News

07.05.2018 |

Soil pollution affects food security and human health, FAO report

Soil
Soil pollution, a hidden threat (Photo: CC0)

Soil pollution presents a serious threat to agricultural productivity, food safety, and human health, according to a new report. It was released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on May 2. Industrialisation, war, mining and the intensification of agriculture have taken a heavy toll on soils worldwide, while the growth of cities meant that soil has increasingly been used as a sink for large amounts of municipal waste, the report warns. “Soil pollution affects the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the health of our ecosystems,” said FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo in a press release. The authors of “Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality” stress that far too little is known about the scale and severity of soil pollution, which they define as “the presence in the soil of a chemical or substance out of place and/or present at a higher than normal concentration that has adverse effects on any non-targeted organism.” Their analysis of existing scientific literature shows that studies conducted so far have largely been limited to developed economies, meaning that massive information gaps exist regarding the full extent of the problem. However, the little we do know is enough cause for concern.

The report presents facts and figures to illustrate the global pressures on soil. In Australia, for example, some 80,000 sites are now estimated to suffer from soil contamination. China has categorised 16% of all its soils and 19% of its agricultural soils as polluted. In addition, there are around 3 million potentially polluted sites in the European Economic Area and the West Balkans. In the United States, 1,300 sites appear on a national list of pollution hot spots. Most soil pollution is caused by human activities. “The main anthropogenic sources of soil pollution are the chemicals used in or produced as by-products of industrial activities, domestic, livestock and municipal wastes (including wastewater), agrochemicals, and petroleum-derived products,” the report reads. “These chemicals are released to the environment accidentally, for example from oil spills or leaching from landfills, or intentionally, as is the case with the use of fertilisers and pesticides, irrigation with untreated wastewater, or land application of sewage sludge.” But soil pollution also results from atmospheric deposition from smelting, transportation, spray drift from pesticide applications and incomplete combustion of many substances.

With regard to agricultural sources, the authors write that excessive application of fertilisers and manure or inefficient use of the main nutrients – nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) – in fertilisers are the main contributors to soil pollution: “Excessive fertiliser usage can lead to soil salinity, heavy metal accumulation, water eutrophication and accumulation of nitrate. The fertiliser industry is also considered to be a source of heavy metals.” The report states that manure from livestock, despite its potential benefit for agriculture, can contain high amounts of heavy metals, pathogen organisms and antibiotics, which may lead to antimicrobial‑resistant bacteria proliferation in soils amended with such manure. Global manure production from all livestock has increased by 66%, from 73 to 124 million tonnes of N, from 1961 to 2016, with manure applied to soils increasing from 18 to 28 million tonnes of N, and N input from manure left on pasture increasing from 48 to 86 million tonnes of N.

Another problem is the use of pesticides. FAO says that pesticide use in some low and middle income countries has grown over the last decade. Bangladesh, for example, has increased its use by four times, while Rwanda and Ethiopia have increased theirs by over six times and the Sudan even by ten times. A problem arises when pesticides are misused: when they are applied in higher amounts than needed and using practices that contribute to their spreading into the environment, such as spraying with unsuitable application equipment or by planes into vast regions, affecting people and non-target organisms, the authors explain. Soil pollution has bad consequences: It impacts food security both by impairing plant metabolism and thus reducing crop yields, as well as by making crops unsafe for consumption by animals and humans. Pollutants also directly harm soil microorganisms and larger soil-dwelling organisms and hence affect soil biodiversity and fertility.

“The potential of soils to cope with pollution is limited; the prevention of soil pollution should be a top priority worldwide,” said Maria Helena Semedo. FAO recommends that national governments implement regulations on soil pollution and limit the accumulation of contaminants beyond established levels in order to guarantee human wellbeing, a healthy environment and safe food. The organisation also urges governments to facilitate remediation of contaminated soils that exceed safe levels. According to the authors, it is also essential to limit pollution from agricultural sources by implementing sustainable soil management practices worldwide. (ab)

03.05.2018 |

U.S. consumers waste nearly a pound of food daily, study finds

Fruits
Fruits and vegetables are the foods wasted most in the US (Photo: CC0)

