18.02.2021 |

Global organic area continues to increase, report

Organic retail sales increased (Photo: CC0)

Organic farming is on the rise across the globe. A total of 72.3 million hectares were farmed organically at the end of 2019, representing a growth of 1.1 million hectares or almost 1.6% compared to the previous year. These are the latest figures of “The World of Organic Agriculture” published by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and IFOAM – Organics International. The report collects data on 187 countries with organic farming activities and was presented on February 17th at this year’s digital edition of BIOFACH, the world’s leading trade fair for organic food. Australia has the largest area farmed organically with 35.7 million hectares, followed by Argentina (3.7 million hectares) and Spain (2.4 million hectares). Due to the large area of organic farmland in Australia, half of the global organic area is in Oceania (35.9 million hectares), followed by Europe with 23% or 16.5 million hectares and Latin America with 11% (8.3 million hectares).

Currently, only 1.5% of the world’s agricultural land is farmed organically, but many countries have far higher shares. In sixteen countries, 10% or more of all agricultural land was under organic management in 2019. The top five countries with the largest share of organic land were Liechtenstein (41%), Austria (26.1%), São Tomé and Príncipe (24.9%), Estonia (22.3%) and Sweden (20.4%). According to the report, there were 3.1 million organic farmers worldwide and their number increased by 13% compared to the previous year. However, the authors point out that calculating precise figures is difficult here because some countries only report the number of companies, projects or growers groups which may each comprise many individual producers, hence the total number might even be higher. Around 51% of the world’s organic producers live in Asia, while Africa is home to 27% and Europe to 14% of organic producers. The country with the highest absolute numbers is India with 1.36 million farmers, followed by Uganda (210,353) and Ethiopia (203,602).

Consumer demand for organic products is also increasing across the globe. Global retail sales of organic food and drink reached 106 billion euros in 2019. The United States is the leading market (44.7 billion euros), followed by Germany (11.9bn euros) and France (11.3bn euros). High growth rate were achieved in many countries. In Estonia and France, markets increased by more than 13%. Looking at the shares the organic market has of the total market, the leader is Denmark with 12.1% while the organic market share was 10.4% in Switzerland and 9.3% in Austria. Danish and Swiss consumers spent the most on organic food with 344 and 338 euros per person respectively. “The yearbook is an outstanding reflection of the level of trust people around the world have in organic agriculture and its importance for nutrition, the environment and sustainable development,” said Knut Schmidtke, Director of Research, Extension & Innovation at FiBL Switzerland. The authors assume that the organic sector will benefit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence shows that retail sales have risen by up to 30% in some countries in 2020. “The pandemic has had a profound impact on our daily lives, as well as on the organic food industry," according to the report. “In COVID times, it almost looked as if food was regarded as a medicine. Organic agriculture has a lot to offer for systematic, positive health by reducing pesticide levels, contributing to a healthy environment and focussing on seasonality and proximity," writes Louise Luttikholt, Executive Director of IFOAM – Organics International, in the outlook section. The figures for 2020 will be published in the 2022 edition of “The World of Organic Agriculture”. (ab)

05.02.2021 |

Food system reform needed to protect biodiversity, report

Agriculture is driving biodiversity loss (Photo: CC0)

Biodiversity is declining faster than at any time in human history and the global food system is the main driver, making food system reform an urgent priority. This is the message of a new Chatham House report, supported by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Compassion in World Farming. The report published on February 3rd, highlights that biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate, unless we change the way we produce food to prevent further destruction of ecosystems and habitats. The authors recommend three interdependent actions needed for food system transformation: “We need to change global dietary patterns, protect and set aside land for nature and farm in a more nature-friendly and biodiversity-supporting way,” says Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Ecosystems Division. The findings were presented during an online event.

Biodiversity loss is accelerating around the world, the report warns. The global rate of species extinction today is higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years. Around a quarter of species in most animal and plant groups are already under threat from extinction, and around 1 million more species face extinction within decades. The global food system is the primary driver of this trend. Agriculture alone is an identified threat to 24,000 of the 28,000 (86%) species at risk of extinction. Over the past 50 years, the conversion of natural ecosystems for crop production or pasture has been the principal cause of habitat loss. “The biggest threats to biodiversity arise from exploitative land use – converting natural habitats to agriculture and farming land intensively – and these are driven by the economic demand for producing ever more calorie-rich, but nutritionally poor, food from fewer and fewer commodities grown at scale,” says lead author Professor Tim Benton, Research Director at Chatham House. “These commodities underpin a wasteful food system that fails to nourish us and undermines biodiversity and drives climate change.” Another problem is that current food production depends heavily on the use of inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, energy and water, and on unsustainable practices such as monocropping and heavy tilling. Our food system is also a major driver of climate change, accounting for around 30% of total human-produced emissions. Climate change further degrades habitats and causes species to disperse to new locations, creating opportunities for the emergence of infectious disease.

