News

2017-10-19 |

Warning of ecological Armageddon: 75% decline in insects over 27 years

beees Flying insects such as butterflies are declining at an alarming rate (Photo: CC0)

The loss of bees, butterflies and other flying insects has been more severe than previously feared, new research reveals. The total biomass of flying insects in German nature reserves has decreased by more than 75% over the past 27 years, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE on October 18th. The gradual decline of certain insect species has been known for some time. “However, the fact that flying insects are decreasing at such a high rate in such a large area is an even more alarming discovery,” said Hans de Kroon, project leader at Radboud University in Nijmegen. One cause for this decline could be agricultural intensification in the areas close to the reserves. “Insects make up about two thirds of all life on Earth. We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon,” said co-author Prof Dave Goulson. “On current trajectory, our grandchildren will inherit a profoundly impoverished world,” he warns.

For the study, insect researchers in Germany collected data between 1989 and 2016 in 63 different places within nature reserves, embedded in a landscape dominated by agriculture. Flying insects were trapped in so-called malaise traps throughout the season (March through October) and the total biomass was then weighed and compared. Researchers from Nijmegen, Germany and England then analysed the extensive data set. They found that the total insect mass declined by an average of 76% between 1989 and 2016. In the middle of summer, when insect numbers peak, the decline was even more pronounced at 82%. “All these areas are protected and most of them are managed nature reserves. Yet, this dramatic decline has occurred,” said Caspar Hallmann from Radboud University who conducted the statistical analyses. The scientists admit that the exact causes of the decline are still unclear and cannot be attributed to changes in the weather, landscape and plant variety alone. “Part of the explanation could therefore be that the protected areas (serving as insect sources) are affected and drained by the agricultural fields in the broader surroundings,” they suspect. According to the authors, increased agricultural intensification may have aggravated this reduction in insect abundance in the protected areas. “The research areas are mostly small and enclosed by agricultural areas,” Hallmann added. “These surrounding areas attract flying insects and they cannot survive there. It is possible that these areas act as an ‘ecological trap’ and jeopardize the populations in the nature reserves.”

The researchers hope that their findings will serve a wake-up call and prompt more research into the causes and support for long-term monitoring. “As entire ecosystems are dependent on insects for food and as pollinators, it places the decline of insect eating birds and mammals in a new context,” said Hans de Kroon. “We can barely imagine what would happen if this downward trend continues unabated.” For example, 80% of wild plants are estimated to depend on insects for pollination, while 60% of birds rely on insects as a food source. The ecosystem services provided by wild insects have been estimated at $57 billion annually in the US. “The only thing we can do right now is to maintain the utmost caution. We need to do less of the things that we know have a negative impact, such as the use of pesticides and prevent the disappearance of farmland borders full of flowers," de Kroon said. “But we also have to work hard at extending our nature reserves and decreasing the ratio of reserves that border agricultural areas.” (ab)

2017-10-16 |

Peasant farmers will feed a warming world, ETC Group says

Farmer Small-scale producers feed the world, using resources more sustainably (Photo: CC0)

Today is World Food Day. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world produces enough food to feed everyone. But who produces this food and who will feed us in the future, the industrial food chain or small-scale farmers? A new report from ETC Group, a Canadian-based international civil society organization, shows that in fact it is a diverse network of small-scale producers that feeds 70% of the world, including the most undernourished and marginalized people. The authors argue that those small-scale producers, dubbed the “Peasant Food Web”, which includes farmers, livestock-keepers, pastoralists, hunters, gatherers, fishers and urban and peri-urban producers, have the diversity, resilience, and light footprint needed to successfully adapt to climate change and to feed a growing world population.

The report, which is now already in its third edition, compares the industrial food system with peasant farming, collecting data and statistics and drawing on most recent research. “We are told that it is big agribusiness, with its flashy techno-fixes and financial clout, that will save the world from widespread hunger and malnutrition and help food systems weather the impacts of climate change,” reads the press release announcing the publication of the report. “Industrial farming gets all the attention (and most of the land). It accounts for more than 80% of the fossil fuel emissions and consumes over 70% of the water supply used in agriculture, but it actually produces only about 30% of the world's food”, the researchers found. The Peasant Food Web on the other hand uses less than 25% of agricultural lands to grow the food that nourishes more than 70% of the world population. In addition, it also produces about 70% of the world’s available food, in calories and weight. ETC estimates that those small-scale producers use only approximately 10% of agriculture’s fossil energy and no more than 20% of agriculture’s total water demand, with far less damage to soils and forests than the industrial food chain.