U.S. consumers waste almost a pound of food per person each day, with 30 million acres of cropland used to produce this food every year – an area equivalent to 7.7% of all harvested cropland in the US or half the size of the UK. The most wasted foods are actually the healthiest, namely fruits and vegetables. This is the finding of a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. To investigate the link between food waste, environmental impact and diet quality, researchers collected data on food intake and diet quality from the 2015 Healthy Eating Index and USDA’s What We Eat in America database, and combined it with available food waste data. They calculated the amount of cropland used to produce uneaten food using a biophysical simulation modelling. They found that between 2007 and 2014, U.S. consumers wasted nearly 150,000 tons of food daily – or 422 grams per person. “This accounts for 30% of daily calories available for consumption or one-quarter of daily food (by weight) available for consumption,” the authors write in the journal. To produce this wasted food, 30 million acres of land (121,405 square kilometres) are used annually.

In addition, the researchers and estimated the amount of agricultural inputs required to grow the food that was ultimately wasted by consumers. Nearly 4.2 trillion gallons (15.8 trillion litres) of irrigation water were used, with the majority of wasted irrigation water used to produce fruits (1.3 trillion gallons) and vegetables (1.05 trillion gallons). Farmers also used 780 million pounds of pesticides and 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertiliser each year in order to produce food that is eventually thrown away. According to the authors, higher quality diets were associated with higher levels of food waste. Fruits and vegetables and mixed fruit and vegetable dishes accounted for 39% of food waste, followed by dairy (17%), meat and mixed meat dishes (14%), and grains and grain mixed dishes (12%). Foods and dishes considered less healthy, such as candy, soft drinks and salty snacks, caused a smaller amount of food waste. “Higher quality diets have greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are being wasted in greater quantities than other food,” said co-author Meredith Niles, a University of Vermont assistant professor. “Eating healthy is important, and brings many benefits, but as we pursue these diets, we must think much more consciously about food waste.” The study also found that healthier diets used less cropland than lower quality diets.

“Consumers face a delicate balance between following dietary recommendations to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables (which requires purchasing more of them) while also wasting less of them,” the authors write. The researchers argue that increasing consumers’ knowledge about how to prepare and store fruits and vegetables will be one of the practical solutions to reducing food waste. Consumers need more education on how to tell when fruits and vegetables are ripe, how to store and prepare them, and how to tell the difference between bruises/abrasions and spoilage. Niles highlights efforts to reduce food waste, including French grocer Intermarché’s “inglorious fruits and vegetables” campaign, which promotes the cooking of “the disfigured eggplant,” “the ugly carrot,” and other healthy, but otherwise superficially damaged produce. Increased efforts to plan food purchases based on household food stocks is one way consumers can reduce waste due to over-purchasing. Policy efforts are needed to revise sell-by dates and labels to reduce consumer confusion. “Food waste is an issue that plays out at many different levels,” said lead author Zach Conrad from the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. “Looking at them holistically will become increasingly important to finding sustainable ways of meeting the needs of a growing world population.” (ab)

30.04.2018 |

AFSA warns against corporate takeover of African seed systems

Seeds
Farmers’ seeds are under threat (Photo: B. Haerlin)

African farmers’ seeds are increasingly under threat from policies designed to privilege corporate seed systems, says a new report launched on World Intellectual Property Day on April 26th. According to the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), an organisation that brings together small-scale food producers, indigenous peoples, farmers’ networks, consumer associations and other civil society actors, a policy shift is taking place on the continent towards the corporatisation of seeds, in direct contravention of international obligations to protect farmers’ rights and to conserve agricultural biodiversity. AFSA argues that a narrative runs through international policy, through national governments and development agencies, that asserts that it is crucial to replace farmers’ varieties with improved varieties, and to ‘modernise’ African agriculture in order to deal with hunger. “This approach is embedded within a ‘Green Revolution’ logic which assumes that access to and use of improved varieties and related inputs will increase yields, which will lead to more income and food security,” the report says. However, AFSA warns that “the narrow focus on yield and productivity and the lack of acknowledgement of the multifunctional nature of seed and agriculture in Africa has resulted in blindness to the potential impacts of this model on socio-economic systems, food security, health, social justice, environment and culture.”

