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)

21.10.2020 |

Change the food system - reconnect humans and nature, report argues

Infographics from the new report (Photo: RtFNWatch Supplement)

Changing the dominant food system is indispensable in order to reset our relationship with nature and overcome today’s ecological crises, according to the new report “Right to Food and Nutrition Watch”. This year’s edition was published ahead of World Food Day on October 12th by “The Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition”, an initiative of 49 civil society organisations and social movements. The authors argue that past and current policies have treated humans and the rest of nature as two separate and independent spheres. This artificial separation has led to domination and exploitation of the natural world by humans with dire environmental and social consequences, such as the destruction of ecosystems, greenhouse gas emissions and the expulsion of communities from their lands. In order to tackle the ecological crises, it is therefore essential to reconnect nature and human rights. And the authors highlight that food, where our connection with the rest of the living world is most evident, is the perfect starting point for doing so. The articles in the 2020 edition of the Watch call for an overhaul of how we produce, distribute and eat food – if we are to regain control and radically transform our societies – but also, of how we collectively resist the exploitation of nature.

The first article by Philip Seufert from FIAN International, a human rights organisation, looks at the aforementioned separation of humans from the rest of nature. He argues that this separation is central to the deep ecological crises that the world is facing and which manifest most strongly in human-made global warming as well as the dramatic loss of biological diversity. He warns that both climate change and the current mass extinction will deeply affect human societies because we cannot escape from these massive consequences. The author says that the current COVID-19 pandemic is yet another development which forces us to reassess our relationship with the rest of nature. The separation of human societies from the rest of nature is also reflected in a largely disconnected development between international human rights law on the one hand, and environmental law on the other. Seufert focuses on how human rights instruments such as the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” and the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas” could better clarify the human-nature relationship and advance the protection of local communities as custodians of ecosystems.

In the second article, Hernando Salcedo Fidalgo from FIAN Colombia looks at the links between the coronavirus pandemic and corporate food patterns: “It is evident that today’s societies, and their current food practices, have contributed – through so-called ‘modern food systems’ – to the biodiversity crisis and to the increased risk of existing and new zoonotic diseases, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Ecosystem fragility has facilitated the transmission of infections across animal species, as well as of zoonoses from animal species to human beings and vice-versa.” The author says that beyond the mainstream scientific response that centers on medication and vaccines, other solutions are needed. The article puts forward an exit strategy to the crisis via six proposals that build on the notion of “food agency”. One of them is to leave behind the corporate food model. “This is only possible through peasant, Indigenous, family and community agriculture, and agroecology led by women, who have demonstrated their capacity to feed the world,” writes Salcedo Fidalgo. Another proposal is: “Defend our commons, such as ‘real’ food, water, space, and biota, to ensure they are exchanged and shared, outside market interests.”

The Watch also includes an interview with Marta Guadalupe Rivera Ferre, director of the Chair in Agroecology and Food Systems of the University of Vic. She participated in the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) and was one of the lead authors of the chapter on food security in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “Special Report on Climate Change and Land” (see also the link to her chapter in the book “Transformation of our food systems” at the end of this text). Her chapter in the IPCC Special Report which was published in 2019 addresses agroecology, but only in the context of food security. “We looked at food security, in all its dimensions, and how they are impacted by climate change, as well as how food systems impact climate change in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Then, we had discussions on synergies and trade-offs, where we talked about agroecology,” she told interviewer Katie Sandwell. “We wanted to show how some agricultural and agroecological practices, like capturing organic matter in the soil, intercropping, crop rotation, etc. can contribute to both mitigation and adaptation.” The authors' aim was to demonstrate that if the focus is put on agroecology, a more integrated response to climate change can be achieved. (ab)

19.10.2020 |

Double aid and focus on smallholders to end hunger, Ceres2030 says

Investment in extension services, particularly for women, is needed (Photo: CC0)

Donor governments could help end hunger by 2030, double smallholder farmer incomes and protect the climate by doubling the amount of aid given for food security and nutrition each year, new research shows. According to the findings of the international research consortium “Ceres2030”, an additional investment of $14 billion from donors and $19 billion from affected countries on average each year between now and 2030 could lift 490 million people out of hunger, reducing the prevalence of undernourishment below 3% in every country worldwide. The scientists also found that agricultural interventions are more effective with a population that enjoys at least a minimum level of income and education and has access to networks and resources such as extension services and robust infrastructure. “Ceres2030: Sustainable Solutions to End Hunger” is a joint 3-year project by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Cornell University, and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). The results were published on October 12th in ten articles in four different journals of the “Nature” family, authored by 78 scientists, researchers and librarians from 23 countries. Among the main funders of Ceres2030 is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the initiative already earned criticism at its launch for pushing an agribusiness agenda and its focus on productivism. The Ceres2030 “Evidence Adivsory Board” includes scientists who are linked to institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and others.

