News

2018-07-04 |

Global food prices to remain low over the next decade, OECD-FAO report

Cereal Food prices will remain stable (Photo: CC0)

Global food prices are expected to remain low for the coming decade as the rate of population growth is forecast to decline and per capita consumption of many commodities will level off. Poorer countries with rising populations and scarce natural resources will become increasingly dependent on imports for basic foodstuffs to feed their populations. These are the key messages of the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2018-2027, which provides ten-year projections for all major agricultural commodities, as well as for biofuels and fish. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a decade after the food price spikes of 2007-8, conditions on world agricultural markets are very different today. “Production has grown strongly across commodities, and in 2017 reached record levels for most cereals, types of meat, dairy products, and fish, while cereal stock levels climbed to all-time highs,” the executive summary says. However, demand has started to grow slower than in the past. The authors attribute this to weakening demand in major emerging economies, stagnating per capita consumption of staple foods and slowing demand growth for meat products. Another reason is that the rate of global population growth will decline gradually. With strong supplies, ample stocks and lower demand growth, commodity prices are expected to decline in the years to come.

The Outlook finds that global agricultural and fish production is projected to grow by around 20% over the coming decade, but with considerable variation across regions. Strong growth is expected in developing regions with rapidly growing populations. In developed countries, especially in Western Europe, production increases will be much lower. With slower consumption and production growth, agricultural and fish trade are projected to grow at about half the rate of the previous decade. FAO and OECD expect that net exports will increase from land-abundant countries and regions, notably the Americas. Countries with high population growth, in particular in the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia, will see rising net imports. “Many poorer countries with rising populations and limited land resources will be increasingly dependent on food imports to feed their people,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

With regard to meat products, the outlook projects that demand will grow at a slower rate than before. “Some low-income regions which currently have low per capita consumption levels of meat, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, are not expected to increase these levels significantly due to a lack of sufficient income growth,” the report finds. “Some emerging economies, in particular China, have already transitioned to relatively high levels of per capita meat consumption. In India, where income growth is stronger, dietary preferences translate rising incomes into an increased per capita demand for dairy as preferred animal protein, rather than meat.” Demand for cereals and vegetable oil for the production of biofuels is expected to grow much more modestly than in the last decade, when biofuels expansion led to more than 120 million tonnes of additional cereal demand, predominantly maize. With existing policies in developed countries unlikely to support biofuels expansion, most demand growth will come from emerging countries which have introduced blending mandates.

The report also addresses health concerns since the per capita intake of sugar and vegetable oil is expected to increase in the developing world. Urbanisation is leading to higher demand for processed and convenience foods. “Changes in levels of food consumption and the composition of diets imply that the “triple burden” of undernourishment, over-nourishment and malnutrition will persist in developing countries,” the report warns. It also recommends that countries re-orient policies towards sustainable farming systems: “The Green Revolution of the last century largely increased the world’s capacity to feed itself but now we need a sustainability revolution,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “This includes tackling high-input and resource-intensive farming systems that impose a high cost to the environment. Soil, forests, water, air quality and biodiversity continue to degrade. We need to adopt sustainable and productive food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, while also preserving the environment and biodiversity.” (ab)

2018-06-27 |

Land area half the size of the EU is degraded every year, report

Soil Soil degradation has increased (Photo: CC0)

Population growth and changes in consumption patterns put unprecedented pressure on the planet’s natural resources. Land degradation has become a serious problem: Globally, a total area half of the size of the European Union is degraded annually, with Africa and Asia being the most affected regions. This is the sad message of the latest edition of the World Atlas of Desertification, published by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) on 21 June. The Atlas was created using new data processing methods employed by EU scientists, thousands of high-performance computers and 1.8 petabytes of satellite data. “Over the past twenty years, since the publication of the last edition of the World Atlas of Desertification, pressures on land and soil have increased dramatically,” warns Tibor Navracsics, EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. “To preserve our planet for future generations, we urgently need to change the way we treat these precious resources.”