According to the report, two seed related policy processes are being advanced under the guise of this ‘feed the world’ narrative: On the one hand, the implementation of plant variety protection regimes that are strongly skewed in favour of breeders’ rights over farmers’ rights to attract investment from the private seed industry. On the other hand, seed trade laws are developed or tightened that privilege ‘improved varieties’ on the market and severely restrict the trade and exchange of farmers’ varieties. AFSA says an array of stakeholders with vested interests are pushing these policy processes at national levels, as well as implementing projects to harmonise policies through regional bodies in order to create larger markets to operate in and to reduce regulatory hurdles. “Regional bodies like SADC and COMESA are developing rules that will increase the availability of commercial seeds, only benefiting corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto,” says Elizabeth Mpofu, a Zimbabwean farmer and La Via Campesina General Coordinator. “Indigenous seeds are not recognised. We believe in controlling our land and seeds and producing the healthy food that we want, the way we want. Our response is to fight for food sovereignty against these transnational corporations.”

But the report also maps the way forward for building a continental movement to save African seeds. “The answer to seed sovereignty is not in the hands of corporates, but in the hands of smallholder farmers who feed the world,” says Peter Nzioka of Kaane Small Scale Farmers Association in Kenya. According to AFSA, 90% of seeds sown in Africa come from ‘informal’ sources, local markets, or seeds saved by farmers or their neighbours – the majority of whom are women. The report argues that those seeds are providing 80% of Africa’s food. “Farmer managed seed systems (FMSS) are complex, multifunctional and resilient and these systems, not the formal seed industry, form the backbone of African agriculture. However, FMSS are neglected in policy, funding, research and extension support, leaving them exposed to genetic erosion and impeding their ability to adapt to the vagaries of climate change, new pests and the array of other challenges encountered in agricultural production,” the report reads. AFSA therefore calls on African governments to wake up to the dangers of these flawed policies, to scrap the externally-driven and damaging seed laws, and to recognise that the future of African food systems lies in supporting food producers to provide sustainable local solutions. (ab)

27.04.2018 |

EU to ban outdoor use of bee-harming neonic pesticides

Bees
Neonics harm wild bees and honeybees (Photo: CC0)

The European Union will ban the outdoor use of widely used insecticides due to the danger they pose to bees. On April 27, EU member states backed a proposal by the European Commission to restrict the use of three active substances (imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam) to permanent greenhouses. The necessary qualified majority was reached in the Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, with 18 member states voting in favour of a ban, including France, Germany, Italy and the UK. “All outdoor use of the three substances will be banned and the neonicotinoids in question will only be allowed in permanent greenhouses where no contact with bees is expected,” the Commission said in a statement. Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis welcomed the vote, stressing that “the Commission had proposed these measures months ago, on the basis of the scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority.” In February, a major EFSA risk assessment spanning 1,500 scientific studies re-confirmed that neonicotinoid pesticides pose a serious threat to wild bees and honeybees. “Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment,” said the commissioner Andriukaitis.

Environmentalists and scientists welcomed the ban. Greenpeace EU food policy adviser Franziska Achterberg said: “This is great news for pollinators and our wider environment, but there was never any question that these three neonicotinoids had to go. Now the EU must make sure that they are not simply swapped with other harmful chemicals.” She highlighted that these three neonicotinoids are just the tip of the iceberg and that there are many more pesticides, including other neonicotinoids, that are just as dangerous for bees and food production. “Governments must ban all bee-harming pesticides and finally shift away from toxic chemicals in farming.” Dave Goulson, Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, said the “EU decision is a logical one” given the “abundant evidence from lab and field studies that neonicotinoids are harmful to bees, and a growing body of evidence linking them to declines of butterflies, aquatic insects and insect-eating birds”. However, he also warned that “we will simply be going round in circles” if the three neonicotinoids are simply replaced by other similar compounds such as sulfoxaflor, cyantraniliprole and flupyradifurone. “What is needed is a move towards truly sustainable farming methods that minimise pesticide use, encourage natural enemies of crop pests, and support biodiversity and healthy soils,” Goulson stressed. (ab)