The Ceres2030 team produced two inter-linked pieces of research. First, they analysed over 500,000 reports and articles from the past 20 years of agricultural development literature, using artificial intelligence. The evidence syntheses answered eight key research questions covering areas such as water scarcity and employment for the future. Second, the researchers created a model to show how much it would cost to achieve three targets of the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 2), namely ending hunger (Target 2.1), doubling the incomes and productivity of small-scale producers (Target 2.3), and producing food sustainably and resiliently (Target 2.4). The model assessed what types of interventions governments should prioritize, and when (and where) money should be spent, in order to end hunger as cost-effectively as possible. The researchers concluded that $33 billion a year will be needed in additional funding in the period up to 2030. Of the $14 billion required from donors, $8 billion should be spent in sub-Saharan Africa, $4 bn in other low- and middle-income countries, and the remainder on global research and development projects. They total amount was also split into three categories of interventions: $9 bn should be spent “On the farm” for measures such as training for farmers, $2 bn should be directed at what the researchers termed “Food on the move”, i.e. measures which ensure that food can get from the farm to market, through investments in storage, transport, and other infrastructure. The remaining $3bn should be used to empower the excluded.

The authors set out 10 key recommendations for donor governments, drawing on both the evidence syntheses and economic modelling, and split across the three categories of interventions. In the “Empower the Excluded” category, the first recommendation is to support participation in farmers’ organizations. The research showed that membership in a farmers’ organization was associated with positive effects on income in 57% of the cases reviewed. However, the poorer farmer are, the less likely they are to join an organization because fees to join farmers’ organisations are a barrier for poor households. Second, the authors recommend more investment in vocational programs for rural youth that offer integrated training in multiple skills because vocational training can help increase employment levels and wages. Third, social protection programs should be scaled up in order to help create a bridge for people living in poverty to find productive jobs. “Although expensive, well designed programs, given sufficient time, can help poor people into productive work—for example by providing skills training, access to credit, or guaranteed employment alongside food or cash payments. Social protection has played a critically important role in limiting suffering during crises, including for people unable to work due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ceres2030 informs on their website.

Other recommendations focus on interventions “on the farm” and on smallholders. “Perversely, the very people whose livelihoods depend on food and agriculture are among the most likely to experience hunger. Small-scale food producers and workers and their families are among those most often left out of economic growth, technological change, and political decision making,” the report summary reads. Recommendations include investment in information and training, particularly for women, to increase the uptake of new technologies. The report summary does not specify what kind of technologies are meant. In addition, the authors say that it must be ensured that new environmentally-friendly farming methods are also economically viable, arguing that incentives that also included short-term economic benefits were more successful. Next, they call for the adoption of climate-resilient crops by providing extension services. The article about this topic includes much talk about "the adoption of improved agricultural production technology” and “climate-smart agriculture”. Next, the authors recommend to increase research on how to help small-scale producers in water-scarce regions. They found that nearly 80% of small-scale farms in developing countries are in water-scarce regions and useful options to improve the quantity and quality feed are being overlooked, such as better support for the use of crop residues. Therefore, their recommendation is to target improvements in the quantity and quality of livestock feed to small and medium-sized commercial farms.

