News

08.05.2019 |

Sustainable agriculture needed to stop biodiversity loss, UN report

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

05.03.2019 |

From nitrogen pollution to gene drives: UN highlights five key emerging issues

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Nitrogen pollution is a key threat (Photo: CC0)

Urgent action from nations around the world is required to tackle emerging environmental challenges that will have profound effects on our society, economy and ecosystems, the United Nations Environment Programme has warned. According to the Frontiers 2018/19 report, the five key issues are the latest developments in synthetic biology, landscape connectivity; thawing permafrost peatlands, nitrogen pollution and maladaptation to climate change. “In the first decade of the 20th century, two German chemists – Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch – developed a way to produce synthetic nitrogen cheaply and on a large scale. Their invention spurred the mass production of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and thus transformed farming around the globe,” Joyce Musya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment wrote in the foreword to the report. But this also marked the beginning of our long-term interference with the Earth’s nitrogen balance. “Every year, an estimated US$200 billion worth of reactive nitrogen is now lost into the environment, where it degrades our soils, pollutes our air and triggers the spread of “dead zones” and toxic algal blooms in our waterways,” she added. “The issues examined in Frontiers should serve as a reminder that, whenever we interfere with nature – whether at the global scale or the molecular level – we risk creating long-lasting impacts on our planetary home.”

The first chapter covers the opportunities and challenges that synthetic biology holds for society. “Gene-editing techniques are advancing rapidly, bringing the promise of many biological and ecological benefits, from eradicating human diseases to preventing species extinction. CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest, quickest tool in the genetic editing tool box, allowing extraordinary precision in the manipulation of genomes,” the authors write. However, “this ability to create synthetic life and alter existing DNA carries with it the risk of cross contamination and unintended consequences,” they warn. “CRISPR-based gene drives (…) require multifaceted societal debate because of their power to modify, suppress or replace the entire population of the target species.” The authors stress that the release of only a few gene-drive-bearing organisms into the environment can transform an entire species population and potentially the whole ecosystem. “The intentional or accidental release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment could have significant negative impacts on both human and environmental health. Misuse of these technologies and a failure to account for unintended consequences could pose significant geopolitical threats.” The authors point to the rise of DIY biohackers and garage labs, recognizing that regulating the use of easily accessible and low-cost technologies like CRISPR and gene editing kits will be a challenge for authorities. There is also concern that the technology could be misused by terrorists to destroy agricultural crops or turn harmless microbes into biological weapons.

The second key issue is ecological connectivity – the linking and bridging of fragmented habitats into a connected landscape to prevent species extinctions. Large-scale industrialization has caused widespread fragmentation of previously intact landscapes around the globe, causing a spiralling decline of some species as they can no longer disperse to find food or mates. There are promising initiatives to promote landscape connectivity across the globe, but much more focus in planning to reconnect habitat patches or preserve existing connectivity is needed. Another environmental threat is the thawing of permafrost peatlands – the ground in the northern hemisphere that remains permanently frozen and holds approximately half of the world’s soil organic carbon. With rising global temperatures, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average and scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed at the accelerating rate of permafrost thaw. Permafrost thaw could set in motion an uncontrollable snowball effect, as carbon is released from the thawing peat and heats the atmosphere, thus worsening climate change ad infinitum.

Nitrogen pollution – the disturbance of ecosystems, human health and economies by massively altering of the global nitrogen cycle through human activity – is another major threat. Nitrogen is largely benign in its unreactive forms. In the form of nitrous oxide, however, it is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, in addition to the effects of various nitrogen compounds on air quality and the ozone layer. “Altogether, humans are producing a cocktail of reactive nitrogen that threatens health, climate and ecosystems, making nitrogen one of the most important pollution issues facing humanity,” the report warns. “Yet the scale of the problem remains largely unknown and unacknowledged outside scientific circles.” A cohesive global approach to nitrogen management is needed in order to transform the nitrogen cycle into a sustainable, non-polluting, profitable circular economy. Chapter five focuses on the various ways in which adaptation to climate change can go wrong, from processes that do not work to adaptive actions that damage resources, compound the problem faced by vulnerable populations, or pass on responsibility for solutions to future generations. But Joyce Musya remains optimistic: “By acting with foresight and by working together, we can stay ahead of these issues and craft solutions that will serve us all, for generations to come.” (ab)