20.04.2018 |

Argentine small-scale farmers give away vegetables in land protest

Verdurazo
Verdurazo in 2016 (Photo: Emergente, bit.ly/vazo16, cc: bit.ly/bync20)

Farmers in Argentina have distributed tonnes of produce for free as part of a protest to demand access to land. The event dubbed “el verdurazo” started on Tuesday, with some 1,500 farmers gathering outside Congress in the capital of Buenos Aires in order to press for the passage of a law that would enable family farmers and other small producers to buy the land they farm. During the three-day protest, farmers handed out a total of 30,000 kilograms of vegetables to everyone who came to their campsite. People, most of them pensioners, were queuing to get heads of lettuce, tomatoes, beans or eggplant unloaded from the back of trucks. The protest was organised by the farmworkers union “Unión de Trabajadores de la Tierra” (UTT), which represents 14,000 small-scale farming families in 16 provinces of the country. The organisation advocates a law that would improve the situation of Argentina’s small-scale farmers. “This bill responds to the needs of hundreds of thousands of small producers who produce more than 60% of the food consumed in the country with 13% of the country’s arable land,” UTT said in statement. “Families that live off the land, on the land and for the land, but whose land does not belong to them. They are prisoners of expensive and speculative rents that eat up large parts of the fruit of their labour. If farmers do not own their land, this does not only mean having to pay a rent, it also means not being able to put down roots, not being able to make plans and having to live in precarious housing conditions.”

On Wednesday, UTT presented its proposal in a public hearing in the Chamber of Deputies. The billed called “Fondo Fiduciario Público de Crédito para la Agricultura Familiar” would facilitate access to land through credits with low interest rates for small farmers. “The state should take action on this matter. We do not want handouts. We propose soft loans, an extension of the government housing program Procrear to rural areas, so that farmers can gain access to the land that is the basis of their work, in the same way urban residents get help buy their own homes,” UTT said. The union welcomed the participation of legislators, public institutions and organisations in the hearing but they were deeply disappointed at the absence of the Ministry of Agro-industry. The union argues the government is supporting large land-owners and agribusiness while marginalising small producers. According to UTT, the national government will give 145 million dollars to agribusiness in 2018, for example with credits handed out due to the drought or tax cuts for soy farmers. “We accuse the government of transferring $145 million to the largest sector, which grows fodder for Chinese pigs,” a UTT representative said. “Zero pesos for everyone else. There’s (money) for the big players and nothing for the small ones.” The union projects that with 100 million pesos (5 million dollars) for the Procrear Rural programme, 500 small-scale farmers could get access to 500 hectares of land, which would allow them to produce food for 62,500 families per year. (ab)

15.04.2018 |

IAASTD report calling for radical changes in agriculture turns ten

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IAASTD co-chairs Judi Wakhungu, Hans Herren and Director Bob Watson in 2008

The way the world grows its food has to change radically to better serve the poor and hungry if we are to cope with a growing population and climate change while avoiding social breakdown and environmental collapse. That was the message of the press release published on April 15th 2008, announcing the adoption of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). On behalf of the United Nations and the World Bank, more than 400 scientists had summarised the state of global agriculture, its history and its future in a four-year-process. The outcome was a 600-page global report, five separate regional reports, as well as one synthesis report and seven executive summaries for decision makers which were adopted sentence by sentence by an intergovernmental plenary in Johannesburg on April 11th 2008.

The assessment found that modern agriculture has brought significant increases in food production. But the benefits have been spread unevenly and have come at an increasingly intolerable price, paid by small-scale farmers, workers, rural communities and the environment. “Business as usual will hurt the poor. It will not work,” said Professor Robert Watson, who was Director of the IAASTD. “We have to applaud global increases in food production but not everyone has benefited,” he stressed. “Continuing to focus on production alone will undermine our agricultural capital and leave us with an increasingly degraded and divided planet.” Watson argued that “business as usual would mean more environmental degradation and the earth’s haves and have-nots splitting further apart. It would leave us facing a world nobody would want to inhabit.” The report called for institutional, economic and legal frameworks to be put in place that combine productivity with the protection and conservation of natural resources like soils, water, forests, and biodiversity.