If we continue with business as usual, biodiversity loss will continue to accelerate, the authors warn. The reform of our food system is thus an urgent priority. The report describes three principal levers needed for food system transformation in support of biodiversity. Firstly, global dietary patterns need to move towards more plant-heavy diets, mainly due to the disproportionate impact of animal agriculture on biodiversity, land use and the environment. “Such a shift would also benefit the dietary health of populations around the world, and help reduce the risk of pandemics. Global food waste must be reduced significantly. Together, these measures would reduce pressure on resources including land, through reducing demand,” the authors write in the summary of the report. Secondly, more land needs to be protected and set aside for nature. The greatest gains for biodiversity will occur when we preserve or restore whole ecosystems. Therefore, we need to avoid converting land for agriculture. Human dietary shifts are essential in order to preserve existing native ecosystems and restore those that have been removed or degraded. “It is key to recognize that land could in effect be spared by shifting to less resource-intensive diets. Hence, land-sparing does not always require an intensification of agricultural land elsewhere to compensate,” the authors explain.

The third lever for transforming the food system is to adopt more biodiversity-supporting modes of food production, limiting the use of inputs and replacing monoculture with polyculture farming practices. The report outlines three key avenues in order to achieve this – gaining efficiency, substituting artificial processes with ecological ones, and redesigning the system. These three avenues “are about maintaining adequate food yields while reducing environmentally damaging inputs, in other words, they are about sustainably intensifying production.” The authors mention that the concept of ‘sustainable intensification’ is subject to much debate and is often used to describe practices that are far from sustainable. With regard to the third avenue which is about switching to modes of production that utilize land and other natural resources in fundamentally different ways, they mention regenerative farming practices, organic farming, agroforestry, or extensive farmed animal systems. “Many agro-ecological and regenerative farming systems – such as organic farming – are inherently more diverse, relying on polycultures and rotations,” they write. “In general, the yield–biodiversity relationship means that such systems tend to be lower-yielding than intensive farming. Hence, large-scale adoption of such techniques would require other fundamental changes to food systems to reduce overall demand for food.”

The authors stress that these three levers are in part interdependent. Dietary change is necessary to enable land to be returned to nature, and to allow widespread adoption of nature-friendly farming without increasing the pressure to convert natural land to agriculture. The more the first action is taken up in the form of dietary change, the more scope there is for the second and third actions. “The future of farming must be nature-friendly and regenerative, and our diets must become more plant-based, healthy and sustainable,” summarises Philip Lymbery, Global Chief Executive at Compassion in World Farming. The authors also sets out recommendations to embed food system reform in high level political events in 2021 that will cover food, climate and biodiversity, such as the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS). They call on stakeholders to recognise the interrelationship between demand and supply, adopting a ‘food systems approach’ to drive action; and to strengthen the coherence between global agreements and local actions. “A year of unique opportunity for food system redesign is in prospect in 2021,” the authors conclude. (ab)

03.02.2021 |

Embed agroecology in EU food and farming policies, paper

The FAO 10 Elements of Agroecology

The European Union must recognise agroecology as the key pathway to transform EU food and farming systems, according to a new policy paper published on January 28th. The paper, led by the EU Food Policy Coalition, builds on the consensual vision of a coalition of EU civil society, farmers and scientific organisations, among them ARC 2020, IFOAM Organics Europe, IPES Food or Friends of the Earth Europe. They argue that agroecology can shape and transform EU food systems and needs to be integrated into EU policies. Their four-page document suggests how this can be achieved by using the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s ‘10 Elements of Agroecology’ and ‘13 Agroecological Principles’ as a framework.

The authors highlight that food systems in the EU and around the world a currently facing a lot of “severe environmental and social challenges, and are falling short on sustainably providing healthy, safe, adequate and culturally appropriate food and nutrition for all”. They warn that these systems are causing environmental degradation and loss of vital ecosystem services, economic hardship for farmers and socio-economic inequities, and thus urgently need to be redesigned. The agroecology approach could be the solution to those problems. The paper points out that “agroecology, ‘the science of applying ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable agriculture and food systems’, has been identified by a series of landmark international reports as a key enabler for this urgently needed food systems transformation. The paper explains that “agroecology encompasses various approaches, including organic and regenerative farming, and includes amongst its goals the need to maximize biodiversity and stimulate interactions between different plant and animal species as part of holistic strategies to build long-term fertility, reduce pest and disease risk, protect freshwater systems, secure pollination services, safeguard healthy agroecosystems and secure livelihoods”.

