25.11.2014 |

Bee populations decline due to loss of essential pollinating plants

Busy bees at work (Photo: Jack Wolf/

Bee populations have decreased in recent decades mainly due to a loss of biodiversity causing the decline of their essential host plants, according to a study published Monday in the journal US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The scientists of Wageningen University in The Netherlands analysed the pollen found on the bodies of insects from 57 different wild bee species collected before the onset of their decline and used data to quantify population trends of bee species and their host plants. They found that the bees had certain favoured plants for pollinating. Dr Jeroen Scheper, an environmental specialist at the Alterra Research Institute reported, “we assessed the relative importance of a range of proposed factors responsible for wild bee decline and show that loss of preferred host plant species is one of the main factors associated with the decline of bee populations in The Netherlands”. Another important factor was bee body size, because larger bee species require more pollen to survive than smaller species. The researchers said that diet breadth and other potential factors such as length of flight period or climate change sensitivity were not important in explaining twentieth century bee population trends. The loss of natural habitats, namely grasslands, that are increasingly used for intensive agricultural production has led to a decline in wildflowers and the loss of bees’ food sources. Scheper mentions, that “these results indicate that mitigation strategies for loss of wild bees will only be effective if they target the specific host plants of declining bee species”. Bees are important for crop production, pollinating up to 80% of plants and flowers essential to the human diet.

20.11.2014 |

Governments at UN food summit pledge to combat malnutrition

Crop diversity in Peru (Photo: Bioversity International)

The international community must intensify its efforts towards eradicating hunger and malnutrition, top UN officials declared on Wednesday at the opening of the second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in Rome. The conference brings together ministers and senior officials responsible for food, agriculture and health with leaders of UN agencies and representatives of civil society. At the opening, some 170 Member States adopted the “Rome Declaration on Nutrition” as well as a “Framework for Action”, which set out recommendations for policies and programmes to address nutrition across different sectors. According to the FAO press release, the role of food systems - the way food is produced, processed, distributed, marketed and prepared for human consumption - is crucial in the fight against malnutrition. Therefore, many of the recommendations adopted focus on ensuring that food systems become more sustainable and promote diverse and healthy diets. To this end, governments are encouraged in Recommendation 9 to “strengthen local food production and processing, especially by smallholder and family farmers, giving special attention to the empowerment of women”. The framework document also recommends “programmes to promote physical activity, dietary diversification, consumption of micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, including traditional local foods.” At the opening of the conference, WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan stressed that “the world’s food system - with its reliance on industrialised production and globalised markets - produces ample supplies, but creates some problems for public health”. Currently, 805 million people worldwide still go hungry and over two billion are affected by micronutrient deficiencies, leaving them vulnerable to death or disease, obesity is on the rise, pushing life-expectancy figures backwards and increasing the costs of health care. The Rome Declaration commits governments to preventing malnutrition in all its forms, including hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity, and names nine other areas of action. However, further concrete measures and commitments are not mentioned.

17.11.2014 |

Monsanto to pay $2.4 million to farmers in GMO wheat dispute

Wheat field in Oregon (Photo: WebbShots/

Monsanto agreed to pay almost $2.4 million compensation to U.S. wheat farmers, who suffered economic losses after unlicensed genetically modified (GM) wheat was found in Oregon last year. On Wednesday, Monsanto announced that it had entered into a settlement agreement with farmers in the States of Washington, Oregon and Idaho who sued the seed company over market disruption. In May 2013, unapproved wheat, genetically engineered to withstand Roundup Ready herbicide, was discovered growing on a farm in Eastern Oregon. In response, Japan and South Korea temporarily stopped importing U.S. wheat due to fears the unapproved GM wheat might have contaminated U.S. wheat supplies. The settlement includes paying $2.1 million into a fund for farmers in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, who sold “soft white wheat” between May and November of 2013. A further $250,000 will go to different wheat growers’ associations. Monsanto will also pay the legal costs to farmers who were pursuing legal action against them. However, the company did not admit liability and said the agreement only resolves claims associated with the white wheat variety. At least three class action lawsuits have now be dismissed as part of the settlement. It is still unclear how the GM wheat appeared in the Oregon field in the first place. Monsanto’s GM wheat was never approved by U.S. regulators and the company said it stopped testing in Oregon over a decade ago. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said in September there had been a second discovery of unapproved Monsanto wheat at a Montana State University research facility, where field trials were conducted between 2000 and 2003. Right now, there is no commercially approved genetically modified wheat worldwide. In 2004, Monsanto withdrew its application for the approval of herbicide resistant GM wheat.