The IAASTD clearly debunked the myth that industrial agriculture is superior to small-scale farming in economic, social and ecological terms and recognised the pivotal role that small-scale farmers play in feeding the world. “Opportunities lie in those small-scale farming systems that have high water, nutrient and energy use efficiencies and conserve natural resources and biodiversity without sacrificing yield,” was one of 22 key findings of the global summary. The report called for more investment in smallholders in order to combat hunger. “Significant pro-poor progress requires creating opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship, which explicitly target resource poor farmers and rural laborers,” was another finding. “This will require simultaneous investments in infrastructure and facilitating access to markets and trade opportunities, occupational education and extension services, capital, credit, insurance and in natural resources such as land and water.”

The civil society groups that participated in the IAASTD process welcomed the report even though they did not fully agree with some of the government-negotiated conclusions. “A new era of agriculture begins today” was the headline of their statement released on April 15th 2008. The organisations, that included Greenpeace, Pesticide Action Network or Third World Network, described the IAASTD as “a sobering account of the failure of industrial farming” that “calls for a fundamental change in the way we do farming, to better address soaring food prices, hunger, social inequities and environmental disasters.” They said its key message was that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward to avert a food crisis and meet the needs of local communities. “We call on all governments, civil society and international institutions to support the findings of this report, implement its progressive conclusions, and thereby jumpstart the revolution in agricultural policies and practices that is urgently needed to attain more equitable and sustainable food and farming systems.”

Ten years have passed since the adoption of the report. When asked about his opinion on its impact, IAASTD Co-chair Hans Herren said in 2016 that the report had been “gaining traction at many different levels”. In an interview for a brochure about the IAASTD, Herren said that one of the messages which had made it to the mainstream of international discussions was “the recognition that present agriculture and food systems are not in line with the need for a sustainable world” and that “agriculture must transform from being a contributor to a solver of problems such as climate change, public health or environmental degradation”. What has been most ignored according to Herren is the need to also radically transform industrial food systems. “It is still assumed that developed countries, with their unsustainable industrial agriculture and food systems have to ‘feed the world’,” he said. “The message that countries need to maximize their own capacity to produce food and protect their own farmers, also addressed as food sovereignty, has yet to be taken into account in the agriculture and food policies of developed countries.” (ab)

09.04.2018 |

Symposium: Scale-up agroecology to transform food and agricultural systems

Farmer
Family farmers must remain central to scaling up agroecology (Photo: CC0)

It is necessary to scale up agroecology in order to transform food and agricultural systems and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This was the message of the 2nd International Agroecology Symposium that came to a close in Rome on April 5th after three days of discussion and knowledge exchange and saw the launch of the “Scaling up Agroecology Initiative”. The event brought together more than 700 participants with representatives from 72 governments, around 350 civil society and other non-governmental groups, and six UN organisations. It builds on the first agroecology symposium held in 2014 at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome, followed by a series of regional meetings, which highlighted the important role agroecology can play.

On the last day of the event, the Chair of this year’s symposium, Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias, summarised why agroecology is key to transforming food and agricultural systems: “Agroecology offers multiple benefits, including for increasing food security and resilience, boosting livelihoods and local economies, diversifying food production and diets, promoting health and nutrition, safeguarding natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem functions, improving soil fertility and soil health, adapting to and mitigating climate change, and preserving local cultures and traditional knowledge systems”. However, despite many successful agroecological experiences in all regions of the world, there is still a lack of awareness among key decision-makers of the potential of agroecology to tackle to multiple challenges and contribute to achieving the SDGs. Therefore, the Chair’s summary also outlines a vision for the way forward for the scaling up of agroecology, including a list of urgently needed commitments from stakeholders. De Souza Dias called on governments to develop policy and legal frameworks to promote and support agroecology and sustainable food systems, and to remove “perverse incentives” for unsustainable agriculture. “It is critical that legal and regulatory frameworks are implemented in a way that ensures transformative change towards sustainable agriculture and food systems based on agroecology, and respects, protects and fulfills farmers’ rights and access to productive resources such as land, water and seeds.”