According to the authors, agroecology has the potential to succeed where current systems are failing, and can thus can “serve as a pivotal strategy to achieve a number of crucial EU policy objectives”. On 20 May 2020, the European Commission published the “EU Biodiversity Strategy” and the “Farm to Fork Strategy” as key components of the European Green Deal. Both strategies acknowledge the significant role that agroecology can play in underpinning a food systems transformation. In order to embed agroecology into these strategies and future EU policies, FAO’s 10 elements and the 13 principles of agroecology should be used because they can “support the planning, management, and evaluation of an agroecological transition”. The 10 elements of agroecology are diversity; synergies; efficiency; resilience; recycling; co-creation and sharing of knowledge; human and social values; culture and food traditions, responsible governance and circular and solidarity economy. According to the authors, the 10 Elements and the 13 Principles are complementary. The elements define agroecology in a global and inclusive way, while the principles list the practices and the concepts that must be applied for agroecological transition to take place. The 26 signatory organisations support the view that those elements and principles “should be taken into account in all relevant policies to support agroecology, whether at international, European, national, regional or local levels.” One example mentioned in the paper is the FAO Tool for Agroecological Performance Evaluation (TAPE), which is based on the 10 elements and uses the 13 principles to monitor and evaluate the impacts of projects and policies, as well as to identify strengths and weaknesses in sustainable production.

The organisations behind the paper demand that tools such as TAPE should be used to guide the design of policy interventions across Europe, and enable national authorities to address the EU targets stemming from the EU Green Deal framework. In addition, funds – especially from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – should be made available in member states to design new schemes for agroecological transition. In this context, the 10 Elements and the 13 Principles should be used by Member States as a guide to define their strategies and interventions, the organisations recommend. In addition, under the guidance of the EU Commission, Member States should be actively encouraged to set up programmes where a combination of rules and financial supports fit within the logic of agroecology. “Agroecology is not one of the tools in a toolbox, it is a different toolbox altogether. The EU must recognise agroecology as the key pathway to transform EU food and farming systems, embracing the whole potential of agroecology through the framework proposed above, and translate this commitment into all its future policies relating to food systems,” the paper concludes. (ab)

13.01.2021 |

Mexico bans glyphosate and genetically modified corn

Mexico is the cradle of corn (Photo: CC0)

Mexico has banned the use of both glyphosate and genetically modified corn in the country. On December 31, a decree was published in the official gazette which states that the use of the herbicide glyphosate and genetically modified (GM) maize will be phased out by January 2024 at the latest. “With the purpose of contributing to food security and sovereignty and as a special measure to protect native corn, the milpa, the biocultural wealth, the peasant communities, the gastronomic heritage and the health of the Mexican people, the biosafety authorities (…) will revoke and refrain from granting permits for the release into the environment of genetically modified corn seeds,” announces article 6 of the decree. The decision was welcomed by environmental campaigners, while Mexican agroindustry representatives criticised the government’s decision.

With regard to the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, article 1 of the decree aims “to gradually replace the use, acquisition, distribution, promotion and importation of the chemical substance called glyphosate and of agrochemicals used in our country that contain it as an active ingredient, with sustainable and culturally appropriate alternatives that allow to maintain production and are safe for human health, the country’s biocultural diversity and the environment.” A transition period until 31 January 2024 is granted to achieve the total replacement of glyphosate. Based on article 2, glyphosate may not be used in any public programmes or government activities during this period. The decree also calls on agricultural producers and agroindustry to use and develop sustainable alternatives. “In order to reduce the possible impact of the gradual substitution of the use and import of glyphosate in commercial agriculture, the Secretariats of Agriculture and Rural Development and of Environment and Natural Resources will promote and implement sustainable and culturally appropriate alternatives to the use of glyphosate, either with other low toxicity agrochemicals, with biological or organic products, with agroecological practices or with intensive use of labor,” outlines article 3.

The decree also introduces a ban on genetically modified corn with the same transition period as for glyphosate. Mexico will not only revoke existing permits and stop new authorizations for the release of GM corn, but also gradually reduce imports “in accordance with the applicable regulations and based on criteria of sufficiency in the supply of corn grain without glyphosate”. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced policies to strengthen the country’s food self-sufficiency. Mexico, the birthplace of corn and home to dozens of local varieties, is largely self-sufficient in corn for human consumption, a staple food used to prepare tortillas and other traditional dishes. However, the country depends on imports of GM corn from the United States to feed livestock. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the US exported corn worth $2.7 billion to Mexico in 2019. There is no cultivation of GM corn in Mexico and the cultivation of genetically modified soybean was suspended in the country in 2017 following a court injunction. However, an area of 223,000 hectares was planted with GM cotton in 2019 according to biotech lobby organization ISAAA.