The last two recommendations are related to the “Food on the Move” category. “In addition to growing our food, producers must also store it and transport it to market. Our research looked at interventions that are effective at reducing post-harvest losses for 22 food crops, with a focus on Africa and South Asia,” the Ceres2030 team wrote. They found that airtight containers, simple improvements in handling practices (such as choosing the right time to harvest), and good drying and harvesting practices reduced the waste of cereals and pulses. They also said investment in the infrastructure, regulations, services and technical assistance is needed to support small and medium-sized enterprises that supply or buy from small-scale farmers. The scientists highlight that governments have 10 years until 2030: “The sooner the investments are made in the 2030 Agenda, the less it will cost the public purse and the more sustained the outcomes are likely to prove.” Moreover, there is a further reason for urgency: the need to act now to limit irreversible damage to the earth’s ecosystems. For the environment, too, waiting means foreclosing options, some of them permanently, they explain. “Ceres2030 was set up to show governments what they need to do to take back control and realize their bold agenda. We’ve provided the evidence. Now donors and governments need to act,” the authors conclude. (abe)

24.09.2020 |

New book calls for transformation of our food systems

Cover of the book “Transformation of our food systems - the making of a paradigm shift”

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes sharp injustices and system wide failures of today’s prevailing food and agriculture systems - injustices that had already been accelerating over the past decade, which has proven to be the most destructive period of food production and consumption in modern history. In their new book “Transformation of our food systems - the making of a paradigm shift”, 40 international experts describe the highlights and trends in food production since 2009, when the ground-breaking IAASTD report was published, starting a paradigm shift in the perception of the global food system.

Will COVID-19 and its impacts on world food systems catalyse a real transformation of highly dysfunctional and destructive practices all along the food chain? “Business as usual is not an option” was the provocative message of more than 400 authors of the UN- and World Bank-led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, published in 2009. It is probably still the most comprehensive assessment of global agriculture. One decade later there seems to be worldwide agreement amongst most international scientists, politicians, civil society and businesses, that our food systems are in urgent need of a fundamental transformation in order to withstand the enormous challenges of today and tomorrow. The climate and biodiversity crises, unprecedented exhaustion of natural resources, rising malnutrition and its health impacts are amongst the most pressing reasons for this. This past decade was the most destructive period of food production and consumption ever – not only with respect to ecosystems, but also the social and cultural fabric of rural communities around the globe.

In their book “Transformation of our food systems – the making of a paradigm shift”, 40 eminent food system experts, most of them authors and review editors of the initial IAASTD, have now taken stock of the developments of global food systems over the past decade. Presenting 13 follow-up landmark scientific reports and UN agreements as well as 15 updates and 13 infographics on key emerging trends and topics, the authors take the reader on a journey to the most important developments. They have been personally involved in the making of many of these reports, and they take a look behind the scenes of politics and science.

World Food Prize winner and former co-president of the IAASTD Hans Herren, together with an NGO representative in the IAASTD bureau, food and farming activist Benny Haerlin, convened an IAASTD+10 advisory group of 16 to help edit the book and compile its key messages. “This combination of international views and perspectives is a treasure trove for decision-makers and activists, scholars and practitioners along the food systems chain,” said Benny Haerlin. “It not only talks about transformation, it also shows how it can be done and where it is already happening.”

The book is published in the run-up to this year’s only virtual High Level Special Event of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), where for the first time agroecology will be at the centre of discussions and where decision-makers will also reflect about global efforts needed to “build back better” after COVID-19. “This book clearly proves from various perspectives that the agroecological approach is by far the most important and fundamental pathway to ‘build back better’ and to make the shift towards sustainable food systems,” says Hans Herren. The book is also a critical contribution to the “Food Systems Summit 2021”, being organized under the auspices of the United Nations.

09.09.2020 |

Study shows the potential of agroecology to adapt to climate change

Small farmers from Meru County, Kenya, practicing agroecology (Photo: Peter Lüthi/Biovision)

Agroecology can increase the ability of agricultural systems to adapt to climate change and strengthen their resilience. This is the main finding of a study published in August by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Biovision Foundation. The study warns that climate change has negative impacts on food systems and the livelihoods of farmers worldwide, undermining current efforts to improve food security and nutrition. It is increasingly posing problems for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who are faced with irregular rainy seasons, droughts, storms and floods which destroy their harvests. The authors point out that there is an urgent need for a transformational change of our food systems towards more sustainability and resilience. “The study at hand, mobilizing international and national level assessments and scientific methodologies, provides solid evidence that biodiverse agroecological systems built on local communities increase resilience to climate change,” FAO’s René Castro and Frank Eyhorn, CEO of Biovision Foundation, write in the foreword to the report. “Agroecology is not a silver bullet, but it provides urgently needed impulses and principles to transform food systems in line with the sustainable development goals.”