In his summary, de Souza Dias called on FAO to develop a detailed 10 year action plan for agroecology and to begin implementing the Scaling up Agroecology Initiative launched at the event. The initiative was presented in a 17-page document that shows the potential of agroecology to contribute to the 2030 Agenda, lists the key challenges and opportunities to the scale-up of agroecology, gives the core areas of work the initiative will focus on and explains how this should be achieved through a wide cooperation among a broad range of actors and institutions. “It’s time to scale up the implementation of agroecology,” FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said in his closing remarks. “We have succeeded in moving from talking about what is agroecology, to now having specific program targets to be achieved in the next few years, and strong support from civil society and those governments who have worked hard to make this symposium a success,” he added. Da Silva also highlighted that family farmers must remain central in this process: “When we speak of agroecology, we are not speaking of strictly technical matters. I would like to stress the social aspect, so when we say that we are going to strengthen the role of agroecology in FAO’s work, we are saying that we are going to strengthen the role of family and small-scale farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists, women and youth.” (ab)

06.04.2018 |

Agricultural intensification in Europe has led to biodiversity loss, scientists warn

Field
Agricultural intensification has led to biodiversity decline (Photo: CC0)

The biodiversity of Europe and Central Asia continues to decline, with land-use change being the main driver. Production-based subsidies have led to intensification in agriculture and forestry, accelerating biodiversity loss. This is the message of the regional assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services for Europe and Central Asia, one of four landmark science reports released in March by IPBES, an intergovernmental body on biodiversity. The four regional reports cover the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Africa, as well as Europe and Central Asia and were written by more than 550 leading experts from more than 100 countries over the past three years. In every region, with the exception of a number of positive examples, biodiversity and nature’s capacity to contribute to people are being degraded, reduced and lost due to a number of common pressures – habitat stress; overexploitation and unsustainable use of natural resources; air, land and water pollution; increasing numbers and impact of invasive alien species and climate change, among others.

According to the Summary for Policymakers of the regional report for Europe and Central Asia, natural ecosystems are in a bad state. Wetlands have declined by 51% since 1970 and natural and semi-natural grasslands, peatlands and coastal marine habitats have been degraded. “A total of 73% of the assessments of the European Union’s freshwater habitat types show an unfavourable conservation status. Across Europe and Central Asia, lakes, ponds and streams are altered and disappearing as a consequence of agricultural intensification, irrigation and urban development combined with climate change,” the summary reads. The authors mention the case of the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, which has now almost disappeared due to water abstraction for crop cultivation.

Of the assessed species living exclusively in Europe and Central Asia, 28% are threatened. Among the most endangered species groups are mosses and liverworts, half of which are threatened with extinction. In Western and Central Europe and the western parts of Eastern Europe at least 37% of freshwater fish, 33% of both freshwater snails and vascular plants, as well about 23% of amphibians are currently threatened with extinction. About 71% of fish and 60% of amphibians with known population trends have been declining over the last decade. Across Europe and Central Asia, 42% of terrestrial animal and plant species with known trends have declined in population size over the last decade. The authors found that the main causes of this decline are habitat loss, degradation and pollution due primarily to unsustainable agriculture and forest management, natural resource extraction and invasive alien species. Monocultures, and all forms of homogenization of landscapes, such as the conversion of grasslands to crops, and agricultural intensification have caused uniformity in species composition and thus declining diversity.

According to the authors, nature’s material contributions to people, such as food and energy, have been promoted at the expense of other functions. “The people of the region consume more renewable natural resources than the region produces,” said Prof. Markus Fischer, co-chair of the Europe and Central Asia report. For example, Western Europe’s ecological footprint is 5.1 global hectares per person and its “biocapacity” is 2.2 hectares per person, meaning Western Europeans depend on net imports of renewable natural resources and material contributions of nature to people. Food availability in Central and Western Europe relies significantly on imports from countries, both outside and within the region, particularly on millions of hectares of cropland harvested per year in Argentina, Brazil, China and the US. “Although this is somewhat off-set by higher biocapacities in Eastern Europe and northern parts of Western and Central Europe,” Prof. Fischer added.

