11.09.2014 |

Commercial agriculture drives nearly half of illegal deforestation, report

Deforestation threatens the Amazon (Photo: Neil Palmer/ CIAT,

Growing international demand for agricultural commodities such as palm oil, beef, soy and wood is driving the illegal destruction of tropical forests. 71% of all tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2012 was caused by commercial agriculture, according to a new report published today by the Washington-based NGO Forest Trends. Almost half (49%) of this deforestation is the result of illegal clearing, driven by overseas demand for agricultural commodities. The study found that this global market for beef, leather, soy, palm oil, and wood products, including paper is worth an estimated US$61 billion per year. The largest buyers of these products are the EU, China, India, Russia, and the US. This overseas demand resulted in the illegal clearing of more than 200,000 square kilometres of tropical forest between 2000 and 2012, an average of five football fields every minute. “We’ve known that the production of agricultural commodities is a principal driving force behind deforestation, but this is the first report to show the outsize role that illegal activities play in the production of hundreds of food and household products consumed worldwide,” said Michael Jenkins, the president and CEO of Forest Trends. According to the study, this illegal conversion of tropical forest for large-scale commercial agriculture during 2000-2012 released an estimated 1.47 gigatonnes of carbon each year - equivalent to 25% of the EU’s annual fossil fuel-based emissions. The report suggests that at least 90% of the deforestation in Brazil from 2000 to 2012 was illegal because the legal obligation to conserve a percentage of natural forests in large-scale cattle and soy plantations was ignored. More sad news came from Brazil on Wednesday: Government figures showed that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 29% over the last year as agriculture expanded in the states of Para and Mato Grosso. Around 5,891 square kilometres of forest were cleared, an area half the size of Puerto Rico.

08.09.2014 |

Guatemala: Congress repeals 'Monsanto Law' after public outcry

Woman selling her produce (Photo: David Amsler/flickr)

In Guatemala, resistance from farmers and indigenous rights groups has led to the repeal of the controversial ‘Monsanto Law’ which would have authorised stricter property rights over new plant varieties. On Thursday, the Congress of Guatemala voted 117-111 in favour of repealing the “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties”, which was supposed to come into effect on 26 September. The law has been widely rejected by farmers, indigenous groups and other sectors of civil society for threatening food security. Since last week, popular movements have blocked roads in several cities to call on lawmakers to dismiss the law. The repeal comes after the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest legal body, provisionally suspended the law’s entry into force in a decision taken on 29 August. Opponents say the law endangers the rights of indigenous peoples and farmers by granting transnational companies like Monsanto intellectual property rights over new plant varieties in Guatemala. Anyone who reproduces patented seeds without authorisation would be punished with four years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 quetzales ($1,300). In a press conference, Antonio Gonzalez, member of the National Network in Defence of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala (REDSAG) and the Latin American Agroecological Movement, said that “this bill risks biodiversity, native seed varieties that are over 7,000 years old and that never required patents or labs, but have been able to sustain the lives of the Guatemalan people. We are speaking of privatising ancestral knowledge and one of the risks is the disappearance of the milpa system.” The approval of the law was a provision of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) with the United States, signed by Guatemala in 2005.

04.09.2014 |

“Sustainable intensification” will not feed the poor, new paper

Producing more food on less land won't feed the poor (Photo: David Cornwell/flickr)

Scientists have questioned the concept of “sustainable intensification” in international conversations about agriculture and food security, arguing it focuses too narrowly on food production and does not address access to food. In a new paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, researchers from Leuphana University Lüneburg, AgroParisTech and Washington State University write the concept does not merit the term “sustainable” because it disregards principles that are central to sustainability. Sustainable intensification (SI) seeks to produce more food on less land with the lowest environmental impact and has become a catchword in debates about how to feed a growing world population, particularly in Africa. The authors argue that SI focuses on production and increases in yields while agriculture is producing more food per capita than ever before and enough for everyone already. Simply producing more does not feed more people, as long as 30 per cent of food is still wasted and large amounts are used to produce animal feed and biofuels. The paper argues that sustainable solutions for food security must be holistic and look at how food is distributed and whether small-scale farmers and the rural poor have access to the food produced. Moreover, producing more on less land will not guarantee that less land will be used for agriculture: As yields increase, the potential profits could encourage “more people to enter the market and farm more land”, according to M. Jahi Chappell, one of the authors of the paper. Give the term’s popularity with international organisations, Chappell warns that “there’s a serious danger that it will drain both funds and attention from the larger and altogether different reforms necessary to fight hunger and food insecurity today, and in the future.”