The Atlas is intended as a tool for decision makers to better understand land degradation, its causes and potential remedies to tackle desertification and restore degraded land. It provides many examples of how human activity drives species to extinction, threatens food security, intensifies climate change and leads to people being displaced from their homes. The report contains a large collection of facts, forecasts and global datasets about land degradation: According to the Atlas, over 75% of the Earth’s land area is already degraded, and over 90% could become degraded by 2050. Land degradation and climate change are estimated to lead to a reduction of global crop yields by about 10% by 2050. Most of this will occur in India, China and sub-Saharan Africa, where land degradation could even halve crop production. It is projected that by 2050, up to 700 million people will have been displaced due to issues linked to scarce land resources. This figure could reach 10 billion by the end of this century.

The report also presents solutions to the problem of land degradation. The authors stress that further agricultural expansion, one of the main causes of land degradation, could be limited by increasing yields on existing farmland, shifting to plant-based diets, consuming animal proteins from sustainable sources and reducing food loss and waste. The Atlas presents many examples of successful sustainable land management practices around the globe and their environmental, ecological and societal benefits. One of them is the widespread implementation of small-scale water-harvesting systems that make better use of precious rainfall in drylands. Micro-basins, as those near Mount Kenya presented in the report, are an effective way of maximizing rainwater retention. In order to avoid the loss of soil moisture through evaporation, the soil is covered. Leaving crop residues and weeds (applied as a mulch) between crop rotations is a good practice to keep permanent soil cover and reduce moisture loss. Another good land management practice cited in the report is the large-scale terracing of land in the Loess plateau of China which has improved land productivity and the livelihoods of millions of land users. This measure not only helped to increase food production for a growing population, it also reduced catastrophic floods and the sedimentation of large dams.

“Maintaining or improving the productive capacity of land requires a move towards land degradation neutrality. This is a matter of preserving or enhancing the ability of land resources to support ecosystem functions and services,” concludes the report. “Sustainable management of soil, water and biodiversity can help close yield gaps, increase the resilience of land and thus support the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. This will come at a cost, but the cost of action or prevention is always lower than the cost of inaction,” the authors stress. (ab)

2018-06-18 |

Consumers can contribute to halt land degradation, UNCCD says

Deserst A third of the planet’s land is already severely degraded (Photo: CC0)

Land degradation is undermining the well-being of 3.2 billion people worldwide but we can all contribute to avoid this threat by supporting sustainable land management. This is the message of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) on the occasion of this year’s World Day to Combat Desertification celebrated on June 17. “Everything we produce and consume has a land footprint. A bicycle requires 3.4 square meters of land. Ten square meters of land are used to produce a laptop. Producing one kilogram of beef takes 22 square meters,” said Monique Barbut, UNCCD Executive Secretary. She stressed that few people think about this land footprint “because the losses are not visible – or at least not accounted for – in the products we consume.”
People are often using land as if it were a limitless resource, the UN agency said. This negligence threatens food and water supply, biodiversity and even human security itself. Short-sighted economic gains such as land grabbing, unplanned urban sprawl, unsustainable agriculture and over-consumption lead to unsustainable land use, which eventually causes degradation and loss of critical ecosystem services. As a result, consumption of the Earth’s natural reserves has doubled in the last 30 years and a third of the planet’s land is already severely degraded. This is causing serious problems for the 1.3 billion people, mostly in developing countries, who depend on this degrading land for their livelihoods – jobs, incomes, food, water, energy, and medicines.
But the UNCCD highlighted that changes in behaviour and the adoption of more efficient planning and practices can guarantee that sufficient land resources are available long-term to meet our ambitions for and to provide sustainable livelihoods. “Every one of us has a role to play,” said Barbut in her message for the day. “Farmers can invest in smart agriculture that leads to higher yields despite a reduction in inputs like pesticides. Consumers can spend their money on organic and fairly traded products to avoid land degradation. There are many more ways to invest in land wisely,” she stressed. “Imagine, what would happen if the world’s over 7 billion consumers committed, every year, to just one lifestyle change that will support the provision of goods from sustainably managed land.” She called on consumers worldwide to make choices that reward land users whose practices protect the land from degradation. “When you choose what to eat, what to wear or what to drive, think about how your choice impacts the land – for better or for worse.”