13.11.2014 |

Plant-based diets could improve human and environmental health

Healthy vegetables (Photo: Olearys/

A new study suggests that healthier food choices could dramatically reduce the environmental costs of agriculture and food production. The paper published in the journal ‘Nature’ by scientists at the University of Minnesota gathered 50 years of data from 100 of the world’s most populous nations. The scientists analysed data on the environmental impact of food production, diet trends, diet-related illnesses and population growth. “We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage,” said Professor of Ecology G. David Tilman. With rising incomes between 1961 and 2009, people consumed more meat, empty calories and total calories per person, the researchers say. The study linked global diet trends to forecasts of population and income growth. The scientists predict that diets in 2050 will include less fruits and vegetables, but almost 60% more empty calories and 25 to 50% more pork, poultry, beef, dairy and eggs. These changes will contribute to increasing the incidence of type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower life expectancy. These diets would lead to an 80% increase in global greenhouse gas emissions from food production, as well as to habitat destruction due to land clearing for agriculture. The study then compared the omnivorous diets to the traditional Mediterranean diet, a pescetarian diet (with fish as the only animal protein) and a vegetarian diet. Switching to these alternative diets could reduce Type 2 diabetes by 16 to 41%, cancer by 7 to 13% and death from heart disease by about 20% compared to the omnivore diet. In addition, adopting these alternative diets could prevent most or all of the increased greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction that would otherwise be caused by both current diet trends and population growth. “The implementation of dietary solutions to the tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma is a global challenge, and opportunity, of great environmental and public health importance”, the authors write.

10.11.2014 |

FAO concept of family farming under fire for ignoring smallholders’ access to land

Is this a family farm? (Photo: United Soybean Board)

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is painting a “rosy picture” of the situation of small-scale farmers, disregarding the “most crucial factor affecting the capacity of small farmers to produce food: lack of access to land". This is the message of an opinion piece published by Reuters, in which the international non-profit organisation GRAIN criticises the FAO’s concept of family farming. The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming and the “State of Food and Agriculture” published by the FAO in October also covers this topic. The report says family farmers manage 70-80% of the world's farmland and produce 80% of the world's food. In contrast, a recent study by GRAIN found that small farmers feed the world with just 24% of the world's farmland - or 17% if China and India are left out. The confusion stems from the way the FAO defines family farming “as any farm managed by an individual or a household”. This means that huge industrial family-owned soybean farms in Argentina and the United States are also included in FAO's count of “family farms”. GRAIN says that using family ownership as the decisive criterion “masks all the inequities, injustices and struggles that peasants and other small scale food producers across the world are mired in”. The FAO report itself states that only 1% of all farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares, but these farms control 65% of the world’s agricultural land. According to GRAIN, instead of paying “lip service to family farming”, the FAO should focus on small food producers’ access to land. Although their share of land is decreasing, small producers are feeding the planet as they are often more productive than large ones. GRAIN’s report indicates that if large-scale operations in Kenya achieved the yields of the country's small farms, Kenya's agricultural output would double.