27.02.2019 |

UN: Future of food ‘under severe threat’ from biodiversity loss

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More diversity on farms and plates (A. Beck)

The plants, animals, and micro-organisms that are the foundation of food production are in decline, putting the future of our food, livelihoods, health and environment under severe threat. This dire warning has been issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a report released on February 22. It is the first global assessment of biodiversity for food and agriculture, i.e. all the species that support our food systems and sustain the people who grow or provide our food. The report draws on information provided by 91 countries, 27 reports from international organizations and inputs from over 175 authors. But not only the plants and animals that provide food, feed, fuel and fiber are in decline. Biodiversity loss also affects the myriad of organisms that support farming through ecosystem services, dubbed “associated biodiversity” by the authors. This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) which keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.

The report presents mounting evidence that plant diversity in farmers’ fields is decreasing. Globally, there are approximately 382,000 species of vascular plants, out of which a little over 6,000 have been cultivated for food. Of these, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine crops (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava) account for 66% of total crop production by weight. The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. According to the report, 7,745 out of 8,803 reported livestock breeds are classed as local, i.e. they occur in only one country. 594 of these breeds are extinct. Among those local breeds still in existence, 26% are classed as being at risk of extinction and 67% as being of unknown risk status.

The contributing countries reported that wild food species and many species that provide ecosystem services, including pollinators, soil organisms and natural enemies of pests, are rapidly disappearing. 24% of nearly 4,000 wild food species – mainly plants, fish and mammals – are decreasing in abundance. But the proportion of wild foods in decline is likely to be even greater as the state of more than half of the reported wild food species is unknown. The largest number of wild food species in decline appear in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia-Pacific and Africa. This has a negative impact on local communities. The Gambia, for example, mentions that massive losses of wild foods have obliged communities to turn to alternatives (often industrially produced foods) to supplement their diets. In Cameroon, communities lost income from the sale of wild food products, as well as valuable nutritional benefits. As a result, migration increased among these populations as they can no longer make a livelihood from the wild food products.

“Biodiversity is critical for safeguarding global food security, underpinning healthy and nutritious diets, improving rural livelihoods, and enhancing the resilience of people and communities,” stressed FAO’s Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” he added. The driver of biodiversity loss cited by most countries is changes in land and water use and management, followed by pollution, overexploitation and overharvesting, climate change, and population growth and urbanization. “In many parts of the world, biodiverse agricultural landscapes in which cultivated land is interspersed with uncultivated areas such as woodlands, pastures and wetlands have been, or are being, replaced by large areas of monoculture, farmed using large quantities of external inputs such as pesticides, mineral fertilizers and fossil fuels,” says the report. “Loss and degradation of forest and aquatic ecosystems and, in many production systems, transition to intensive production of a reduced number of species, breeds and varieties, remain major drivers.”

The good news is that many biodiversity-friendly management practices and approaches are attracting growing interest and in many cases are becoming more widely adopted. The practices applied in the reporting countries include organic agriculture, integrated pest management, sustainable soil management, agroecology, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, diversification practices in aquaculture, ecosystem approach to fisheries and ecosystem restoration. In California, for example, farmers allow their rice fields to flood in winter instead of burning them after growing season. This provides 111,000 hectares of wetlands and open space for 230 bird species, many at risk of extinction. As a result, many species have begun to increase in numbers, and the number of ducks has doubled. Conservation efforts, both on-site (e.g. protected areas, on farm management) and off-site (e.g. gene banks, zoos, botanic gardens) are also increasing globally.

