27.12.2019 |

Interactions between planetary boundaries amplify human impact on Earth

Planetary boundaries (based on Steffen et al.)

In 2009, a group of scientists proposed the planetary boundaries concept, identifying nine processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes, they warned. In an update of the framework, the scientists argued that the safe operating space for four of the nine systems has already been clearly exceeded, namely in the area of climate change, land-system change, human interference with the biogeochemical cycles (phosphorus and nitrogen) and, in particular, the loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinctions). Now a new study, published in the journal “Nature Sustainability” on December 16, shows that transgressing one planetary boundary can also amplify human impacts on another one. “We found a dense network of interactions between the planetary boundaries,” said Johan Rockström, co-author of the study. According to the scientists, two core boundaries – climate change and biosphere integrity – contribute more than half the combined strengths of all the interactions in that network. “This highlights how careful we should be in destabilizing these two,” Rockström added.

The scientists quantified interactions between the Earth system processes represented by the planetary boundaries. They concluded that biophysical interactions have in fact almost doubled direct human impacts on the nine planetary boundaries. One example for how human impacts on the Earth system are amplified is the interconnection between deforestation and climate change. Burning down tropical forests to expand agricultural lands increases the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The additional greenhouse gases then contribute to global warming – harming the forests thus also affects climate stability. The temperature increase can in turn further enhance stress on tropical forests, with negative consequences for agriculture. The resulting amplification of effects is substantial. But the situation could even get worse since the study does not yet take tipping points into account. Beyond a certain threshold, for instance, the Amazon rainforest might show rapid, non-linear change. Such a tipping behaviour would come on top of the amplification analysed in the study.

Another distressing example of connections between global environmental problems that amplify human impacts on the Earth System are the disastrous bushfires which are currently raging across eastern Australia “Climate change, through increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, has played a significant role in creating the conditions conducive for such massive and widespread fires,” said lead author Dr Steven Lade from The Australian National University (ANU). “In turn, the bushfires are having an impact on the climate system by releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to further climate change in what scientists call a 'feedback loop'.” He also points to the fact that smoke, unlike some other types of aerosols, also absorbs solar radiation, accelerating climate change even further. “The severity of the fires coupled with ongoing climate change could lead to ecosystem shifts as the landscape eventually recovers,” Dr Lade warns. “If new ecosystems store less carbon than the forests that were burnt, a long-term, net increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will occur.”

“Our results show that an integrated understanding of Earth system dynamics is critical to navigating towards a sustainable future,” the authors write. They express the hope that their insights will now be applied in policy design for safeguarding the livelihoods of generations to come. “We offer our survey of planetary boundary interactions to policymakers and the scientific community,” they conclude, “as a summary of current scientific knowledge, a call for future research to better characterize interactions and as a framework to prompt policy discussions and planning towards a sustainable future.” Rockström highlights that there is good news for policy-makers in the study’s findings. “If we reduce our pressure on one planetary boundary, this will in many cases also lessen the pressure on other planetary boundaries. Sustainable solutions amplify their effects – this can be a real win-win.” (ab)

16.12.2019 |

Poorest countries suffer from double burden of malnutrition

Healthy diets are needed (Photo: CC0)

Low and middle-income countries are increasingly facing the double burden of undernutrition and obesity due to rapid changes in countries’ food systems. According to a new four-paper report published in the medical journal “The Lancet” on December 16, more than a third of such countries had overlapping forms of malnutrition, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, south and east Asia and the Pacific. “We are facing a new nutrition reality,” said lead author Dr Francesco Branca from the World Health Organization (WHO). “We can no longer characterize countries as low-income and undernourished, or high-income and only concerned with obesity. All forms of malnutrition have a common denominator – food systems that fail to provide all people with healthy, safe, affordable, and sustainable diets.” He said that changing this would require action across food systems – from production and processing, through trade and distribution, pricing, marketing, and labelling, to consumption and waste. “All relevant policies and investments must be radically re-examined,” he added.