Land degradation also plays an important role in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 15 on Life on Land calls for a resolve to halt and reverse land degradation, with a target to combat desertification, restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land degradation-neutral world by 2030. The UNCCD stressed that our small decisions every day can transform the world. “In 2030, when the international community evaluates its achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, you can point to positive changes that you have contributed in favor of present and future generations.” (ab)

2018-06-05 |

Eating less meat and dairy best way to reduce your impact on Earth, study

Cow Lowest-impact meat still has a higher footprint than vegetable proteins (Photo: CC0)

Giving up meat and dairy products is the single most effective way to reduce your environmental impact, new research has revealed. According to a comprehensive analysis published in the journal Science, livestock only provides 18% of calories and 37% of our protein while taking up 83% of farmland worldwide. The scientists at Oxford University and Swiss agricultural research institute Agroscope found that switching to a vegan diet could reduce a person’s carbon footprint by as much as 73%. If everyone went vegan, we would require 3.1 billion hectares less farmland. The focus of the study was to assess the environmental impact for 40 different agricultural goods around the world in a meta-analysis comparing various types of food production systems. The researchers created a database on the environmental impacts of 38,700 farms as well as 1,600 processors, packaging types, and retailers. In order to assess the different environmental impacts, they looked at five environmental indicators: land use, climate change emissions, freshwater withdrawals and water pollution (eutrophication), and air pollution (acidification).

The scientists found large differences for one and the same product. “Impact can vary 50-fold among producers of the same product, creating substantial mitigation opportunities,” says the abstract. For example, one pint of beer can create 3 times more emissions and use 4 times more land than another. High-impact beef producers create 105kg of CO2 equivalents and use 370 square metres of land per 100 grams of protein, causing 12 times more emissions and using 50 times more land than low-impact beef producers, with dairy herds grazing rich natural pasture. High variation within and between protein-rich products is also manifest in acidification, eutrophication, and water use. “Two things that look the same in the shops can have extremely different impacts on the planet. We currently don’t know this when we make choices about what to eat. Further, this variability isn’t fully reflected in strategies and policy aimed at reducing the impacts of farmers,” said lead author Joseph Poore.

The study also showed that animal product free diets delivered the greatest environmental benefits. The impacts of even the lowest-impact animal products still exceeded those of vegetable substitutes, providing new evidence for the importance of dietary change. For example, tenth-percentile greenhouse gas emissions of dairy beef were 36 times higher with 9.1 kg CO2eq per 100 grams of protein than those of peas with 0.25 kg CO2eq, including all processing, packaging, and transport. In addition, the lowest impact beef used six times more land (7.3m²) than peas (1.2m²). A low-impact litre of cow’s milk uses almost two times as much land and creates almost double the emissions as an average litre of soymilk. “Moving from current diets to a diet that excludes animal products has transformative potential, reducing food’s land use by 3.1 billion hectares (a 76% reduction), including a 19% reduction in arable land,” the authors write. “This would take pressure off the world’s tropical forests and release land back to nature,” said Joseph Poore. The researchers also found that plant-based diets would reduce food’s emissions by 6.6 billion metric tons of CO2eq (a 49% reduction); acidification by 50%, eutrophication by 49% and freshwater withdrawals by 19%.