The research question of the study was: “How can agroecology foster climate change adaptation, mitigation and resilience through practices and policies?” In order to find answers, the authors analysed the international policy arena, in particular in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and they conducted a meta-analysis of peer-reviewed scientific studies on agroecology. In addition, they looked at two case studies in Kenya and Senegal that assess both, the policy potential of agroecology and the technical potential of agroecology to foster climate resilience on farm-level in the respective countries. Their main finding from the meta-analysis was that there is robust scientific evidence which demonstrates that agroecological methods including organic farming increase climate resilience. This is because they build on key elements that involve adaptability to climate change. “Agroecology increases the adaptive capacity and reduces the vulnerability of agroecosystems, mainly through improved soil health, biodiversity and high diversification of species and genetic resources within agricultural production systems,” the authors write. For example, agroecological methods increase soil organic matter (carbon sequestration). “Healthy soils are the key to sustainable agriculture and to food systems that can deal with the challenges of climate change and guarantee food security,” said Adrian Müller, co-author of the meta-analysis who works for the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) that also contributed to the study. “Implementing agroecology in practice, and organic farming, results in soil health and therefore deserves comprehensive support.”

The two case studies from Kenya and Senegal also showed that farmers who participated in agroecological projects were able to cope better with the consequences of climate change and ensure their food security. Another finding of the report is that that the interdisciplinary and systemic nature of agroecology is key for its transformational power. But those characteristics also present a challenge: The implementation of agroecological methods is knowledge-intensive, and its promotion in education, extension services and research therefore requires appropriate strategies. However, current laws, policy instruments and strategies are not yet adequate. The authors also provide some recommendations on how to take full advantage of agroecology’s potential. They argue that, given the sound knowledge base, fostering agroecology to build resilience should be recognised as a viable climate change adaptation strategy. Second, they stress the need to address barriers to the scaling-up of agroecology: Improved access to knowledge and understanding of systemic approaches should be fostered across all sectors, stakeholders and scales. “Policies need to provide an enabling environment and a level playing ground for enhancing the adoption of agroecological principles. Evidence-based policy setting is therefore the need of the hour,” Castro and Eyhorn stress in the foreword. In addition, the authors highlight that further comparative research on the multidimensional effects of agroecology is needed. Decisive action is required now. “The decision-makers are now being called upon to set a new course – in the direction of agroecology,” urges Eyhorn. (ab)

22.08.2020 |

Earth Overshoot Day: COVID-19 has reduced our ecological footprint

Humanity has already used up nature’s budget for the entire year (Photo: CC0)

August 22 marks Earth Overshoot Day this year – the day humanity has used up all the resources nature can sustainably supply and renew in a year, according to data from international sustainability organization “Global Footprint Network” and York University in Toronto. For the rest of the year, we will be living on resources borrowed from future generations. COVID-19 has caused our Ecological Footprint to contract, pushing the date of the day back more than three weeks compared to last year, when Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 29th. Over the last years, the date has been creeping up the calendar and this is the first time since 2009 that the date arrived later. However, this does not mean that there is reason to celebrate: “Sustainability requires both ecological balance and people’s well-being ensured over the long-term, therefore this year’s sudden Ecological Footprint contraction cannot be mistaken for progress,” said Global Footprint Network CEO Laurel Hanscom. Although Coronavirus-induced lockdowns caused the global Ecological Footprint to contract by almost 10%, maintaining current levels of resource consumption would require the equivalent of 1.6 Earths. But the unprecedented current disruption provides decision-makers with the challenge and chance of relaunching our economies in a way that allows us to live within the means of our planet.

To determine the date of Earth Overshoot Day for each year, Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of that year that Earth’s biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity’s Ecological Footprint. This is achieved by contrasting the world’s demand on nature (ecological footprint), including demand for food, timber, fibres (cotton) and space for urban infrastructure with the planet’s ability to replenish resources and absorb waste, including carbon dioxide emissions. Global overshoot began in the early 1970s. Since then, an ecological debt has been accumulated which is equivalent to 18 Earth years. This means that it would take 18 years of our planet’s entire regeneration to reverse the damage from overuse of natural resources, assuming it was fully reversible. But a change of course is possible: “Many solutions exist that can be adopted at the community level or individually to significantly impact the kind of future we invest in, one decision at a time: how we produce the food we eat, how we move around, how we power ourselves, how many children we have, and how much land we protect for wildlife,” says Global Footprint Network. For example, reducing the carbon footprint by 50% would get us from consuming the resources of 1.6 Earths down to 1.1 Earths and move the date of Overshoot Day by 93 days. If we move the date 5 days each year, humanity would be using less than one planet before 2050.