Worldwide, almost 2.3 billion children and adults are overweight, and more than 150 million children are stunted. However, in low- and middle-income countries, overnutrition (overweight and obesity) does increasingly coexist alongside undernutrition (stunting and wasting) at all levels of the population. The Lancet report looks at the trends and drivers behind this double burden. The authors used survey data from low- and middle-income countries in the 1990s and 2010s to estimate which countries faced a double burden of malnutrition. A severe double burden of malnutrition was defined as wasting in more than 15% and stunting in more than 30% of children aged 0 to 4 years, a body-mass index below 18.5 in more than 20% of women aged 15–49 years, and more than 20% of people being overweight. The researchers found that in 2010, more than a third of low and middle-income countries (48 out of 126 countries) had overlapping forms of malnutrition. In the 2010s, 14 countries with some of the lowest incomes in the world had newly developed a double burden of malnutrition, compared with the 1990s, whereas fewer low- and middle-income countries with the highest incomes were affected than in the past. This reflects a growing prevalence of overweight in the poorest countries, where populations still face stunting, wasting and thinness.

According to the authors, the poorest low- and middle-income countries are seeing a rapid transformation in the way people eat, drink, and move at work, home, in transport and in leisure. “The new nutrition reality is driven by changes to the food system, which have increased availability of ultra-processed foods that are linked to increased weight gain, while also adversely affecting infant and pre-schooler diets,” said report author Professor Barry Popkin from the University of North Carolina. “These changes include disappearing fresh food markets, increasing supermarkets, and the control of the food chain by supermarkets, and global food, catering and agriculture companies in many countries.” The authors highlight that a food system transformation is needed in order to end malnutrition in all its forms. The report identifies a set of ‘double-duty actions’ that simultaneously prevent or reduce the risk of nutritional deficiencies. These range from improved antenatal care and breastfeeding practices, to social welfare, and to new agricultural and food system policies with healthy diets as their primary goal. To create the systemic changes needed to end malnutrition, the authors call on governments, the UN, civil society, academics, the media, donors, the private sector and economic platforms to address the double burden of malnutrition. They recommend to bring in new actors, such as grass-roots organizations, farmers and their unions, faith-based leaders, advocates for planetary health, innovators as well as investors who are financing fair and green companies. “Without a profound food system transformation, the economic, social, and environmental costs of inaction will hinder the growth and development of individuals and societies for decades to come,” warns Dr Branca. (ab)

11.12.2019 |

Simultaneous heatwaves could threaten global food production

Droughts are affecting yields (Photo: CC0)

Simultaneous heatwaves in several breadbasket regions of the world could “fuel multiple harvest failures posing risks to global food security”, according to a study published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” on December 9th. The regions most affected by crop damages could be Western North America, Western Europe, Western Russia and Ukraine. For the study, an international team of scientists analysed large amounts of climate data covering the period 1979 to 2018. They focused on recurrent patterns in the jet stream, a fast-moving river of air that continuously circles the northern hemisphere from west to east. The wind system can develop large meanders, so-called Rossby waves. The researchers looked at two particular wave patterns which produce north-south wobbles in the jet stream: The wave-5 patterns tend to hover over central North America, eastern Europe and eastern Asia, whereas the wave-7 patterns affects mainly central/west North America, western Europe and western Asia. Both wave patterns have the same result: hot air swirls up from the south into the peaks, producing abnormal spikes in temperature that can last for weeks. This in turn reduces rainfall, dries up soils and vegetation, and kills crops in each region. As a consequence, food prices can soar, leading to social unrest, the authors warn.

“We found an underexplored vulnerability in the food system: when these global scale wind patterns are in place, we see a twenty-fold increase in the risk of simultaneous heatwaves in major crop producing regions,” said lead author Kai Kornhuber, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “During these events there actually is a global structure in the otherwise quite chaotic circulation,” said Kornhuber who is also a guest scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). “What makes this particularly relevant: the bell can ring in multiple regions at once,” he added. Those patterns can induce simultaneous heat extremes across several major breadbasket regions which account for up to a quarter of global food production. “Normally, low harvests in one region are expected to be balanced out by good harvests elsewhere,” said study co-author Dim Coumou from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and PIK. “These waves can cause reduced harvests in several important breadbaskets simultaneously, creating risks for global food production.”