Opponents of GM crops and environmental organisations hailed the ban. Environmental group Greenpeace Mexico said that, after countless battles over the last 21 years, the decree is a reason to celebrate. “The time has come to settle the historical debt to genetic diversity in Mexico, and we celebrate the ban on genetically modified maize and the progressive ban on glyphosate by 2024, as these are important steps in moving towards ecological production that preserves the biodiversity and agro-biodiversity that has been cultivated by peasants over millennia, giving us the opportunity to enjoy a healthy environment and a green and fair agro-food system.” Homero Blas Bustamante, president of the Mexican Society of Organic Production (SOMXPRO), also welcomed the ban of glyphosate and GM corn. “It’s a huge victory”, he told Reuters. He said that organic farmers both in Mexico and globally are demonstrating that glyphosate is not necessary in agriculture and that like other agrochemicals it should be banned on the basis of the precautionary principle. In contrast, agroindustry and the private sector were not amused. The Mexican organisation Proccyt which represents the crop protection industry, called the decree a backward step, warning it could affect the entire Mexican countryside and endanger the stability of prices and the availability of corn. (ab)

23.12.2020 |

Food system changes needed to reduce biodiversity loss, study finds

Demand for agricultural land drives deforestation (Photo: CC0)

What we eat and how it is produced will need to change dramatically to prevent widespread biodiversity loss, according to new research published in “Nature Sustainability” on 21 December. If current agricultural trends continue, between 2 and 10 million square kilometres of new agricultural land could be cleared by 2050, mainly at the expense of natural habitats. An international research team has now projected that almost 90% of species could lose part of their habitats. “We estimated how agricultural expansion to feed an increasingly wealthy global population is likely to affect about 20,000 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians,” explains lead author Dr David Williams from the University of Leeds. “Nearly 1,300 species are likely to lose at least a quarter of their remaining habitat, and hundreds could lose at least half. This makes them far more likely to go extinct,” he warned. But there is hope: Future biodiversity losses could be reduced by adopting healthier diets, cutting down on food loss and waste, increasing crop yields and implementing global land-use planning. “We need to alter both our diets and food production methods,” says Williams.

The researchers developed a model to forecast where agricultural land is likely to expand based on observed historical changes in agricultural land cover from 2001 to 2013 and data on likely determinants of land-cover change, such as the suitability of an area for agricultural production, proximity to other farmland or market access. By linking this model to country-level estimates of agricultural land demand between 2010 and 2050, based on population sizes, per capita GDP and agricultural yields, they were able to project where, and by how much, agricultural land was likely to change in the future. The scientists then overlaid these forecasts with habitat maps for almost 20,000 species of amphibians, birds and mammals. They used a very fine spatial resolution of 1.5 × 1.5 km which allowed them to determine exactly which species and landscapes are likely to be threatened and they looked at whether those specific species can survive in farmland or not. This allowed them to calculate the proportion of habitat each species would lose from 2010 to 2050.

The researchers found that under business-as-usual, global cropland could increase by 26% or 3.35 million km2 from 2010 to 2050. Large increases are projected to occur throughout sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia (particularly Bangladesh, Pakistan, and southern Malaysia) and in northern Argentina and much of Central America. These increases are driven by “income-dependent transitions towards diets that contain more calories and larger quantities of animal-based foods, combined with high levels of projected population growth and low crop yields that are projected to increase slowly, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,” the authors write. The scientist projected that, if current trajectories continue, 87.7% of species (17,409 species) would lose some habitat by 2050, while 6.3% would have no change in habitat area and 6.0% would see an increase because they can live on agricultural land. However, the authors highlight that mean values conceal the severity of projected habitat losses for many species. By 2050, 1,280 species could lose at least 25% of their remaining habitat area and could be at increased risk of global extinction in the coming decades. More alarmingly, 347 species were projected to lose at least 50% of their remaining habitat, 96 at least 75%, and 33 at least 90%. Many of the species that are likely to be most affected are not listed as threatened with extinction, and so are unlikely to be currently targeted by conservationists.

The scientists highlight that “proactive policies targeting how, where, and what food is produced could reduce these threats, with a combination of approaches potentially preventing almost all these losses while contributing to healthier human diets.” To investigate the potential of such proactive approaches, they developed a scenario that implemented four changes to food systems: closing crop yield gaps globally, a global transition to healthier diets, halving food loss and waste, and global agricultural land-use planning to avoid competition between food production and habitat protection. They examined both a ‘combined approach’ scenario and the impacts of each approach individually. The simultaneous adoption of all four scenarios would reduce global land demand by 2050 by nearly 3.4 million km2 relative to 2010, and by 6.7 million km2 relative to business as usual. Under the combined approach, all regions would just see mean habitat losses of 1% or less by 2050 – only 33 species were projected to lose more than 25% of their habitat, compared with 1,280 under business-as-usual.