ETC Group also blames the industrial food chain, dubbed the “Chain”, for wasting food. “The Chain produces vast quantities of food that can’t just disappear. How is it that it feeds less than 30% of the population?,” they ask. According to the report, 44% of the chain’s crop calories are ‘wasted’ in meat production: more than 50% of the Chain’s crop calories are used as livestock feed, but only about 12% of those calories (or 6% of total calories) are then converted into food for people. ETC Group estimates that another 9% of the Chain’s crop calories go to biofuels or other nonfood products and at least 15% of the Chain’s calories are lost in transportation, storage and processing while about 8% of the calories are wasted in households. In total, this means 76% of the Chain’s total calories are wasted before making it to the plate, and only 24% are eaten by people.

The report concludes that food sovereignty through the Peasant Food Web is the basis for the world’s food security, and supporting those small-scale producers is our only realistic choice in the face of climate change. “But ‘peasants as usual’ are not an option,” ETC Group warns. Peasants will not be able to feed all people without major changes in a warming world. But they argue that with the right policies, land and rights, peasant-led agroecological strategies could double or even triple rural employment, substantially reduce the pressure for urban migration, significantly improve nutritional quality and availability and eliminate hunger while slashing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90%. The report names six policy areas in which changes are needed in order to enable the billions of peasants worldwide to continue feeding themselves and others. Policies are needed that would firstly ensure agrarian reform including the right to territories (land, water, forests, fishing, foraging, hunting), secondly restore the right to freely save, plant, exchange, sell and breed seeds and livestock and thirdly remove regulations that block local markets and diversity. According to ETC Group, it is also necessary to reorient public research and development to respond to peasants’ directions, to establish fair trade determined by peasant-led policies and to establish fair wages and working conditions for food and agricultural workers. (ab)

2017-10-10 |

Industrial food and farming systems harm human health and the environment, report

Food A shift away from food systems that result in harm is urgently needed, says IPES-Food (Photo: CC0)

Industrial food and farming systems are taking a heavy toll on human health and the environment, leading food experts have warned. According to a report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), launched on October 9 at the UN Committee on World Food Security in Rome, decisive action needs to be taken to build healthier food systems. “Food systems are making us sick. Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health,” said lead author Cecilia Rocha, Director of the School of Nutrition at Ryerson University (Toronto). “We must urgently address these impacts wherever they occur, and in parallel we must address the root causes of inequitable, unsustainable and unhealthy practices in food systems,” she added.

The report outlines five reasons for negative impacts on human health and well-being linked to food systems. First, people are getting sick because they work under unhealthy conditions: Farmers, agricultural labourers, and other food chain workers suffer physical and mental health impacts as a result of health risks in the field, factory or workplace, such as acute and chronic pesticide exposure risks. Second, health impacts arise because people are exposed to contaminated environments “downstream” of food production, via the pollution of soil, air, and water resources or exposure to livestock-based pathogens (e.g., contamination of drinking water with nitrates, agriculture-based air pollution, anti-microbial resistance). Other dangers to human health are caused because people eat certain unsafe or contaminated foods, because they have unhealthy diets resulting in obesity and non-communicable diseases or because they are not able to access adequate and acceptable food at all times. The report found that many of the severest health conditions afflicting populations around the world - from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers - are linked to industrial food and farming practices, i.e. chemical-intensive agriculture, concentrated livestock production, the mass production and marketing of ultra-processed foods, and the development of long and deregulated global commodity supply chains.