The scientists showed that in years when amplified waves occurred during two or more summer weeks, crop production was affected negatively. The waves have hit in 1983, 2003, 2006, 2012 and 2018, when many temperature records fell across the United States, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. “During years in which two or more summer weeks featured the amplified wave pattern, cereal crop production was reduced by more than 10% in individual regions, and by 4% when averaged across all crop regions affected by the pattern,” said co-author Elisabeth Vogel from Melbourne University. Food-price spikes often followed. The authors warn that heat waves will almost certainly become worse in coming decades, as the world continues to warm. “We will see more and more heatwaves striking different areas at the same time, and they will become even more severe,” said Jonathan Donges, co-author from PIK. “This can impact food availability not only in the regions directly affected. Even remoter regions may see scarcities and price spikes as a result.” According to the authors, a thorough understanding of what drives jet stream behaviour in needed. This could help improve seasonal predictions of agricultural production at the global scale and contribute to better risk assessments of harvest failures across multiple breadbasket regions. (ab)

26.11.2019 |

Environmental stress limits women’s ability to adapt to climate change

Women’s ability to adapt to climate change is often hampered (Photo: CC0)

Household poverty and environmental stress can hamper women’s ability to adapt to climate change, new research highlights. According to a study, published in the journal “Nature Climate Change” on November 25, sustainable, equitable and effective adaptation to a warming climate is critical in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa. However, women’s adaptive capacity is frequently limited. “Our analysis suggests that some common conditions such as male migration and women’s poor working conditions combine with either institutional failure, or poverty, to constrain women’s ability to make choices and decisions,” said lead author Prof Nitya Rao.

The study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) involved researchers from the UK, Nepal, India, Pakistan and South Africa. The qualitative study draws on data from 25 case studies across climate change hotspots in Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Tajikistan) and Africa (Kenya, Ghana, Namibia, Mali, Ethiopia, Senegal). The researchers looked at how and in what ways women’s agency, or ability to make meaningful choices and strategic decisions, contributes to adaptation responses. The study focused on distinct regions which face a range of environmental risks including droughts, floods, rainfall variability, landslides, salinity ingress, coastal erosion and cyclones, among others. Peoples’ livelihoods predominantly depended on agriculture, livestock pastoralism and fishing, supplemented by wage labour, petty trade or business, and income from remittances. The scientists found that environmental stress was a key depressor of women’s agency. “Even when household structures and social norms are supportive, or legal entitlements are available, environmental stress contributes to intensifying exclusionary mechanisms, leading to household strategies that place increasing responsibilities and burdens on women, especially those who are young, less educated and belong to lower classes, or marginal castes and ethnicities,” they wrote in the article.

“Male migration has been seen as an adaptation strategy for climate change - but from a gender perspective, it is not helping in household maintenance and survival,” Prof Rao told Reuters. “Male migration does contribute to enhanced incomes, but the degree of such support is both uncertain and irregular,” the authors write. “Confronted with issues of everyday survival, in the absence of supportive infrastructure and services, women often work harder, in poorer conditions and for lower wages across the hotspots studied.” In one case study, in the Dera Ghazi Khan District of Pakistan, monsoon rains and floods destroyed the cotton crop. As a young woman noted, “Men can easily migrate for work whereas we have to stay here (at home) to take care of the family. After floods, my daily wage decreased from Rs. 200 ($1.62) per bale of cotton to Rs. 75 ($0.61).” With reduced male labour in the rural areas, feminization of agriculture was common but not always improved women’s agency. “In a sense, women do have voice and agency, as they are actively engaging in both production and reproduction, yet this is not contributing to strengthening longer-term adaptive capacities, or indeed their wellbeing,” Prof. Rao added. It can even result in poor health and nutrition, the authors warn. In semi-arid Kenya, when men moved away with livestock, women lost control over milk for consumption and sale, and had to work harder to provide nutritious food for their children. As a woman with two young children said: “I manage the shop, cook and look after the children. I have no help.”