The impacts of individual approaches varied regionally. For example, increasing yields would bring huge benefits in North Africa, West Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, where large yield gaps remain, but the scientists also warn that increasing yields often has negative consequences for species within agricultural lands. In contrast, yield increases would have a small impact on biodiversity in North America, where yields are already close to their maximum. Transitioning to healthier diets and reducing food waste were projected to have considerable benefits particularly in wealthier regions with high per capita consumption of both calories and animal-based foods. However, shifting to healthier diets is less likely to have a large benefit in regions where meat consumption is low and food insecurity is high. Global land-use planning had smaller impacts, with 1,026 species still projected to lose at least 25% of their 2010 habitat. Sub-Saharan Africa would benefit most from this measure. The scientists say that looking at the impact of each approach individually can help policy makers and conservationist to identify which changes are likely to have the largest benefit in their country or region. “Importantly, we need to do all of these things,” said Dr Michael Clark from the University of Oxford, who is also a lead author on the paper. “No one approach is sufficient on its own.” The authors stress that focusing on conventional conservation actions, such as establishing new protected areas or legislation for threatened species, is not enough. The underlying drivers of agricultural expansion need to be addressed. “The good news is that if we make ambitious changes to the food system, then we can prevent almost all these habitat losses,” Clark added. The authors conclude: “These proactive efforts to change how we produce and consume food will be a major challenge, but one which cannot be avoided if we are to safeguard species for future generations.” (ab)

17.12.2020 |

Global pesticide poisonings amount to 385m cases each year, study reveals

Pesticide application in a rice field (Photo: CC0)

About 385 million cases of acute pesticide poisonings occur each year worldwide, causing around 11,000 deaths. This is the sad finding of a study published on December 7th in the peer-reviewed journal “BMC Public Health”. According to the study, unintentional, acute pesticide poisonings on farms across the globe have risen dramatically since the last global assessment 30 years ago. The systematic review was commissioned by Pesticide Action Network (PAN), a network of over 600 participating non-governmental organizations, institutions and individuals in over 90 countries working to replace the use of hazardous pesticides. “These findings underscore the urgency of reducing and eliminating the use of highly hazardous pesticides,” says Kristin Schafer, coordinator of PAN International. “These pesticides are causing the unacceptable poisoning of those who produce our food, but also chronic health effects such as cancer and ecological impacts such as the collapse of biodiversity. Time for global action is long overdue.”

In 1990, a task force of the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that about one million unintentional pesticide poisonings occur annually, leading to approximately 20,000 deaths. The figures were calculated using data from the 1980s. It was further estimated in 1990 that there were 25 million cases of mild intoxications each year, the bulk of which were not recorded, as most farmers did not seek medical attention. Those outdated figures are still pervasive in literature today due to the lack of updated global estimates. The new study now closes this gap. The authors carried out a systematic review of the scientific literature published between 2006 and 2018, selecting 157 papers after assessing a total of 824 articles for eligibility. They extracted a total number of 741,429 unintentional pesticide poisonings from the publications, including 7,508 fatalities. Most studies had a focus on occupational poisoning in farmers and agricultural workers. In addition, mortality data from the WHO cause-of-death database was used. Thus, the study covers a total of 141 countries. Then the researchers performed country-wise synopses and estimated the annual numbers of national unintentional, acute pesticide poisonings (UAPP). Finally, the total number of UAPP was estimated based on national figures and population data for regions defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The researchers arrived at an estimated 385.5 million pesticide poisonings each year, resulting in 10,881 fatalities. This means that about 44% of the global population working on farms – 860 million farmers and agricultural workers – are poisoned every year. The study found that the greatest number of non-fatal poisoning cases occurred in southern Asia, followed by Southeast Asia and East Africa. The highest single national incidence was found in Burkina Faso, where nearly 84% of farmers and farm workers experience unintentional acute pesticide poisonings each year. The prevalence is also very high in Pakistan and Kuwait with around 82% respectively. The rate was also quite high in India with 62%. The lowest rate was found in the United States where the incidence of yearly non-fatal UAPP among the farming population is only at 0.05%. Nearly 60% of all fatalities occur in India, indicating serious problems with pesticide use, according to the researchers.