But reducing the environmental footprint of food production would also be possible without everyone having to go vegan. The researchers showed that reducing the consumption of animal products by 50% by avoiding the highest-impact producers could achieve 73% of the greenhouse gas emission cuts a switch to plant-based diet’s would result in. Further, lowering consumption of discretionary products (oils, alcohol, sugar, and stimulants) by 20% by avoiding high-impact producers would reduce the emissions caused by these products by 43%. “Agriculture is characterised by millions of diverse producers. This diversity creates the variation in environmental impact,” said Poore. However, this heterogeneity creates opportunities to target the small numbers of producers that have the most impact. “We need to find ways to slightly change the conditions so it’s better for producers and consumers to act in favour of the environment,” says Joseph Poore. “Environmental labels and financial incentives would support more sustainable consumption, while creating a positive loop: Farmers would need to monitor their impacts, encouraging better decision making; and communicate their impacts to suppliers, encouraging better sourcing.” (ab)

2018-05-31 |

The EU needs a new food and farming blueprint, study

Food The EU needs a new food and farming blueprint (Photo: CC0)

The European Union has no consistent, coherent or complete food policy, new research shows. The lack of an comprehensive framework for food policy means that the current food and farming policies are failing to adequately protect public health and the environment, as well as making the farming sector sustainable. This is the conclusion of a study that was carried out by the University of Pisa and published on May 24. The researchers assessed different food-related EU policies to better understand whether they jointly contribute to a sustainable food future. Among those policy instruments or tools were the so-called Greening payments in the framework of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Nitrates Directive, seed marketing directives, public food procurement, competition policy or the labelling of food and drinks. The study, commissioned by Friends of the Earth Europe, European Public Health Alliance, IFOAM EU and Slow Food, found many policy weaknesses and concluded that the existing instruments are not conceived in a systemic and integrated way to contribute to the sustainability of the whole system.

“We assessed 10 different EU policies to judge how they contributed to a sustainable food and farming system,” said Professor Gianluca Brunori at the University of Pisa. “Available evidence shows that there are many inconsistencies, incoherencies or gaps. One of the problems is policy failure, meaning that some of the EU’s policies fail in achieving their main objectives. For example, the greening of the CAP has failed to deliver the planned environmental benefits. “The general impact of Greening measures is relatively low, especially due to the many exemptions and derogations to the rules arising as a compromise for the political acceptance of the reform and to the large flexibility given to the Member States to implement the reform,” the authors write. Another problem is inconsistency because many EU policies conflict with the goals of other policies. For example in the case of the seed marketing directives, economic and social objectives are priorities with the aim of establishing a market for regulated seeds that guarantee productivity and safety of food crops. However, this comes at the expense of reducing genetic diversity, which in turn adversely affects ecological, ethical and resilience goals.

The study also mentions examples of policy incoherence. Although some EU policies have the potential to contribute to a sustainable food system, their implementation remains insufficiently coordinated with other policies. The researchers found that there is little connection between EU laws to protect water from nitrate pollution and the CAP cross-compliance rules. Policy gaps are also an issue: Sometimes policy instruments are missing, or existing instruments fail to integrate other sustainability dimensions. Professor Brunori says that all these deficiencies “should be addressed through an overarching policy framework, able to balance a mix of demand and supply side policy instruments, as well as food environment-oriented ones.” The researchers hope that their study will contribute to building a more ethical and resilient food system in the EU.
The report comes ahead of the expected publication of the European Commissions’ new plans for the future of the CAP this Friday. The organisations that commissioned the research are calling for the CAP to be reformed in a way to help transition towards a sustainable food and farming system within a new policy framework. “The current approach to food and farming is a hodgepodge of incoherent and competing policies that damage public health, the environment and the welfare of the farming community,” said Stanka Becheva from Friends of the Earth Europe. “The reform of the CAP must be used to step back from the vested agribusiness interests instead as an opportunity to start building an agroecological food system that is fit for the future.” (ab)

2018-05-23 |

Humans have destroyed 83% of wild mammals, biomass census shows

Cattle Today, 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock (Photo: CC0)