We need to strengthen the adaptive capacities of women and enable more effective adaptation to climate change, the study concludes. The authors suggest that, firstly, effective social protection, such as the universal public distribution system for cereals in India, or pensions and social grants in Namibia, can contribute to relieving immediate pressures on survival. Secondly, such universal benefits can support processes that strengthen collective action at the community level. However, investments are needed to enable better and more sustainable management of resources. “Women’s Self Help Groups are often presented as solutions, yet they are confronted by the lack of resources, skills and capacity to help their members effectively meet the challenges they confront,” the authors caution. They add that competitive markets are not working to strengthen women’s agency. “There appears to be a clear case for regulating labour markets to ensure decent work, whether for women or migrant men, but this is proving difficult in a globalised context,” said Prof Rao. (ab)

20.11.2019 |

Nitrous oxide emissions are increasing faster than predicted

Nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture are on the rise, scientists warn (Photo: CC0)

Emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, are increasing more rapidly than previously thought, according to a new study published in the journal “Nature Climate Change”. A team of scientists has found that global emissions of nitrous oxide (N₂O), commonly known as laughing gas, are higher and growing faster than estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Nitrous oxide is a powerful contributor to global warming. It is 265 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide and depletes our ozone layer,” the authors warn. In the early 20th century the Haber-Bosch process for the synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen in the atmosphere was developed. “The increased nitrogen availability has made it possible to produce a lot more food,” explains lead author Rona L. Thompson from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU). “The downside is of course the environmental problems associated with it, such as rising N₂O levels in the atmosphere.” Since the mid-20th century, the production of nitrogen fertilizers, widespread cultivation of nitrogen-fixing crops (such as clover, soybeans, alfalfa, lupins, and peanuts), and the combustion of fossil and biofuels have greatly enhanced emissions of N₂O, the NILU states in a press release.

The researchers looked at N₂O emissions for the years between 1998 and 2016. “Conventional analysis of N₂O emissions from human activities are estimated from various indirect sources. This include country-by-country reporting, global nitrogen fertiliser production, the areal extent of nitrogen-fixing crops and the use of manure fertilisers,” the authors state in a blog article published on “The Conversation”. “Our study instead used actual atmospheric concentrations of N₂O from dozens of monitoring stations all over the world. We then used atmospheric modelling that explains how air masses move across and between continents to infer the expected emissions of specific regions,” they added. Thompson and her team found that N₂O emissions increased globally by 1.6 million tonnes of nitrogen per year between 2000-2005 and 2010-2015. The fastest growth has been since 2009.

“The regions of East Asia and South America made the largest contributions to the global increase,” the authors write in the abstract of the study. “China and Brazil are two countries that stand out. This is associated with a spectacular increase in the use of nitrogen fertilisers and the expansion of nitrogen-fixing crops such as soybean,” they point out in their blog article. The study found that the emissions reported for those two countries, based on the IPCC method, are significantly lower than those which the scientists inferred from actual nitrous oxide levels in the atmosphere. While the IPCC method assumes a constant emission factor (the amount of N₂O emitted relative to the amount of N-fertilizer used), the recent study concludes that N₂O emission may have a non-linear response when levels of nitrogen input are high. “Our results suggest that reducing nitrogen fertilizer use in regions where there is already a large nitrogen surplus, will result in larger than proportional reductions in N₂O emissions”, Thompson says. “This is particularly relevant in regions such as East Asia, where nitrogen fertilizer could be used more efficiently, without reducing crop yields”.

The authors admit that reducing N₂O emissions from agriculture will be very challenging, given the expected global growth in population, food demand and biomass-based products including energy. However, they stress that all future emission scenarios consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement require a cut in nitrous oxide emissions. In most cases, they would need to decline between 10% and 30% by mid-century. “This will require changes in human diet and agricultural practices and, ultimately, improved nitrogen use efficiency,” they write in the paper. In the United States and Europe, emissions were fairly stable over the past nearly two decades. “In Europe and North America, we have succeeded in decreasing growth in nitrous oxide emissions,” said co-author Eric Davidson of the University of Maryland. “Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Asia and South America, where fertilizer use, intensification of livestock production, and the resulting nitrous oxide emissions are growing rapidly. “The good news is that this problem can be solved, but the less good news is that it will take a global effort, and we are far from there yet,” he said. (ab)

11.11.2019 |

FAO: Global cereal production to reach record high in 2019

World cereal output is expected to increase in 2019 (Photo: CC0)