The “Global Footprint Network” has identified five major areas which offer significant opportunities to address ecological overshoot and improve sustainability: cities, energy, food, planet and population. Our food systems are currently using 50% of the planet’s biocapacity. What we eat matters! Diets which help reduce the carbon-intensity of food and the impact of food production on biodiversity are not only healthier but also have a lower ecological impact. The organisation has calculated that a nutritionally balanced, vegetarian diet has an Ecological Footprint that is 2.5 times lower than that of one comprised mainly of animal-based proteins. The Chinese government has committed itself to reducing meat consumption by 50% by 2030. This would reduce the Ecological Footprint by 377 million global hectares and move the date of Overshoot Day back 5 days, including by reducing methane emissions. Reducing food waste in another solution. About one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption still gets lost or wasted. Cutting food waste in half would move Earth Overshoot Day 13 days. “The past does not necessarily determine our future. Our current choices do. Through wise, forward-looking decisions, we can turn around natural resource consumption trends while improving the quality of life for all people,” the network tries to motivate each of us to make an individual contribution in order to move the date. (ab)

06.08.2020 |

Decline in pollinators threatens US crop yields, study

Wild bee species are in decline (Photo: CC0)

Declines in bee populations and other pollinators could negatively affect crop yields in the US, according to new research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The study led by Rutgers University researchers found that a lack of pollinators could translate directly into decreased yields of key crops such as apples, cherries and blueberries. “We found that many crops are pollination-limited, meaning crop production would be higher if crop flowers received more pollination,” said senior author Rachael Winfree from the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “We also found that honey bees and wild bees provided similar amounts of pollination overall,” she added. The authors stress that their study is the first to evaluate the contribution of wild pollinators to crop pollination at the national scale in the US in such a comprehensive way.

The importance of pollinators for crop production is well-known. “Pollination by insects is a critical ecosystem service that is necessary for production of most crops, including those providing essential micronutrients, and is thus essential for food security,” the study notes. In the US alone, the production of pollinator-dependent crops is valued at over $50 billion per year. And recent evidence suggests that both European honeybees and some native wild bee species are declining. The authors highlight, however, that a decline in pollinators will only affect crop yield if yield is limited by a lack of pollination. In order to get more information, the researchers established a nationwide study to assess the extent of pollinator limitation in seven crops at 131 farms across the United States and in British Columbia, Canada. Through this multi-state Integrated Crop Pollination Project, coordinated by Michigan State University, the scientists collected data on insect pollination of crop flowers and yield for apples, highbush blueberries, sweet cherries, tart cherries, almond, watermelon and pumpkin. “For each crop, we selected study farms within economically important areas for the national production of that crop, so these farms were representative of the majority of production in terms of growing conditions, pollinator communities and farm management practices,” they outlined in the study design.

The researchers found that apples, sweet cherries, tart cherries and blueberries showed evidence of being limited by pollination, indicating that yields are currently lower than they could be if pollinators were more abundant. Another finding is that wild bees and honeybees provided comparable amounts of pollination for most crops, even in agriculturally intensive regions. However, the proportion of visits by honeybees or wild bees differed greatly by crop. Wild bees accounted for the largest proportion of pollination visits in pumpkin (74.6%) but did not visit almond trees. The proportion of wild bee visits was higher for cherry and apple than for blueberry. The economic value of honeybees and wild bees was also estimated based on their relative contributions to crop pollination. The researchers estimated the nationwide annual production value of wild pollinators to the seven crops they studied at over $1.5 billion. “At the national level, we estimated the value of wild pollinators to be highest in apple, with a value of $1.06 billion, with significant value also in sweet cherry ($145 million), watermelon ($146 million), pumpkin ($101 million), blueberry ($50 million) and tart cherry ($32 million),” they wrote in the paper. The value of wild bee pollination of all pollinator-dependent crops would be much greater.