The world’s 7.6 billion people only make up 0.01% of the Earth’s biomass. Yet since the rise of civilisation, humanity has caused the loss of more than 80% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock has increased dramatically, new research shows. The study, published on May 21 in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America” (PNAS), provides a comprehensive assessment of the world’s living organisms and reveals our disproportionate impact on the Earth’s biosphere. To compare the biomass of bacteria to plankton to that of termites, trees, animals and humans, scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and the California Institute of Technology evaluated carbon units, for each group – measured in gigatonnes. They found that the sum of the biomass across all taxa on Earth is 550 Gt C, of which 450 Gt C or roughly 82% are plants, dominated by land plants. The second largest group is bacteria with 70 Gt C or 13%, followed by fungi (12 Gt C), archaea (7 Gt C), and protists (4 Gt C). Animals just make up 2 Gt C, of which humans represent only 0.06 Gt C, corresponding to 0.01% of the total biomass in the atmosphere. An animal with biomass that comes close to that of humanity – 0.05 gigatons of carbon – is the termite

The study also shows the enormous impact of humanity on all this biomass. The researchers compared their new estimates with those for the time before humans became farmers. Their results show that since the dawn of civilisation, humanity has destroyed 83% of wild mammals, 80% of marine animals, 50% of plants, and 15% of fish. “We know that humans affect the biosphere,” said Prof Ron Milo from the Weizmann Institute, “but now we are able to start showing the real numbers – to quantify our impact.” The authors write that “over the relatively short span of human history, major innovations, such as the domestication of livestock, adoption of an agricultural lifestyle, and the Industrial Revolution, have increased the human population dramatically and have had radical ecological effects.”

One effect is the rapid increase in the domesticated livestock biomass. According to the study, the biomass of humans and that of livestock (0.1 Gt C), dominated by cattle and pigs, far surpasses that of wild mammals (0.007 Gt C). 60% of all mammals on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals today. When it comes to birds, domesticated poultry (mostly chickens) constitute 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild. “It is pretty staggering,” said Milo. “In wildlife films, we see flocks of birds, of every kind, in vast amounts, and then when we did the analysis we found there are [far] more domesticated birds.” He added that our dietary choices have a vast effect on the habitats of animals, plants and other organisms. “It is definitely striking, our disproportionate place on Earth,” Milo told the Guardian. “When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken.” He hopes that the results of the study will affect the way people consume. “I have not become vegetarian, but I do take the environmental impact into my decision making, so it helps me think, do I want to choose beef or poultry or use tofu instead?” (ab)

2018-05-18 |

Agroecology is a better alternative in Sub-Saharan Africa, researcher says

Fam Agroecological farm in Kabarole, Uganda (Photo: Ellinor Isgren, Lund University)

Agroecology is a better alternative than large-scale agriculture, both for the climate and for small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to a doctoral thesis published at Lund University in Sweden, this agricultural model preserves biodiversity and safeguards food supply while avoiding soil depletion. Researcher Ellinor Isgren looked at the case of Uganda, one of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa where much hope is currently placed in agricultural development for poverty alleviation, economic growth and food security. She found that Uganda’s “agrarian politics are significantly shaped by the persistence of a neoliberal development logic, and the short-term political interests of an increasingly insecure regime.” Despite its potential to resolve tensions between development and environmental sustainability, especially in countries dominated by small-scale low-capital farming, agroecology remains largely ignored in Uganda. “There is currently no political will in Uganda to push development of the agricultural sector. This has left the market open to private investors and strong financial interests in the form of seed and pesticide companies”, she says. Agroecology is only pursued by actors in civil society and academia as a form of smallholder-oriented ‘modernization from below’.

However, promoting agroecology would have many advantages for Uganda and other Sub-Saharan countries. Isgren argues that today’s intensive, large-scale agriculture harms the environment with its high use of pesticides as well as high energy and water consumption, leading to soil depletion and biodiversity loss. “Large parts of the world’s soil have already been degraded by depletion and excessively resource-intensive agriculture,” she said. Huge areas are often cultivated with one or just a few different crops, making this type of agriculture vulnerable to pests, diseases and climate change. Another disadvantage of large-scale agriculture is that it requires major investments in the form of machinery, grains and seed, while utilising little labour. This means that poorer farmers in many African countries are excluded from the advantages of intensive agriculture: technological development, increased food production, access to the agricultural market and general economic growth. “We must consider other, alternative models for developing agriculture, particularly in countries that have not already transitioned to large-scale rationalisation,” argues Isgren. “Development that excludes a large number of small-holders creates income differences and a divided society. From a social and fairness perspective, transition to large-scale agriculture is not a positive technological conversion for the whole of society.”