06.11.2014 |

Study finds rich countries get bulk of Gates Foundation agriculture grants

Will African farmer benefit?(Photo: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spends most of its grants for agriculture to fight hunger in Africa by giving money to organisations in rich countries, according to a new report published by GRAIN on Tuesday. The non-profit group analysed the foundation’s food and agriculture grants since 2003 and found that half the $3billion awarded over the past decade went to global agriculture research networks and organisations. The single biggest recipient of this grouping is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a consortium of 15 international agricultural research centres, which have received over $720 million from Gates since 2003. The grouping also includes international organisations, such as the World Bank and UN agencies, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The report states that the second half of agricultural grants ($1.5 billion) went to hundreds of different research, development and policy organisations across the world, with 80% of the grants being given to organisations in the US and Europe and only 10% to groups in Africa. The north-south divide is most shocking when it comes to the funds granted to non-governmental organisations; of the $669 million that the Gates Foundation has granted to NGOs for agricultural work, over 75% went to organisations based in the US while Africa-based groups received just a meagre 4%. GRAIN criticised the lack of support “for programmes of research or technology development carried out by farmers or based on farmers’ knowledge, despite the multitude of such initiatives that exist across the continent.” The report says the “foundation has consistently chosen to put its money into top down structures of knowledge generation and flow, where farmers are mere recipients of the technologies developed in labs and sold to them by companies.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has rejected the accusations, “the central assumption is that only organisations located in Africa can benefit African farmers - and we think that is incorrect”, they told Reuters in a statement.

04.11.2014 |

Study links huge decline in European birds to farming and habitat loss

Birds are in rapid decline (Photo: Ian Sane/

Bird populations across Europe have experienced a sharp decline over the past 30 years due to modern farming methods and the loss of habitats, according to a new study that brought together data on 144 species from thousands of scientific surveys in 25 countries. The study, published in the journal "Ecology Letters", suggest that bird populations have dropped by 421 million across Europe since 1980, with 90% of the losses from the 36 most common bird species, including sparrows, skylarks and starlings. Dr Richard Inger, an ecologist at the University of Exeter who led the study, said: “It is very worrying that the most common species of bird are declining rapidly because it is these groups of birds that people benefit from the most.” Birds provide key ecosystem services. They help to control agricultural pests and play a vital role in decomposition, pollination and seed dispersal. The authors say the decline in bird populations can be linked to agricultural intensification, deterioration of the quality of the environment and habitat fragmentation, which has reduced areas that birds need for feeding and nesting. According to the study, conservation efforts tend to be focused on rarer species, such as white storks, whose populations are now increasing. However, measures should also address issues affecting common birds, for example those traditionally associated with farmland, since they exist in higher numbers and play a bigger role in maintaining the ecosystem. The authors stress the need for greater funding and efforts to protect common bird species, such as changing farming practices, implementing effective agri-environment schemes and increasing green spaces in urban areas.

23.10.2014 |

Patents on plants and animals a threat to food sovereignty, new report warns

Patent on the severed broccoli (Photo: Cookthinker/flickr)

The European Patent Office (EPO) has already granted several thousand patents on plants and seeds, with an increasing number of patents on plants and seeds derived from conventional breeding, according to a new report published by the international coalition “No Patents on Seeds!” If politicians don’t ensure that these kind of patents are prohibited, our daily food will soon be controlled by big corporations and the patent industry, the report warns. Since the 1980s, around 2400 patents on plants and 1400 patents on animals have been granted in Europe. The EPO has granted more than 120 patents on conventional breeding and about 1000 such patent applications are pending. The scope of many of these patents often covers the whole food chain from production to consumption. The report gives an overview of patents granted in 2013 and early 2014, including a patent on conventionally bred peppers derived from wild, insect-resistant varieties from Jamaica. The patent granted to Syngenta covers the plants, fruits and seeds and even claims the growing and harvesting of the plants as an invention. The EPO also granted a patent to Monsanto on screening and selecting soybean plants adapted to certain climate zones, concerning wild relatives of soybeans found in Asia and Australia. This gives Monsanto a monopoly on the future usage of hundreds of natural DNA sequence variations in the conventional breeding of soybeans. “Industry together with the EPO is the driving factors turning the patent system into an instrument for misappropriation of basic resources needed to produce our daily food. They are selling out the future of our food”, warns Christoph Then, one of the authors of the report. According to European patent law, plant and animal varieties as well as conventional methods of plant and animal breeding cannot be patented. With its decision, the EPO has “intentionally created a situation full of legal absurdities that allows prohibitions to be circumvented”, serving the interests of multinationals such as Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta who already control more than 50% of the international commercial seed market.