The findings of the study suggest that adopting practices that conserve or augment wild bees, such as enhancing habitat to support blooming trees and shrubs and wildflowers, or using managed pollinators other than honey bees, is likely to boost yields. Increasing investment in honey bee colonies is another alternative growers can consider to reduce the risk of limited pollination. “Managing habitat for native bee species and/or stocking more honey bees would boost pollination levels and could increase crop production,” said professor Rachael Winfree. The study also points to the fact that pesticides are a major threat to pollinators. According to data cited in the study, US farms currently spend about $9 billion annually on pesticides and about $23 billion on fertilizer. “In cases where pollination is limiting, there may be little benefit to spending large amounts of money on pest control,” the authors conclude. (ab)

25.07.2020 |

Scientists call for a shift to agroecology in order to protect biodiversity

Agriculture can promote or reduce biodiversity (Photo: CC0)

A shift to sustainable agriculture is needed in order to halt biodiversity loss and restore nature, a team of scientists argues in an article in the journal „Nature Ecology and Evolution“. They call for the integration of agroecological principles in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) which will be adopted at the 15th Convention of the Parties (COP15) meeting in China now to be held in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The biodiversity conference will be discussing targets to reduce threats to biodiversity. The researchers around Dr Thomas Cherico Wanger from Westlake University China and University of Göttingen explain in their article how agroecological principles can help meet these biodiversity targets. “We argue that the GBF must include conservation actions in agricultural landscapes based on agroecological principles (…) in the three ‘2030 Action Targets’ to reach its goals of biodiversity recovery,” they wrote in the journal. “Agroecology is widely recognized as a necessary transformation in order to achieve food system sustainability.” More than 360 scientists from around the world share this view and have signed the article.

The authors first highlight the important role of agriculture, which takes up more than one third of the global landmass and ensures the survival of a growing world population. But agriculture also has its downsides: “Habitat conversion and conventional farming practices – including heavy use of agrochemicals – have negative effects on biodiversity, even spilling into protected areas,” the authors write. Agriculture endangers approximately 62% of all threatened species worldwide. But this does not need to be the case. “Agroecology has the potential to change the way we ‘do agriculture’,” said co-author Professor Teja Tscharntke from the University of Göttingen. If designed appropriately, agricultural landscapes can provide habitats for biodiversity, promote connectivity between protected areas, and increase the capacity of species to respond to environmental threats, the authors stress. “Diversification at the field, farm and landscape scale holds large promises to make food systems more sustainable; however, farmers alone cannot achieve this major transformation. Action is required across the entire supply chain, from the processing industry to distributors to the consumers.”

According to the authors, stopping and reversing the trend in species decline through agroecological production is not only good for biodiversity but also for farmers. Sustainable and diversified farming systems enhance biodiversity, pollination and reduce the impact of pathogens and pests, thus reducing the use of synthetic pesticides, a major cause of biodiversity loss. Farmers benefit from diversified systems through increased economic resilience, reduced dependency on agrochemical inputs, and in subsistence systems more diverse and nutritious foods. The authors are optimistic that the frequently mentioned yield gap between conventional and agroecological production will further diminish through diversification, new varieties and crop combinations. “The importance of agroecology to change agriculture and protect biodiversity has been recognized by many top level organizations, in the scientific community, and by practitioners,” stressed Dr Wanger. The authors especially refer to a recent report of the High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), which looked at agroecological and other innovative approaches that can enhance food security and nutrition and help achieve global sustainability goals.

The scientists also highlight the need to promote and adapt the research on agroecology in order to advance sustainable agriculture. They argue that future research on agroecological production needs to depart from traditional research approaches and increasingly engage in multi-stakeholder networks to define options that work in practice and across scales. For example, the participation of indigenous peoples and local communities in decision-making processes should be promoted to incorporate their perspective on and knowledge about agroecological approaches. In addition, policy makers should be supported through easily accessible advisory services to promote change in the wider socioecological landscape, incentivize local innovation systems and increase budget allocations for agroecological transition. The authors write that it is also necessary to enable public and private funding for long-term research programmes which are more apt for the timescales that agroecological interventions operate on. “We hope that our comprehensive research agenda will help to chart the path to sustainable, diversified agriculture and biodiversity conservation in the future,” said Dr Tscharntke. (ab)


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