The estimated number of global non-fatal unintended pesticide poisonings in the current study is significantly higher than in previous estimates from the 1990s. “It’s shocking and shameful that this problem has gotten worse rather than better over the past 30 years,” said Sarojeni Rengam, Executive Director of PAN Asia Pacific. According to the authors, this is in part because the current study covers a greater number of countries, and also because pesticide use increased by almost 81% between 1990 and 2017. In South America, the increase in the same period was even at 484% and there was a 97% increase in Asia, compared to a decrease in Europe of 3%, according to data from FAOSTAT. “So, many more farmers and workers are likely to be exposed to pesticides now globally, or more exposed through more frequent use,” the authors write. However, the researchers also assume that the true figures of pesticide poisoning and fatalities could be much higher because underreporting remains a huge problem. Many countries lack a central reporting systems or there is not a mandatory legal duty to report incidents. People suffering from acute pesticide poisoning may also not seek medical care for various reasons, such as access to transportation or lack of medical facilities or financial capacity. “We realize there are limitations in the data on pesticide poisonings,” notes Javier Souza, PAN Latin America’s coordinator. “But this study clearly shows this as a serious, global problem that warrants immediate action. Highly hazardous pesticides must be phased out by 2030 to meet global Sustainable Development Goals, and we must shift to healthier and more resilient systems like agroecology.” The study did not cover pesticide poisoning suicides but it points to a recent systematic review of data on suicides from 2006-2015, which found that pesticides accounted for 14-20% of global suicides leading to 110,000-168,000 deaths annually during the period 2010-2014. (ab)

26.11.2020 |

Land inequality: 1% of farms operate 70% of the world’s farmland

Who owns the land? (Foto: CC0)

Land inequality is significantly higher than previously thought and is rising in most countries, new research shows. The largest 1% of farms operate 70% of the world’s farmland, according to the report “Uneven Ground”. This trend directly threatens the livelihoods of up to 2.5 billion people worldwide involved in smallholder agriculture. The study published on Tuesday by the “International Land Coalition” (ILC) and Oxfam is based on 17 research papers as well as an analysis of existing data and literature. “In the framework of this project, a new way to measure land inequality was developed that goes beyond land size distribution captured through traditional agricultural census,” said Ward Anseeuw, co-author of the report and coordinator of the initiative. Land inequality is typically measured with the Gini coefficient for land distribution which is based on household surveys recording ownership and area of holdings by size. Although it provides a useful long-term perspective on land inequality, it does not take into account aspects such as the value of land, multiple ownership and landlessness, as well as the control a person or an entity has over it. These factors have now been considered, using a sample of 17 countries. “These findings radically alter our understanding of the extent and far reaching consequences land inequality has, proving that not only is it a bigger problem than we thought but it’s undermining the stability and development of sustainable societies,” Anseeuw added.

It is estimated that there are around 608 million farms in the world, and most are still family farms. However, the largest 1% of farms operate more than 70% of the world’s farmland and are integrated into the corporate food system, while over 80% are smallholdings of less than 2 hectares are generally excluded from global food chains. A very similar trend is seen in the EU where less than 3% of farms now account for more than half of the farmed land. The study finds that the wealthiest 10% of the rural population across sampled countries capture 60% of agricultural land value, while the poorest 50% of the rural population, who are generally more dependent on agriculture, control only 3% of land value. Compared with the traditional census data and Gini coefficient generally used, this is an increase in inequality of 41% if agricultural land value and landlessness are considered, and of 24% if only value is considered. In addition, there are large regional differences: If land value inequality and the landless population are considered, South Asia and Latin America exhibit the highest levels of inequality. The top 10% of landowners capture almost 75% of agricultural land in Latin America and close to 70% in South Asia, while the bottom 50% own less than 2%.

The growing land inequality is partly attributed to the increased interest from corporate and financial actors, such as investment funds, in agricultural land investments. “Land inequality and control over land are increasingly opaque,” the authors write. “Shareholdings in agricultural assets, particularly land, are not made public, with corporate entities and investors able to acquire parts of farms or multiple farms as assets. In addition, the ultimate beneficiaries and major investors in these corporate and financial firms, especially investment funds, are often unknown.” Yet the authors insist that land concentration is not inevitable. “What we’re seeing is that land inequality is fundamentally a product of elite control, corporate interests, and political choices. And although the importance of land inequality is widely accepted, the tools to address it remain weakly implemented and vested interests in existing land distribution patterns, hard to shift,” said co-author Giulia Baldinelli of ILC. Coordinated state action is needed to turn this situation around. If not addressed and the trend continues, increasing land inequality will have significant negative consequences for all societies, on economic and social development, on the environment and on democracy and peace. “There is always, however, a more inclusive path to re-building our economies, that emphasises sustainable use of natural resources, respects human rights and addresses systemic causes of inequality,” says Mike Taylor, Director of the ILC Secretariat. The report also includes a blueprint for action, recommending a number of meausures that can contribute to reducing land inequality. They call on governments and relevant decision-makers to democratise land governance, strengthen land-related regulation as well as transparency and monitoring of land holdings, invest in well-functioning land registries, and legally enforce responsible corporate practice – just to name few recommendations. (ab)

13.11.2020 |

Four countries at risk of famine, UN food agencies warn

Many people face acute hunger (Photo: CC0)