World meat production is expected to decrease in 2019 for the first time in more than 20 years, said the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). According to FAO’s latest Food Outlook, published on Thursday, African Swine Fever outbreaks have decimated pig herds in China. This will lead to a reduction of at least 20% for pigmeat output in the country, which usually accounts for almost half the world’s production. The biannual report assesses market and production trends for a wide array of food commodities, including cereals, fish, sugar, oilcrops and milk. Production of bovine, ovine, poultry and pig meats is forecast to reach 335.2 million tonnes in carcass weight equivalent in 2019, a decrease of 1% compared to the previous year. In the United States, total meat production is expected to increase from 46.9 to 48.1 million tonnes. In the European Union, total meat output is also expected to expand, although slower than predicted earlier. The FAO experts predict that global production of poultry, which accounts for 39% of total meat production, will grow this year, with increases anticipated in Argentina, Brazil, the EU and the US.

World cereal production is forecast to reach a record high of 2,704 million tonnes in 2019/20, up 1.7 from an estimated 2,657 million tonnes in 2018. World cereal stocks are seen at 849.5 million tonnes by the end of the 2019/20 season, down 1.5% from their opening levels. While wheat and maize production is expected to increase in 2019, that for rice is expected to fall below the previous year’s record of 517.5 million tonnes, reaching 513.4 million tonnes in 2019. On the consumption side, per capita food use of all three cereals is forecast to keep pace and even exceed population growth. Global oilseed production, however, is anticipated to contract for the first time in three years, driven mainly by a contraction in soybean plantings and lower yields in the US as well as weaker prospects for rapeseed in Canada and the EU. “As for palm oil, global production could slow, tied to a deceleration in area expansion and modest yield prospects in Indonesia and Malaysia,” the report reads. FAO also expects world sugar production to drop by 2.8% in the year ahead.

FAO also published its monthly Food Price Index which tracks changes in the international prices of commonly traded food commodities. In October, global food prices rose for the first time in five months. The Food Price Index averaged 172.7 points in October, up 1.7% from the previous month and 6% higher than in the same month a year ago. The FAO Cereal Price Index rose by 4.2% during the month, as wheat and maize export prices increase sharply. By contrast, rice prices slipped, driven by lower demand and prospects of an abundant basmati harvest. (ab)

07.11.2019 |

Over 11,000 scientists declare a climate emergency

Scientists warn of a climate crisis (Photo: CC0)

An international team of scientists has issued a clear and unequivocal warning that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. In a declaration endorsed by more than 11,000 signatories from 153 countries, they stress that “untold human suffering” is unavoidable without deep and lasting shifts in human activities that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. The declaration, published on November 5th in the journal BioScience, is based on scientific analysis of more than 40 years of publicly available data covering a broad range of aspects, including energy use, surface temperature, population growth, land clearing, deforestation, polar ice mass, fertility rates, gross domestic product and carbon emissions. “Scientists have a moral obligation to warn humanity of any great threat,” said Dr Thomas Newsome, a co-author of the paper from the University of Sydney. “From the data we have, it is clear we are facing a climate emergency.”

The authors point to the lack of action taken despite the many warnings issued in the past. “Exactly 40 years ago, scientists from 50 nations met at the First World Climate Conference (in Geneva 1979) and agreed that alarming trends for climate change made it urgently necessary to act. Since then, similar alarms have been made through the 1992 Rio Summit, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and the 2015 Paris Agreement, as well as scores of other global assemblies and scientists’ explicit warnings of insufficient progress,” they write in BioScience. “Despite 40 years of major global negotiations, we have generally conducted business as usual and are essentially failing to address this crisis,” said the co-lead author of the paper, Professor William Ripple from Oregon State University. “Climate change has arrived and is accelerating faster than many scientists expected.” He said that global surface temperature, ocean heat content, extreme weather and its costs, sea levels and ocean acidity are all rising. “Ice is rapidly disappearing as shown by declining trends in minimum summer Arctic sea ice, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and glacier thickness. All of these rapid changes highlight the urgent need for action.” Other signs from human activities include sustained increases in per-capita meat production, global tree cover loss and the number of airline passengers. Encouraging progress of the recent past, such as decelerated forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon, may also halt since the pace of forest loss is likely to increase again under President Bolsonaro.