Instead, the researcher proposes agroecology as a possible alternative for small farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. According Lund University’s press release, “this model is based on each farm being an integrated ecosystem, in which crops, plants and animals interact to create favourable conditions for cultivation. This alternative is knowledge-intensive, requiring farmers to have a lot of knowledge about the functioning of various components in the ecological system, as well as an ability to create synergies between plants, insects, crops and soil fertility. The model also rests on traditional farming methods.” Isgren points out that if farmers use the model correctly, they can increase their yields and ensure their food supply while preserving biodiversity and reducing their impact on the climate and soil depletion. “They also become less vulnerable to climate change as they grow many different crops and improve the soil structure,” she explains. Another benefit is that the system does not require major resources in the form of machinery, pesticides and fertiliser, as the cultivation model is mainly organic, so even poor small-holders can farm in this way. “Agroecology is a real alternative to conventional agricultural production, and a model that safeguards both the climate and social development,” she says. However, in order to make agroecology a reality in Uganda, more efforts are needed. Civil society needs to push for change from the bottom up and international support would have to be directed from industrial agriculture to alternative ways of farming the land, Isgren concludes. (ab)

2018-05-07 |

Soil pollution affects food security and human health, FAO report

Soil Soil pollution, a hidden threat (Photo: CC0)

Soil pollution presents a serious threat to agricultural productivity, food safety, and human health, according to a new report. It was released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on May 2. Industrialisation, war, mining and the intensification of agriculture have taken a heavy toll on soils worldwide, while the growth of cities meant that soil has increasingly been used as a sink for large amounts of municipal waste, the report warns. “Soil pollution affects the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the health of our ecosystems,” said FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo in a press release. The authors of “Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality” stress that far too little is known about the scale and severity of soil pollution, which they define as “the presence in the soil of a chemical or substance out of place and/or present at a higher than normal concentration that has adverse effects on any non-targeted organism.” Their analysis of existing scientific literature shows that studies conducted so far have largely been limited to developed economies, meaning that massive information gaps exist regarding the full extent of the problem. However, the little we do know is enough cause for concern.

The report presents facts and figures to illustrate the global pressures on soil. In Australia, for example, some 80,000 sites are now estimated to suffer from soil contamination. China has categorised 16% of all its soils and 19% of its agricultural soils as polluted. In addition, there are around 3 million potentially polluted sites in the European Economic Area and the West Balkans. In the United States, 1,300 sites appear on a national list of pollution hot spots. Most soil pollution is caused by human activities. “The main anthropogenic sources of soil pollution are the chemicals used in or produced as by-products of industrial activities, domestic, livestock and municipal wastes (including wastewater), agrochemicals, and petroleum-derived products,” the report reads. “These chemicals are released to the environment accidentally, for example from oil spills or leaching from landfills, or intentionally, as is the case with the use of fertilisers and pesticides, irrigation with untreated wastewater, or land application of sewage sludge.” But soil pollution also results from atmospheric deposition from smelting, transportation, spray drift from pesticide applications and incomplete combustion of many substances.

With regard to agricultural sources, the authors write that excessive application of fertilisers and manure or inefficient use of the main nutrients – nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) – in fertilisers are the main contributors to soil pollution: “Excessive fertiliser usage can lead to soil salinity, heavy metal accumulation, water eutrophication and accumulation of nitrate. The fertiliser industry is also considered to be a source of heavy metals.” The report states that manure from livestock, despite its potential benefit for agriculture, can contain high amounts of heavy metals, pathogen organisms and antibiotics, which may lead to antimicrobial‑resistant bacteria proliferation in soils amended with such manure. Global manure production from all livestock has increased by 66%, from 73 to 124 million tonnes of N, from 1961 to 2016, with manure applied to soils increasing from 18 to 28 million tonnes of N, and N input from manure left on pasture increasing from 48 to 86 million tonnes of N.