People in four food insecurity “hotspots” in the world are at the brink of famine, a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has warned. Burkina Faso, northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen need urgent help or they could slide into famine if conditions there undergo any further deterioration over the coming months. “We are at a catastrophic turning point. Once again, we face the risk of famine in four different parts of the world at the same time,” said Margot van der Velden, WFP Director of Emergencies. “When we declare a famine it means many lives have already been lost. If we wait to find that out for sure, people are already dead,” she added. The “Early Warning Analysis of Acute Food Insecurity Hotspots” report was released on November 6th. It uses the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system to chart escalating degrees of food insecurity which include five phases. IPC phase 5 (Catastrophe/famine) is the most severe. Within the four hotspot countries, parts of the population are facing emergency acute food insecurity (IPC Phase 4) – a critical hunger situation with extreme depletion of livelihoods, insufficient food consumption and high acute malnutrition. In the case of Burkina Faso, many households are already in IPC Phase 5 and are experiencing famine-like conditions. The number of desperately hungry people in the country has almost tripling compared to 2019, driven by increasing conflict, displacement and COVID-related impacts on employment and food access.

But these four hotspots are not the only countries painted in red on the world map published in the report. Another 16 countries are at high of facing potential spikes in high acute food insecurity, driven by multiple overlapping drivers, such as conflict, economic decline, climate extremes and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, there are 21.8 million people now estimated to be acutely food insecure - the highest number ever registered for a single country. The report has the aim to inform decision-makers in order to avoid a major emergency - or series of emergencies - in the coming months. “This report is a clear call to urgent action,” said Dominique Burgeon, FAO's Director of Emergencies and Resilience. “We are deeply concerned about the combined impact of several crises which are eroding people's ability to produce and access food, leaving them more and more at risk of the most extreme hunger. We need access to these populations to ensure they have food and the means to produce food and improve their livelihoods to prevent a worst-case scenario.” How the situation evolves in high-risk countries will depend on conflict dynamics, food prices, and the myriad impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on their food systems, rainfall and harvest outcomes, humanitarian access, and the readiness of donors to continue funding humanitarian operations, FAO and WHO informed in a press release. The UN agencies called for urgent action from the international community and reminds us to learn our lesson from the crisis in Somalia. “In 2011, Somalia suffered a famine that killed 260,000 people. The famine was declared in July, but most people had already died by May. We cannot let this happen again. We have a stark choice; urgent action today, or unconscionable loss of life tomorrow,” van der Velden warned. (ab)

05.11.2020 |

Protecting nature is the best way to avoid pandemics, report

One of the cover photos of the report

COVID-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza of 1918, and although it has its origins in microbes carried by animals, like other pandemics its emergence has been entirely driven by human activities. This is the message of a new report released on October 29th which was compiled by 22 experts from around the world who were convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for a workshop about the links between degradation of nature and increasing pandemic risks. “There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.” Land-use change alone has globally caused the emergence of more than 30% of new diseases reported since 1960. And there is more to come: It is estimated that another 1.7 million currently ‘undiscovered’ viruses exist in mammals and birds of which up to 827,000 could still infect people.

The good news is that pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, for example by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of regions which are rich in biodiversity. Such measures would reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases, says the report. However, this will require a seismic shift in approach from reaction to prevention. “The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Dr. Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics – but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated – we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.” Like in most other areas, the costs for reaction measures are much higher than for prevention. The experts estimate the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100 times less than the cost of responding to such pandemics, “providing strong economic incentives for transformative change.” In addition, relying on responses to diseases after their emergence, such as public health measures and the design and distribution of new vaccines and therapeutics is a “slow and uncertain path”, which entails widespread human suffering and economic damage to the global economy.

The report also offers a number of policy options that would help to reduce and address pandemic risk. “The fact that human activity has been able to so fundamentally change our natural environment need not always be a negative outcome. It also provides convincing proof of our power to drive the change needed to reduce the risk of future pandemics – while simultaneously benefiting conservation and reducing climate change.” In order to reduce the role of land-use change in pandemic emergence, the experts recommend the following policies: In major development and land-use projects, health impact assessments should be developed and implemented regarding the risk of pandemics before those projects are allowed to begin. Financial aid for land-use should be reformed so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are recognized and explicitly targeted. National governments should consider removing subsidies for activities that involve deforestation, forest degradation and land use change. Moreover, decision-makers should enable transformative change in the types of consumption, globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics. “Unsustainable patterns of global consumption drive globalized agricultural expansion and trade, and are linked to pandemic risk, as well as land use change, biodiversity loss and climate change,” the authors explain. “Increasing available knowledge on the economic benefits of more sustainable consumption and agricultural development could be used to drive an added incentive in a shift to agriculture that focuses on provisioning of ecosystem services, while responding to the needs of food security for local communities and encouraging human, animal and ecosystem health.” (ab)