01.09.2014 |

Eat less meat to prevent climate change, says new study

Forest are cleared to grow feed (Photo: United Soybean Board)

Eating less meat and reducing food waste is essential to ensure food security and avoid climate change, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Researchers from Cambridge and Aberdeen universities found that food production alone could exceed targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2050 if current trends continue. The authors warn that a growing population and a global shift towards meat-heavy diets will make it necessary to bring more land into cultivation. Increased deforestation, fertiliser use and livestock methane emissions could cause GHG from food production to increase by almost 80%. If we maintain ‘business as usual’, by 2050 cropland will have expanded by 42% and fertiliser use will have increased by 45% as compared to 2009 levels. The report says the situation can be improved if farmers in developing countries are helped to achieve the best possible yields from their land and if food waste at all stages in the food chain is reduced. But even with these measures, greenhouse gas emissions would still increase. The authors argue that a shift towards more balanced diets with less meat is needed. “More arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals that provide meat for humans. The losses at each stage are large, and as humans globally eat more and more meat, conversion from plants to food becomes less and less efficient, driving agricultural expansion and land cover conversion and releasing more greenhouse gases”, said lead author Bojana Bajzelj from the University of Cambridge. The researchers tested a scenario assuming an “average balanced diet” without excessive consumption of sugars, fats, and meat products, which included two 85g portions of red meat, seven portions of poultry and five eggs per week. “This is not a radical vegetarian argument; it is an argument about eating meat in sensible amounts as part of healthy, balanced diets,” said Cambridge co-author Prof Keith Richards. These three measures combined - closing yield gaps, halving food waste and switching to healthier diets - could result in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions almost halving from their 2009 level.

28.08.2014 |

Guatemala: Farmers and indigenous people reject “Monsanto Law”

Women selling vegetables (Photo: Guillén Pérez/flickr)

On Tuesday, indigenous and farmers’ organisations marched in the capital of Guatemala to demand the repeal of a new law which grants breeders exclusive rights over new plant varieties. The “Law for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants” was adopted by Congress on June 26 as a requirement of the Free Trade Agreement between Central America, Dominican Republic and the United States signed in 2005. Indigenous peoples and peasants protested in front of the Parliament and announced a legal appeal to the Constitutional Court. The law, which will enter into force on September 26, was dubbed “Monsanto Law” in reference to the corporation which is dedicated to developing new genetically modified crops. According to the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organisations (CLOC), the law threatens the Guatemalan people who live from agriculture and have been protecting their native seeds for thousands of years. It allows patents on new plant varieties and will initially be applied to varieties that are based on genetic elements of 15 crops, including corn. Within a ten year term, however, patents can be extended to all grains and vegetables. Farmers and indigenous communities are especially concerned about article 50 of the law, which foresees prison terms of up to four years and a fine of 10,000 quetzales for the reproduction of patented seeds. They fear that Monsanto could be the main beneficiary and distribute genetically modified seeds across the country. “Why are transnationals gaining control of our food, our food safety and sovereignty? This is something we will defend as a people”, Mash Mash, a member of Consejo de Pueblos de Occidente”, told Telesur. Farmer Magdalena Alvarado said: “This law affects us and all communities of the Mayan people because we grow corn, beans, and vegetables without contamination, everything is organic. We eat a lot of corn.” Activists criticise the government for approving the law without a social discussion while the public was distracted during the FIFA 2014 World Cup.

27.08.2014 |

Biofuel production is a main driver of the global land rush, new study

Jatropha plantation (Forest and Kim Starr/flickr)

The production of agrofuel crops is playing a decisive role in the international scramble for arable land in developing and emerging countries, according to a new study from the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). The study looked at 956 concluded large-scale land acquisitions (covering 36 million hectares of land) currently listed by the Land Matrix database. Projects that include plants intended for biofuel production account for 23% of the total area. Sub- Saharan Africa appears to be the most popular region for investments, with six countries representing almost half of the total land under contract among the top 10. Brazil ranks first due to its bioethanol-promoting policies. Agrofuel projects are particularly attractive to foreign investors from industrialised countries, the researchers found. With 1.5 million hectares acquired for biofuel production worldwide, companies from Great Britain top the list of investor countries. The analysis of the Land Matrix data also showed that agrofuel projects fail quite often. For instance, investors abandoned 15% of all jatropha projects, an oilseed-bearing plant that was praised for its alleged ability to generate high yields on marginal land. Jatropha had higher failure rates compared to oil palm or sugar cane projects as it became clear that jatropha, like most other plants, yields the best results in fertile soils. Jatropha investors were mostly start-ups with little experience. The researchers believe that the advancement of renewable energies will remain a priority in many countries: “The demand for agrofuels is expected to stay on course, perhaps even leading to a new wave of agrofuel investment.” In low- and middle-income countries, food security needs to be the primary concern of agriculture, the authors conclude.