“While things are bad, all is not hopeless. We can take steps to address the climate emergency,” Dr Newsome said. The scientists have therefore outlined six steps humanity needs to take to reduce the impact of the emerging climate crisis. The first area of action is energy. We need to implement massive conservation practices; replace fossil fuels with clean renewables; leave remaining stocks of fossil fuels in the ground; eliminate subsidies to fossil fuel companies; and impose carbon fees that are high enough to restrain the use of fossil fuels. Another measure is to swiftly cut emissions of methane, hydrofluorocarbons, soot and other short-lived climate pollutants. This would have the potential to reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades, the scientists agree. Third, massive land clearing needs to be stopped. We need to restore and protect ecosystems such as forests, grasslands and mangroves, which would greatly contribute to the sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The fourth area of action is food. “Eat mostly plants and consume fewer animal products. This dietary shift would significantly reduce emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases and free up agricultural lands for growing human food rather than livestock feed,” the scientists recommend. They also call for a reduction in food waste.

Another step to avoid the climate crisis is to reduce the economy’s reliance on carbon fuels. Goals need to be shifted away from the growth of gross domestic product and the pursuit of affluence. “Curtail the extraction of materials and exploitation of ecosystems to maintain long-term biosphere sustainability,” the scientists urge. And finally, they recommend to stabilise global population, which is increasing by more than 200,000 people a day, using approaches that ensure social and economic justice. “Mitigating and adapting to climate change means transforming the ways we govern, manage, eat, and fulfil material and energy requirements,” the paper concludes. “The best news is that there is still time for people, policymakers and the business community to make the necessary changes to ensure that future generations can enjoy living on planet Earth, our only home,” Dr Newsome said. (ab)

30.10.2019 |

Healthy diets also benefit the environment, study shows

Plant-based foods benefit both the health of people and the planet (Photo: CC0)

Eating wholesome food is not only good for your health, it also benefits the environment, new research has confirmed. According to a study published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, the same dietary changes that could help reduce the risk of diet-related non-communicable diseases could also help meet internationally agreed sustainability goals. The scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Minnesota analysed how consuming 15 different food groups is associated with health outcomes and aspects of environmental degradation. They found that foods associated with improved health, such as whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and some vegetable oils high in unsaturated fats like olive oil, also have among the lowest environmental impacts. However, foods with the largest negative environmental impacts, such as red meat, were linked to the largest increases in disease risk. “The study adds to the growing body of evidence that stresses that replacing meat and dairy with a variety of plant-based foods can improve both your health and the health of the planet,” said co-author Dr Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford.

The researchers assessed plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, potatoes, refined grains and wholegrain cereals, and sugar-sweetened beverages, and animal-based foods such as raw and processed red meat, chicken, dairy products, eggs and fish. Using a comparison of an additional serving per day of those foods, they analysed collections of large epidemiological cohort studies – which follow populations of individuals through time – and life cycle assessments, which are used to estimate the environmental impacts per unit of food produced. With respect to health, the researchers looked at five outcomes – total mortality, heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, and colorectal cancer. The aspects incorporated in the environmental analysis were greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, water pollution (eutrophication) and acidification.

The largest health benefits were found for nuts, minimally processed whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and fish, which are associated with significantly reduced mortality and/or reduced risk for one or more diseases. On the contrary, “consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meat, and processed red meat are consistently associated with increased disease risk,” the authors write. “Of all of the foods examined, a daily serving of processed red meat is associated with the largest mean increase in risk of mortality and incidences of coronary heart disease, type II diabetes, and stroke.” When only environmental aspects were considered, minimally processed plant-based foods, olive oil, and sugar-sweetened beverages consistently have among the lowest environmental impacts. Producing a serving of unprocessed red meat has the highest impact for all five environmental indicators. The combination of health and environmental outcomes showed that foods associated with improved adult health also have the lowest environmental impacts. The exceptions were fish, which is a healthy food but has moderate environmental impacts, and processed foods high in sugars, which can be harmful to health but have a relatively low environmental impact.