21.10.2014 |

Salt-tolerant Dutch potatoes to fight salinity and world hunger?

Salt was added after harvest (Photo: Guillaume Brialon)

A Dutch team has developed a potato crop through traditional breeding methods that is tolerant to salt water. Their project beat more than 500 competitors from 90 countries to win an award sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Inspired by sea kale, Dutch farmer Marc van Rijsselberghe set up Salt Farm Texel in the north of the Netherlands and collaborated with Dr Arjen de Vos from the Free University in Amsterdam to look at the possibility of cultivating crops using non-fresh water. “The world’s water is 89% salinated, 50% of agricultural land is threatened by salt water, and there are millions of people living in salt-contaminated areas. Up until now everyone has been concentrating on how to turn the salt water into fresh water; we are looking at what nature has already provided us with”, van Rijsselberghe told the Guardian. The process of desalination is expensive and requires much energy. The salt-tolerant potato plants, however, were watered with diluted sea water. The variety is four times more salt tolerant than regular potato varieties. The project used a trial and error approach and then screened different potato cultivars of which only two showed increased salt tolerance and were used for further development of the saline potato. Some of the Texel seed potatoes are already on their way to Pakistan where 4.2 million hectares of land is salt affected and farmers are often forced to use brackish groundwater to water their crops, which reduces yields and the quality of the crops. If the potatoes adapt to the Asian climate, they could transform the lives of farmers not only in Pakistan. According to Dutch team, there is no risk of overdosing on salt when eating crops fed by sea water. “What we find is that, if you tease a plant with salt, it compensates with more sugar,” said de Vos. The salt is mostly retained in the leaves of the plant. Peter Melchett, policy director of Soil Association, welcomed the new potato variety: “This is another example of conventional breeding beating GM technology by years. These non-GM salt-tolerant potatoes are already being grown yet ‘saline tolerance’ has always been one of the great (as yet unfulfilled) promises of pro-GM campaigners.”

16.10.2014 |

FAO report: 500 million family farms form the backbone of agriculture

Woman farmer in India (Photo: V.Reddy/CCAFS)

The world’s food security and environmental sustainability depend on the more than 500 million family farms that form the backbone of agriculture in most countries. This is the key message of a new report published today by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on the occasion of World Food Day. According to “The State of Food and Agriculture 2014” report, 90% of the world's 570 million farms are managed by families, making them the predominant form of agriculture. Family farms produce about 80% of the world's food and are custodians of about 75% of all agricultural resources. The FAO report offers a lot of details about the size and distribution of agricultural holdings: 72% of the world's farms are less than one hectare in size but control only 8% of all agricultural land. Farms between 1 and 2 hectares account for 12% of all farms and control 4% of the land. In contrast, only 1% of all farms in the world are larger than 50 hectares, but they control 65% of the world’s agricultural land. The report says that small farms produce a higher share of the world's food relative to the share of land they use, as they tend to have higher yields than larger farms within the same countries and agro- ecological conditions. However, many smaller farms are unable to produce enough to provide decent livelihoods for the families. The FAO says that family farms face the “triple challenge” of increasing yields “to meet the world’s need for food security”, achieving “environmental sustainability to protect the planet” and increasing productivity and diversifying livelihoods to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger. The report argues that family farmers must innovate and improve their production and agricultural practices. However, innovation systems must take the diversity of family farms into account.


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