21.08.2014 |

South Asia's agriculture at risk from climate change, report warns

India’s agriculture is at risk (Photo: P. Casier/CGIAR)

South Asia will be severely affected by climate change within a few decades if no action is taken to counter global warming, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned on Tuesday. A new report predicts that six countries - Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka - will see an average economic loss of around 1.8% of their gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050, rising sharply to 8.8% by the end of this century. Almost all areas of South Asia will suffer from rising temperatures. While farmers in some parts of the region may benefit from warmer weather, the overall impacts on agriculture are expected to be negative. By 2080, annual rice production could increase by as much as 16% in Nepal, but decrease as much as 23% in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Sri Lanka. Changes in rainfall patterns could increase the likelihood of crop failures, posing a serious threat to food security. Agriculture is an important economic sector in the region, contributing 20% of Bangladesh's GDP and employing 48% of the labor force. India is also deeply at risk from climate change and could suffer economic losses of up to 8.7% of its GDP by 2100. “Agriculture provides employment and livelihood opportunities to most of India’s rural population and changes in temperature and rainfall, and an increase in floods and droughts linked to climate change, would have a devastating impact on people’s food security, incomes, and lives,” said Bindu Lohani, ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development. The report also list adaptation and mitigation measures for South Asia. In agriculture, rice cultivation systems with improved water and nutrient use, more efficient irrigation, altering planting times and diversifying crops could help. According to the report, studies have shown that the system of rice intensification, which combines improvements in rice planting techniques and water application, can double or triple current rice yields.

19.08.2014 |

Earth Overshoot Day: Humans have exhausted natural resources for 2014

The planet is sliding into ecological debt (Photo: Royce Bair/

August 19th marks Earth Overshoot Day - the day humanity has used up the natural resources the world can supply in a year, according to data from Global Footprint Network, an international think tank. The date is calculated by contrasting the world’s demand on nature (ecological footprint) with the biocapacity - forests, pastures, cropland and fisheries as well as the planet’s ability to replenish resources and absorb waste, including carbon dioxide emissions. Earth Overshoot Day has moved from early October in 2000 to August 19th this year, showing that humans are exhausting natural resources such as land, wood, fibre and fish faster than ever. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by living on resources borrowed from future generations. In 1961, humans used only around three-quarters of the capacity Earth has for generating food, timber, fish and absorbing greenhouse gases. According to the Global Footprint Network, we would currently need 1.5 Earths to produce the renewable resources necessary to support our footprint. Moderate population, energy and food projections suggest that humanity would require the biocapacity of three planets by 2050. „The interest we are paying on that mounting ecological debt in the form of deforestation, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the build-up of CO2 in our atmosphere also comes with mounting human and economic costs”, the Global Footprint Network warns.

15.08.2014 |

UN warns of severe damage to agriculture in Gaza

Smashing pumpkins: destroyed farm in south Gaza (Photo: Mohammed Al Baba/Oxfam)

Israel’s military operation in Gaza has devastated local food production and made the population reliant on food aid, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned in a statement. The recent fighting has forced farmers to abandon their fields and has caused considerable damage to Gaza's 17,000 hectares of croplands. Agricultural infrastructure was also destroyed, including greenhouses, irrigation systems, animal farms, and fishing boats. “Up to now, ongoing military operations have prevented detailed assessments of damages to agriculture from being completed,” said Ciro Fiorillo, head of FAO's office in the region, but the recovery in the agriculture sector will definitely need long-term external assistance. According to the latest estimates, Gaza lost half of its poultry birds either due to direct bombardment or lack of water and feed resulting from access restrictions. Gaza’s fishing sector has also suffered extreme financial losses. The Gaza Strip imports large part of its food supply but local food production represents an important source of nutritious and affordable food and almost 30,000 people in Gaza rely on farming for their livelihoods. Food prices have risen considerably due to the fighting, with a 42% increase for potatoes and a 179% spike in the price of tomatoes since the onset of hostilities. The FAO estimates that almost the entire population of Gaza is currently dependent on food aid.

04.08.2014 |

WTO trade deal fails over India’s food subsidy concerns

India's farmers: more important than trade (Photo: Bioversity International/Padulosi)

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) failed to reach a global trade deal after India’s refusal to ratify the agreement unless it included concessions allowing the country to subsidise and stockpile food. Consensus on the global reform of customs procedures had already been reached in Bali in December, but the deadline to sign the pact lapsed on Thursday at midnight after WTO members failed to reach agreement over India’s food subsidy concerns. Under its public food security programme India procures rice and wheat from farmers at above-market prices and provides subsidised food grains to the poor population. With current WTO norms, food subsidies are limited to 10% of the value of total agricultural production. However, the support is calculated at prices that refer to the base year 1986-1988 and do not take into account inflation and currency fluctuation. The Bali meeting came up with a “peace clause”: WTO members would not file complaints against India's food subsidies until a permanent solution was found by 2017. India declined last week not to sign the Trade Facilitation Agreement without a permanent solution to the food security issues. US Secretary of State John Kerry had pressed Indian officials to ratify the deal during a visit to New Delhi last week. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was more concerned about the small Indian farmer: "The first responsibility of my government is to the poorest people of the country. While we don't oppose the agreement, we believe that the needs of those living on the margins of society, not just in India but elsewhere too, have to be addressed”, he told Kerry. The deal would have been the first global trade reform in two decades. Indian officials said they were willing to return to the table for new talks.


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