparse in poor rural areas. Yet, millions of smallholder family farmers find ways of accessing, storing and conducting water to their crops to make up for water deficits during periods of dry spells or the dry season. Despite their often high level of water (and land) productivity and their crucial role in contributing to national food security, smallholders tend to be overlooked when it comes to water use rights or the allocation of public subsidies for the establishment of irrigation infrastructure. Greater recognition of the water-related needs of small-scale farmers is needed, concludes the report. (ab)

14.03.2019 |

Environmental threats put human health in peril, UN warns

Water
We need to protect our planet (Photo: CC0)

Unsustainable human activities have degraded the Earth’s ecosystems, endangering the ecological foundations of society. Environmental damage to our planet is so dire that human health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken. This is the grim warning of the Global Environment Outlook 6, a landmark UN report released on March 13 as environmental ministers from around the world are gathering in Nairobi. The report, which was compiled by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries in a five-year process, says that an unhealthy planet leads to unhealthy people. And the planet is suffering. The climate is warming, species are going extinct, natural resources are being wasted, and many ecosystems are under enormous stress. “Providing a decent life and well-being for nearly 10 billion people by 2050, without further compromising the ecological limits of our planet and its benefits, is one of the most serious challenges and responsibilities humanity has ever faced,” the authors stress. The good news is that we can get there, but only if we prioritize the health of our planet. The scientists recommend we should focus on fundamentally changing three essential systems: food, energy and waste.

The 745-page report gives a detailed overview of current environmental threats and the impact for human health. Air pollution is a major contributor to the global burden of disease, leading to between 6 million and 7 million premature deaths annually. The report also warns that genetic diversity is declining, threatening food security and the resilience of ecosystems, including agricultural systems and food security. “The critical pressures on biodiversity are habitat change, loss and degradation; unsustainable agricultural practices; the spread of invasive species; pollution and overexploitation, including illegal logging and trade in wildlife,” the authors write. Our oceans and coast are also in a bad state: marine ecosystem degradation and loss, including death of coral reefs, and marine litter, including plastics and microplastics, are just some of the issues. Moreover, land degradation and desertification have increased and unsustainable farming systems have caused environmental and soil degradation. Pressure on water resources is also growing. Pollutants in our freshwater systems will see anti-microbial resistance become a major cause of death by 2050 and endocrine disruptors impact male and female fertility, as well as child neurodevelopment, the report warns.

At present, the world is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and internationally agreed environmental goals. Urgent action is now needed to reverse those trends. The food system is one of the three essential systems that require a transformation. The report says a huge amount of progress can be made by focusing on just three measures. First, we need to give farmers strong incentives to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and use their land as efficiently as they can. Second, we need to stop the loss and waste of food across the value chain. At the moment, about one-third of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted. Just over half (56%) of all food waste is generated in high-income countries, while 44% comes from poorer countries, where the causes of food waste vary greatly. Third, we need to encourage and empower people to adopt more sustainable and healthier diets. In many cases, that means eating less meat. Meat production uses 77% of agricultural land worldwide and industrial meat production and livestock operations are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing red meat intake in countries with high consumption, especially of processed meat, would also improve human health. The scientists say that adopting these three measures would reduce the need to increase food production by 50% in order to feed 10 billion people in 2050.

The report highlights the fact that the world has the science, technology and finance it needs to move towards a more sustainable development pathway. “What is currently lacking is the political will to implement policies and technologies at a sufficient speed and scale,” said Joyeeta Gupta and Paul Ekins, co-chairs of the process. Policy interventions that address entire systems – such as energy, food, and waste – rather than individual issues, such as water pollution, can be much more effective, according to the authors. “The science is clear. The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “This report is an outlook for humanity. We are at a crossroads. Do we continue on our current path, which will lead to a bleak future for humankind, or do we pivot to a more sustainable development pathway? That is the choice our political leaders must make, now.” (ab)

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