The authors warn that economic growth, as measured through traditional gross domestic product (GDP), across Europe and Central Asia has indirectly reinforced drivers of biodiversity loss. Policy instruments persist, such as harmful agricultural and fishing subsidies, which continue to impede transitions towards a sustainable future. However, the authors also stress that this can be changed and that a range of promising policy options are available to safeguard biodiversity. These include measuring national welfare beyond GDP. Decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation would require a transformation in policies and tax reforms across the region, assisted by new indicators that incorporate well-being, environmental quality, employment and equity, biodiversity conservation and nature’s ability to contribute to people. Speaking about these policy options, IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson said: “Although there are no ‘silver bullets’ or ‘one-size-fits all’ answers, the best options in all four regional assessments are found in better governance, integrating biodiversity concerns into sectoral policies and practices (e.g. agriculture and energy), the application of scientific knowledge and technology, increased awareness and behavioural changes.” (ab)

28.03.2018 |

Land degradation threatens human well-being and biodiversity, UN report

Drought
Land degradation reduces crop yields (Photo: CC0)

Land degradation is threatening the well-being of 3.2 billion people worldwide, pushing the planet towards a sixth mass species extinction, a major UN-backed report has warned. By 2050, land degradation and climate change together are predicted to reduce crop yields by an average of 10% globally and could force up to 700 million people to migrate. According to the comprehensive global IPBES assessment adopted on March 26 by the 129 member governments of the independent intergovernmental body, the main drivers of land degradation are human activities, mainly agriculture. “Rapid expansion and unsustainable management of croplands and grazing lands is the most extensive global direct driver of land degradation, causing significant loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services – food security, water purification, the provision of energy and other contributions of nature essential to people. This has reached ‘critical’ levels in many parts of the world,” IPBES said in a press release. Land degradation cost the equivalent of about 10% of the world’s annual GDP in 2010 through the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, the authors found.

The report, written by more than 100 leading experts from 45 countries in three years of work, was adopted in Medellín, Colombia. It draws on over 3,000 scientific, government, indigenous and local knowledge sources and was extensively peer-reviewed. According to the authors, the underlying drivers of land degradation are the high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies. “High and rising per capita consumption, amplified by continued population growth in many parts of the world, can drive unsustainable levels of agricultural expansion, natural resource and mineral extraction, and urbanization – typically leading to greater levels of land degradation,” IPBES warns. Crop and grazing lands now cover more than one third of the Earth´s land surface, with recent clearance of native habitats, including forests, grasslands and wetlands, being concentrated in some of the most species-rich ecosystems on the planet. By 2014, more than 1.5 billion hectares of natural ecosystems had been converted to croplands. Less than 25% of the Earth’s land surface has escaped substantial impacts of human activities. The IPBES experts project that this figure will have fallen to less than 10% by 2050. “Wetlands have been particularly hard hit,” said Dr Luca Montanarella, co-chair of the assessment. “We have seen losses of 87% in wetland areas since the start of the modern era – with 54% lost since 1900.”

The report found that land degradation is a major driver of climate change, with deforestation alone contributing about 10% of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Another factor has been the release of carbon previously stored in the soil, with land degradation between 2000 and 2009 responsible for annual global emissions of up to 4.4 billion tonnes of CO2. However, soils could contribute to mitigating climate change due to their carbon absorption and storage functions. The authors say that the avoidance, reduction and reversal of land degradation could provide more than a third of the most cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation activities needed by 2030 to keep global warming under the 2°C threshold. “Land degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change are three different faces of the same central challenge: the increasingly dangerous impact of our choices on the health of our natural environment,” said Sir Robert Watson, Chair of IPBES and Director of the World Agriculture Report (IAASTD) released in 2009. “We cannot afford to tackle any one of these three threats in isolation – they each deserve the highest policy priority and must be addressed together.” He added that “the evidence also shows that we know how to protect and partially restore our vital natural assets”.