26.10.2020 |

New report reveals drastic decline in Europe’s biodiversity

Grey Partridge
Grey Partridge (Photo: CC0)

Most protected habitats and species in Europe have either a poor or a bad conservation status. Unsustainable farming and forestry, urban sprawl and pollution are the top pressures to blame for a drastic decline in biodiversity, warns the European Environment Agency (EEA) in a new report published on October 19. It describes the state of nature in the EU during the period from 2013 to 2018, based on Member States’ reporting under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives, which coordinate conservation efforts for more than 2,000 species and habitats across the EU with the aim of maintaining them at or restoring them to a favourable conservation status. Although the report shows some positive developments in conservation efforts, the main message is unambiguous: The survival of thousands of animal species and habitats in the EU is at threat and much more needs to be done to reverse this trend. “This State of Nature assessment is the most comprehensive health check of nature ever undertaken in the EU,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries. “It shows very clearly that we are still losing our vital life support system. (…) We urgently need to deliver on the commitments in the new EU Biodiversity Strategy to reverse this decline for the benefit of nature, people, climate and the economy.”

The reporting under the Birds Directive includes population statuses and trends for 463 bird species that naturally occur in the EU. Around half (47%) of those bird species have a good status, which is 5% less than during the last reporting period (2008-2012). However, the proportion of birds with poor or bad status totals 39%, up by 7% from 2008-2012. 14% of all bird species have an unknown status due to the lack of information about their population size and trends. Short-term trends for breeding birds are mixed: 23% of breeding birds have increasing populations whereas 30% have decreasing trends. Breeding birds, such as the Crane and the Red Kite, have the highest share of reports showing improving population trends. The majority of all bird species with improving trends are wetland and marine birds, such as the Ruddy Shelduck or the Black Guillemot. The authors say that this is due to the implementation of habitat protection or restoration, and improvements in knowledge, better monitoring and awareness. Short-term population trends for farmland birds reveal that 54% are deteriorating. Breeding bird populations showing decreasing short-term trends in almost 50% of all Member States include the Grey Partridge, the Red-backed Shrike and the Corncrake.

The data reported by Member States under the Habitats Directive covers 233 habitats and 1,389 species. “A majority of EU wide protected species, such as the Saker Falcon and the Danube Salmon, and habitats from grasslands to dunes across Europe, face an uncertain future unless more is urgently done to reverse the situation,” says the EEA in a press release. As much as 81% of habitats at EU level are in poor (45%) or bad (36%) condition. Compared with the previous reporting period, the share of habitats with bad conservation status has increased by 6%. Only 15% of habitats have a good conservation status and for 4% the status is unknown. Looking at habitat trends, only 9% of all habitat assessments with poor or bad conservation status show improvement, while 36% continue to deteriorate. Grasslands, dunes, and bog, mire and fen habitats show strong deteriorating trends, while forests have the most improving trends. Around a quarter (27%) of species have a good conservation status at EU level, which is an increase of 4%, compared with the previous reporting period. Nonetheless, over 60% of the assessments report a poor or bad status (42% and 21% respectively). Reptiles such as the Italian Wall Lizard and the Horseshoe Whip Snake and vascular plants, such as the Hairy Agrimony or the Great Yellow Gentian, have the highest proportion of good conservation status (35%), while fish have the highest proportion of bad conservation status (38%). Marine mammals are among the species with the highest proportion of unknown status.

Unsustainable farming and forestry are the top pressures to blame for a drastic decline in Europe’s biodiversity. “Although the drivers of habitat degradation and species decline are diverse, agricultural activities such as abandoning extensive management and intensifying management practices are the most common pressure overall,” the authors write. Fertilisers and the use of pesticides are reported to have a considerable impact on many habitats and species. The report says this holds especially true for plant protection chemicals and their effects on amphibians, insects, mammals – mainly bats but also small mammals such as the European Ground Squirrel or the European Hamster – and birds. Urbanisation is the second largest pressure on nature. Other drivers of biodiversity decline are pollution of air, water and soil, as well as continued over-exploitation of animals through illegal harvesting and untenable hunting and fishing. These threats are compounded by alterations to rivers and lakes, such as dams and water abstraction, invasive alien species, and climate change. “Our assessment shows that safeguarding the health and resilience of Europe’s nature, and people’s well-being, requires fundamental changes to the way we produce and consume food, manage and use forests, and build cities,” said Hans Bruyninckx, EEA Executive Director. “These efforts need to be coupled with better implementation and enforcement of conservation policies, a focus on nature restoration, as well as increasingly ambitious climate action, especially in the transport and energy sector,” he added. (ab)


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