Another problem is the use of pesticides. FAO says that pesticide use in some low and middle income countries has grown over the last decade. Bangladesh, for example, has increased its use by four times, while Rwanda and Ethiopia have increased theirs by over six times and the Sudan even by ten times. A problem arises when pesticides are misused: when they are applied in higher amounts than needed and using practices that contribute to their spreading into the environment, such as spraying with unsuitable application equipment or by planes into vast regions, affecting people and non-target organisms, the authors explain. Soil pollution has bad consequences: It impacts food security both by impairing plant metabolism and thus reducing crop yields, as well as by making crops unsafe for consumption by animals and humans. Pollutants also directly harm soil microorganisms and larger soil-dwelling organisms and hence affect soil biodiversity and fertility.

“The potential of soils to cope with pollution is limited; the prevention of soil pollution should be a top priority worldwide,” said Maria Helena Semedo. FAO recommends that national governments implement regulations on soil pollution and limit the accumulation of contaminants beyond established levels in order to guarantee human wellbeing, a healthy environment and safe food. The organisation also urges governments to facilitate remediation of contaminated soils that exceed safe levels. According to the authors, it is also essential to limit pollution from agricultural sources by implementing sustainable soil management practices worldwide. (ab)

2018-05-03 |

U.S. consumers waste nearly a pound of food daily, study finds

Fruits Fruits and vegetables are the foods wasted most in the US (Photo: CC0)

U.S. consumers waste almost a pound of food per person each day, with 30 million acres of cropland used to produce this food every year – an area equivalent to 7.7% of all harvested cropland in the US or half the size of the UK. The most wasted foods are actually the healthiest, namely fruits and vegetables. This is the finding of a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE. To investigate the link between food waste, environmental impact and diet quality, researchers collected data on food intake and diet quality from the 2015 Healthy Eating Index and USDA’s What We Eat in America database, and combined it with available food waste data. They calculated the amount of cropland used to produce uneaten food using a biophysical simulation modelling. They found that between 2007 and 2014, U.S. consumers wasted nearly 150,000 tons of food daily – or 422 grams per person. “This accounts for 30% of daily calories available for consumption or one-quarter of daily food (by weight) available for consumption,” the authors write in the journal. To produce this wasted food, 30 million acres of land (121,405 square kilometres) are used annually.

In addition, the researchers and estimated the amount of agricultural inputs required to grow the food that was ultimately wasted by consumers. Nearly 4.2 trillion gallons (15.8 trillion litres) of irrigation water were used, with the majority of wasted irrigation water used to produce fruits (1.3 trillion gallons) and vegetables (1.05 trillion gallons). Farmers also used 780 million pounds of pesticides and 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertiliser each year in order to produce food that is eventually thrown away. According to the authors, higher quality diets were associated with higher levels of food waste. Fruits and vegetables and mixed fruit and vegetable dishes accounted for 39% of food waste, followed by dairy (17%), meat and mixed meat dishes (14%), and grains and grain mixed dishes (12%). Foods and dishes considered less healthy, such as candy, soft drinks and salty snacks, caused a smaller amount of food waste. “Higher quality diets have greater amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are being wasted in greater quantities than other food,” said co-author Meredith Niles, a University of Vermont assistant professor. “Eating healthy is important, and brings many benefits, but as we pursue these diets, we must think much more consciously about food waste.” The study also found that healthier diets used less cropland than lower quality diets.