While the rise in biodiversity-friendly practices is encouraging, FAO highlights that more needs to be done to stop the loss of biodiversity. Although most countries have put in place legal, policy and institutional frameworks for the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, these are often inadequate or insufficient. The report calls on governments and the international community to do more to promote pro-biodiversity initiatives and create incentives. “Key tasks include addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss within the food and agriculture sector and beyond, strengthening in situ and ex situ conservation measures, and increasing the uptake of management practices that promote the contributions of biodiversity to sustainable production,” said Graziano da Silva. But the report also highlights the role the general public can play in reducing pressures on biodiversity for food and agriculture. Consumers can opt for sustainably grown products (e.g. organic farming, fair trade, welfare-friendly animal products, sustainable forestry or fishing practices), opt for shorter supply chains by buying from farmers’ markets, or boycott foods seen as unsustainable. (ab)

22.02.2019 |

Global crop diversity in decline as just four crops dominate, study

Soybeans
Soybeans - one of the Big Four (Photo: CC0)

Crop diversity around the world is declining, presenting a challenge for both the environment and food security. This is the result of new study from the University of Toronto Scarborough, published in the journal PLOS ONE on February 6. “What we found is that a very small number of crops, in particular wheat, rice, soybean and corn, are starting to dominate agricultural lands globally and within all different regions of the world,” said lead author Adam Martin, who is an ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences. The research team looked at what types of crops are being grown on large-scale industrial farms worldwide and examined how this has changed over the past 50 years. They used crop production data on the area harvested from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) from 1961–2014, which is reported for 161 plant-based commodity groups.

At a global scale, the researchers found little change in crop diversity from 1961 through to the late 1970s. In the 1980s, there was a massive increase in global crop diversity as different types of crops were being grown in new places on an industrial scale for the first time. This period was then followed by a “levelling-off” of crop diversification beginning in the early 1990s. Crop diversity has increased on a regional scale since the early 1960s. In North America for example, 93 different crops are now grown compared to 80 back in the 1960s. The problem, Martin says, is that on a global scale more of the same kinds of crops is being grown on much larger scales. Currently, just four crops – soybeans, wheat, rice and corn – are grown on almost half the world’s agricultural lands, while the remaining 152 crops cover the rest. “Ironically, the world is growing a more diverse array of crops than ever before, but at the same time, this very small number of commercially important crops are becoming much more dominant in all different regions of the world. So big farms in Asia or Africa or the Americas are actually starting to look much more similar to one another,” Martin explained.

The lack of genetic diversity within individual crops is also pretty obvious, said Martin. For example, in North America, six individual genotypes comprise about 50% of all corn crops planted. “So large industrial farms are often growing one crop species, which are usually just a single genotype, across thousands of hectares of land.” According to the study, the decline in global crop diversity presents a challenge for a number of reasons. First, it affects regional food sovereignty. “If regional crop diversity is threatened, it really cuts into people’s ability to eat or afford food that is culturally significant to them,” says Martin. But there is also an ecological issue if there’s increasing dominance by a few genetic lineages of crops, because the global agricultural system becomes increasingly susceptible to pests or diseases. This could affects yields. “Think potato famine, but on a global scale,” Martin said. He also pointed to a deadly fungus that continues to devastate banana plantations around the world. The researchers highlight that there’s a policy angle to consider, since government decisions that favor growing certain kinds of crops may contribute to a lack of diversity. It will be important to look at what governments are doing to promote more different types of crops being grown or whether, at a policy-level, they are favoring farms to grow certain types of cash crops.

The authors stress that their analyses can play an important role in setting and measuring global priorities for agricultural sustainability and diversity. They remind that crop diversity also plays an important role in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015. Target 2.5 of SDG 2 calls for the conservation of a “...genetic diversity of seeds, (and) cultivated plants…”, while Target 2.4 calls for “…resilient agricultural practices…” that confer a multitude of ecosystem services beyond yield alone. According to the study, “diversified agroecosystems that incorporate multiple crop species are key in meeting this target”. However, the authors criticize that political support for such systems remain limited. “Our analyses suggests that at regional scales, diversified polyculture assemblages would also be critical in addressing both the trend towards, and consequences of, increasing homogenization in agricultural systems globally.” (ab)

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