“Diets are a leading source of poor health and environmental harm,” said lead author Dr Michael Clark from the University of Oxford. “Continuing to eat the way we do threatens societies, through chronic ill health and degradation of Earth’s climate, ecosystems, and water resources.” He hopes the findings will help consumers to make better choices and enable policymakers to issue more effective dietary guidelines. “Choosing better, more sustainable diets is one of the main ways people can improve their health and help protect the environment. How and where a food is produced also affects its environmental impact, but to a much smaller extent than food choice,” Dr. Clark added. Eating those foods that are best for human health and the environment would have the greatest impact. But the researchers also stressed that foods with intermediate environmental impacts or which are not significantly associated with health outcomes, such as refined grain cereals, dairy, eggs, and chicken, could also contribute to meeting sustainability targets if they are used to replace foods that are less healthy or worse for the environment such as red meat. (ab)

23.10.2019 |

Rising levels of obesity place a heavy burden on OECD countries

Obesity, a heavy burden (Photo: CC0)

More than half the population is overweight in most OECD countries, with almost one in four people being obese. Obesity-related diseases will claim more than 90 million lives in OECD countries in the next 30 years and reduce life expectancy by nearly 3 years. These figures were published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in a report released on October 10th. According to “The Heavy Burden of Obesity – The Economics of Prevention”, poor diets, lack of physical activity and sedentary behaviour have contributed to the obesity epidemic. The report warns that overweight and obesity are on the rise. Almost 60% of people are overweight in OECD countries. Average rates of adult obesity in OECD countries have increased from 21% in 2010 to 24% in 2016, meaning an additional 50 million people are now obese. Figures are even higher in some countries. The United Kingdom, for example, has one of the highest rates of obesity: nearly one in three adults are obese. The situation is even worse in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United States or Mexico. The authors warn that obesity places a heavy burden on individuals, society and the economy.

Over the next 30 years, overweight is projected to result in 462 million new cases of cardiovascular disease in 52 countries, and 212 million cases of diabetes, among other diseases. As a result, life expectancy in OECD countries will be reduced by 2.7 years on average. Mexicans will live 4.2 years less due to overweight, the largest reductions in life expectancy of all countries analysed. Over the next thirty years, OECD countries will have to spend 8.4% of their health budget to treat the consequences of overweight. Overweight also negatively impacts educational outcomes: “Children who are overweight do less well at school, are more likely to miss school, and, when they grow up, are less likely to complete higher education. They also show lower life satisfaction and are up to three times more likely to be bullied, which in turn may contribute to lower school performance,” OECD warns. But overweight also reduces employment and workers’ productivity. The impact is considered equivalent to a reduction in the workforce of 54 million people per year across the 52 countries covered in the report. Overall, overweight reduces the gross domestic product (GDP) by 3.3%.

The report shows that there is a wide range of policy options which, if properly implemented, can reduce the prevalence of obesity and improve the economy. “There is an urgent economic and social case to scale up investments to tackle obesity and promote healthy lifestyles,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “These findings clearly illustrate the need for better social, health and education policies that lead to better lives.” The report finds that initiatives targeting the whole population, such as food and menus displaying nutritional information and mass media campaigns, could lead to gains of between 51,000 to 115,000 life years per year up to 2050 in the 36 countries included in the analysis. Achieving a 20% reduction in calorie content in energy-dense food, such as crisps and confectionery, would have a significant positive effect: This could avoid more than 1 million cases of chronic disease per year, especially heart disease, and would save 13.2 billion US dollars each year due to reduced healthcare expenditure for the 42 countries included in the analysis. In general, for each dollar invested in prevention policies, countries will see a return of up to 6 dollars, according to the report. “By investing in prevention, policymakers can halt the rise in obesity for future generations, and benefit economies. There is no more excuse for inaction,” Angel Gurría concludes. (ab)

16.10.2019 |

FAO: 14% of the world’s food is lost between harvest and retail

Causes of on-farm losses vary (Photo: CC0)

Reducing food loss and waste is an important way to improve food security and nutrition, promote environmental sustainability and lower production costs. Cutting back on food waste would not only help to achieve progress towards the international target of reducing food loss and waste, but also contribute to a number of other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) thanks to the positive environmental impact. This is the message of a new report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Monday. According to “The State of Food and Agriculture 2019”, we can only make informed decisions and tackle food waste effectively if we have a solid understanding of the problem. The report therefore provides new estimates of food loss at different stages of the food supply chain and offers new ways to measure progress. “The surprising fact is how little we really know about how much food is lost or wasted, and where and why this happens,” said FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu in the foreword to the report. A broad estimate from 2011 suggested that around a third of the world’s food was lost or wasted each year. “This estimate is still widely cited due to a lack of information in this field, but it can only be considered as very rough,” Qu Dongyu writes.

FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment) have therefore worked on a new methodological framework to estimate more precisely how much food is lost or wasted. The results are the Food Loss Index (FLI) presented in this report, which shows how much food is lost in production or in the supply chain before it reaches the retail level, and the Food Waste Index (FWI) for the consumer and retail level which is yet to be released by UN Environment. “Food loss and waste has typically been measured in physical terms using tonnes as reporting units. Although useful for estimating environmental impacts, this measurement fails to account for the economic value of different commodities and can risk attributing a higher weight to low-value products just because they are heavier,” FAO explains. The report recognises this by adopting a measure that also accounts for the economic value of a product. It found that around 14% of the world’s food is lost after harvesting and before reaching the retail level, including through on-farm activities, storage and transportation. However, the food losses vary considerably from one region to another within the same commodity groups and supply chain stages. At the regional level, estimates range from 5-6% in Australia and New Zealand to 20-21% in Central and Southern Asia.

The report found that losses and waste are generally higher for fruits and vegetables than for cereals and pulses at all stages in the food supply chain, with the exception of on-farm losses and those during transportation in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia. But evidence presented in the report also shows a vast range in terms of loss and waste percentages within commodities, supply chain stages and regions. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, on-farm losses of fruits and vegetables are ranging from 0 to 50%. This “shows that we cannot generalize about the occurrence of food loss and waste across food supply chains but must, on the contrary, identify critical loss points in specific supply chains as a crucial step in taking appropriate countermeasures,” Qu Dongyu says in the foreword. Results indicate that harvesting is the most frequently identified critical loss point for all types of food. Inadequate storage facilities and poor handling practices were also named among the main causes of on-farm storage losses. For fruits, roots and tubers, packaging and transportation also appear to be critical. But the report also points to the importance of reducing food waste, which occurs at the retail and consumption level and is linked to limited shelf life and consumer behaviour, such as demanding food products that meet aesthetic standards, and limited incentive to avoid food waste.

The report urges countries to step up efforts to tackle the root causes of food loss and waste at all stages and provides guidance on policy and interventions to reduce food loss and waste. “Reducing food loss and waste generally entails costs, and farmers, suppliers and consumers will only take necessary measures if their costs are outweighed by the benefits.” This calls for public interventions in the form of investments or policies that create incentives for private actors to reduce food loss and waste or better information on existing net benefits, the report states. But even when stakeholders are aware of the benefits of reducing food loss and waste, they may face constraints that prevent them from implementing actions. For example, without financial help private actors in developing countries, especially smallholders, may not be able to bear the high upfront cost associated with implementing loss-reducing production techniques. Improving credit access could be an option.

The report highlights that reducing food loss and waste can also improve the food security of vulnerable groups and reduce the environmental footprint of food production. According to the authors, the largest improvements in food security are likely to occur by reducing food losses in the early stages of the supply chain, especially on-farm, in countries with high levels of food insecurity. To be environmentally effective, interventions need to consider where food loss and waste has the greatest impact on the environment. “Empirical evidence at the global level on the environmental footprints for major commodity groups suggests that, if the aim is to reduce land use, the primary focus should be on meat and animal products, which account for 60% of the land footprint associated with food loss and waste. If the aim is to target water scarcity, cereals and pulses make the largest contribution (more than 70%), followed by fruits and vegetables.” In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest contribution is again from cereals and pulses (more than 60%), followed by roots, tubers and oil-bearing crops. But the environmental footprint for different products also varies across regions and countries due to differences in crop yields and production techniques (e.g. rainfed versus irrigated production or grazing for livestock versus use of animal feed).” (ab)


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