“Consumers face a delicate balance between following dietary recommendations to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables (which requires purchasing more of them) while also wasting less of them,” the authors write. The researchers argue that increasing consumers’ knowledge about how to prepare and store fruits and vegetables will be one of the practical solutions to reducing food waste. Consumers need more education on how to tell when fruits and vegetables are ripe, how to store and prepare them, and how to tell the difference between bruises/abrasions and spoilage. Niles highlights efforts to reduce food waste, including French grocer Intermarché’s “inglorious fruits and vegetables” campaign, which promotes the cooking of “the disfigured eggplant,” “the ugly carrot,” and other healthy, but otherwise superficially damaged produce. Increased efforts to plan food purchases based on household food stocks is one way consumers can reduce waste due to over-purchasing. Policy efforts are needed to revise sell-by dates and labels to reduce consumer confusion. “Food waste is an issue that plays out at many different levels,” said lead author Zach Conrad from the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center. “Looking at them holistically will become increasingly important to finding sustainable ways of meeting the needs of a growing world population.” (ab)

2018-04-30 |

AFSA warns against corporate takeover of African seed systems

Seeds Farmers’ seeds are under threat (Photo: B. Haerlin)

African farmers’ seeds are increasingly under threat from policies designed to privilege corporate seed systems, says a new report launched on World Intellectual Property Day on April 26th. According to the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), an organisation that brings together small-scale food producers, indigenous peoples, farmers’ networks, consumer associations and other civil society actors, a policy shift is taking place on the continent towards the corporatisation of seeds, in direct contravention of international obligations to protect farmers’ rights and to conserve agricultural biodiversity. AFSA argues that a narrative runs through international policy, through national governments and development agencies, that asserts that it is crucial to replace farmers’ varieties with improved varieties, and to ‘modernise’ African agriculture in order to deal with hunger. “This approach is embedded within a ‘Green Revolution’ logic which assumes that access to and use of improved varieties and related inputs will increase yields, which will lead to more income and food security,” the report says. However, AFSA warns that “the narrow focus on yield and productivity and the lack of acknowledgement of the multifunctional nature of seed and agriculture in Africa has resulted in blindness to the potential impacts of this model on socio-economic systems, food security, health, social justice, environment and culture.”

According to the report, two seed related policy processes are being advanced under the guise of this ‘feed the world’ narrative: On the one hand, the implementation of plant variety protection regimes that are strongly skewed in favour of breeders’ rights over farmers’ rights to attract investment from the private seed industry. On the other hand, seed trade laws are developed or tightened that privilege ‘improved varieties’ on the market and severely restrict the trade and exchange of farmers’ varieties. AFSA says an array of stakeholders with vested interests are pushing these policy processes at national levels, as well as implementing projects to harmonise policies through regional bodies in order to create larger markets to operate in and to reduce regulatory hurdles. “Regional bodies like SADC and COMESA are developing rules that will increase the availability of commercial seeds, only benefiting corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto,” says Elizabeth Mpofu, a Zimbabwean farmer and La Via Campesina General Coordinator. “Indigenous seeds are not recognised. We believe in controlling our land and seeds and producing the healthy food that we want, the way we want. Our response is to fight for food sovereignty against these transnational corporations.”

But the report also maps the way forward for building a continental movement to save African seeds. “The answer to seed sovereignty is not in the hands of corporates, but in the hands of smallholder farmers who feed the world,” says Peter Nzioka of Kaane Small Scale Farmers Association in Kenya. According to AFSA, 90% of seeds sown in Africa come from ‘informal’ sources, local markets, or seeds saved by farmers or their neighbours – the majority of whom are women. The report argues that those seeds are providing 80% of Africa’s food. “Farmer managed seed systems (FMSS) are complex, multifunctional and resilient and these systems, not the formal seed industry, form the backbone of African agriculture. However, FMSS are neglected in policy, funding, research and extension support, leaving them exposed to genetic erosion and impeding their ability to adapt to the vagaries of climate change, new pests and the array of other challenges encountered in agricultural production,” the report reads. AFSA therefore calls on African governments to wake up to the dangers of these flawed policies, to scrap the externally-driven and damaging seed laws, and to recognise that the future of African food systems lies in supporting food producers to provide sustainable local solutions. (ab)

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