To stop and reverse land degradation, the authors call for coordinated policies between different ministries in order to encourage more sustainable production and consumption practices of land-based commodities. They recommend eliminating ‘perverse incentives’ that promote land degradation and promoting positive incentives that reward sustainable land management. The report notes that successful examples of land restoration are found in every ecosystem, and that many well-tested practices and techniques, both traditional and modern, can avoid or reverse degradation. In croplands, for instance, options include reducing soil loss and improving soil health, the use of salt tolerant crops, conservation agriculture and integrated crop, livestock and forestry systems. Options on the consumer side to avoid further agricultural expansion into native habitats are shifts towards less land degrading diets, such as those with more plant-based foods and less animal protein from unsustainable sources, and reductions in food loss and waste. “Fully deploying the toolbox of proven ways to stop and reverse land degradation is not only vital to ensure food security, reduce climate change and protect biodiversity,” said Dr Montanarella, “It’s also economically prudent and increasingly urgent.” (ab)

22.03.2018 |

Nature-based solutions for sustainable water management in agriculture

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Drip irrigation in Niger (Photo: ICRISAT, bit.ly/1_CC_BY-NC_2-0, bit.ly/ICRISAT)

Almost half of the world’s population lives in regions with severe water stress and climate change will worsen the situation. However, nature-based solutions, such as reforestation, the protection of wetlands or water-efficient agricultural practices, can improve the supply and quality of water and reduce the impact of natural disasters. This is the message of the UN World Water Development Report 2018. Currently, an estimated 3.6 billion people live in areas that are potentially water-scarce at least one month per year, and this number could increase to some 5.7 billion by 2050. Climate change will put further pressure on the global water cycle, with wetter regions generally becoming wetter and drier regions becoming even drier. Urbanisation, deforestation and the intensification of agriculture will add to these challenges. The global demand for water has been increasing at a rate of about 1% per year over the past decades due to population growth, economic development and changing consumption patterns. The report projects that demand will continue to grow. Industrial and domestic demand for water will increase much faster than agricultural demand, although agriculture will remain the largest user.

The report says that the challenge is to meet this demand in a way that does not exacerbate negative impacts on ecosystems. Ecosystem degradation is already a major problem. Although about 30% of the global land remains under forest cover, at least two thirds of this area are in a degraded state. Most of the world’s soil resources, notably farmland, are in only fair, poor or very poor condition. This has serious impacts on water cycling due to higher evaporation rates, lower soil water storage and more surface runoff accompanied by increased erosion. Since the year 1900, an estimated 64–71% of the natural wetland area worldwide has been lost due to human activity. This ecosystem degradation is negatively affecting hydrology. But nature-based solutions in agriculture could make a difference.

The report argues that agriculture needs to use resources, including water, more efficiently and reduce its external footprint. It calls for sustainable food production, which enhances ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, for example through improved soil and vegetation management as well as farming practices that minimise soil disturbance, maintain soil cover and ensure crop rotation. The authors stress that “agricultural systems that conserve ecosystem services by using practices such as conservation tillage, crop diversification, legume intensification and biological pest control perform as well as intensive, high-input systems”. They cite a study that assessed agricultural development projects in 57 low-income countries and found that using water more efficiently combined with reductions in the use of pesticides and better soil cover increased average crop yields by 79%.

The report gives further examples for nature-based solutions in agriculture: Following a severe drought in the Indian state of Rajasthan in 1986, NGOs worked alongside local communities to set up water harvesting structures and regenerate soils and forests in the region. This led to a 30% increase in forest cover, groundwater levels rose by several metres and cropland productivity improved. Another solution is the System of Rice Intensification that enables savings of 25 to 50% in water requirements and 80 to 90% in seeds while raising paddy output by 25 to 50%, depending on the region. The UN sees a huge potential in rain-fed systems that account for the bulk of current production and family farming and hence provide the greatest livelihood and poverty reduction benefits. “The theoretical gains that could be achievable at a global scale exceed the projected increases in global demand for water, thereby potentially reducing conflicts among competing uses,” the report reads.

However, the use of nature-based solutions remains marginal due to the lack of enabling conditions. The report argues that payment for environmental services schemes would provide monetary and non-monetary incentives to communities, farmers and land owners to protect, restore and conserve natural ecosystems and to adopt sustainable agricultural and other land use practices. It calls for a shift in agricultural policy to finance the further uptake of nature-based solutions. “This requires overcoming the fact that the vast majority of agricultural subsidies, and probably the majority of public funding and almost all private sector investment in agricultural research and development, support the intensification of conventional agricultural, which increases water insecurity,” the authors write. (ab)

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