The expert report also gives details on the huge economic costs of these impacts and warns that they are likely to grow. Malnutrition costs the world $3.5 trillion per year, while obesity alone is estimated to cost $760 billion by 2025. “When all of these health impacts are considered collectively, the grounds for reform are compelling. And when health impacts are placed alongside social and environmental impacts, and the mounting costs they generate, the case for action is overwhelming,” said IPES co-chair Olivier De Schutter. The report also found that those without power or voice, for example small-scale farmers in the Global South, are often exposed to the greatest health risks in food systems, meaning that these impacts often go unseen, undocumented and unaddressed. “Here as elsewhere”, De Schutter added, “political disempowerment and marginalization goes hand in hand with risks to lives and livelihoods.”

Furthermore, the health impacts of food systems are caused by many agents, and exacerbated by climate change, unsanitary conditions, and poverty – factors which are shaped by food and farming systems. At the same time, the unequal power of food system actors means that powerful actors set the terms of the debate and influence policies, promoting solutions such as the biofortification of food without addressing the root causes of ill health and the role of industrial food and farming systems in driving health risks (e.g., by perpetuating poverty and climate change).

The expert panel makes an urgent case for reforming food and farming systems. “The complexity of health impacts in food systems is real and challenging, but should not be an excuse for inaction. Urgent steps can and must be taken to reform food system practices, and to transform the ways in which knowledge is gathered and transmitted, understandings are forged, and priorities are set,” Rocha said. IPES-Food identified five key leverage points for building healthier food systems and suggest a series of steps: to reconnect the worlds of food production and food consumption; to reconnect the different problems with each other and with their underlying drivers; to rebalance power and bring all health impacts to light; and, to institute more democratic and more integrated ways of managing risk and governing food systems. „In other words, a new basis of understanding and a new basis for political action are required in order to unravel the food-health nexus and pave the way for healthier outcomes,“ the report concludes. (ab)

2017-10-02 |

Eating less meat can help cut antibiotic use in farm animals, study finds

Pig We must discourage livestock rearing practices that depend on antibiotics (Photo: CC0)

The overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming is fueling a global health crisis in antibiotic resistance. A new study, published in the journal Science, says that limiting meat consumption and introducing regulatory caps and user fees on veterinary antimicrobial use could significantly slash farm antibiotic use. “The large and expanding use of antimicrobials in livestock, a consequence of growing global demand for animal protein, is of considerable concern in light of the threat of antimicrobial resistance,” the study warns. Almost 80% of all antibiotics used in the US are given to animals, mainly for growth promotion. Global antibiotic use in food animals outweighs human consumption by nearly three times. In 2013, more than 131,000 tons of antibiotics were used in food animals. The study projects that by 2030, the figure could reach more than 200,000 tons if left unchecked. “This scale up in antibiotics, primarily as a substitute for good nutrition and hygiene in livestock production, is simply unsustainable and will be devastating to efforts to conserve the effectiveness of our current antibiotics,” said senior author Ramanan Laxminarayan. “We already face a crisis, but continuing to use medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in animals is like pouring oil on a fire.”

The authors offer three recommendations on how to curb antimicrobial consumption in farm animals. The first measure is introducing regulations that set caps on the use of antibiotics in farm animals. The scientists calculated that a cap of 50 milligram of antimicrobials per year per kilogram of animal product could lead to a 64% drop in antibiotic use. If that cap was only applied to China and the member countries of the OECD, the global consumption in 2030 would already be reduced by 60%.

„A second solution to reduce antimicrobial consumption in animal production may be to promote low-animal-protein diets,” the study found. „Limiting meat intake worldwide to 40 g/day – the equivalent of one standard fast-food burger per person – could reduce global consumption of antimicrobials in food animals by 66%. “In the United States, people eat on average 260 grams of meat per day,” said lead author Thomas Van Boeckel of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. “Reducing the meat consumption to 165 grams of meat per day – or four standard fast food hamburgers per person – would reduce the global consumption of antimicrobials by more than 20%.” The study points out that China has recently revised downward its nutritional guidelines for meat intake to 40-70 g/day, which is roughly half the current consumption level. “If followed, this measure could have an indirect but substantial impact on the global consumption of veterinary antimicrobials,” the authors predict.

A third solution to cut antimicrobial use would be to impose a user fee, paid by veterinary drug users, on sales of antimicrobials for nonhuman use. “The idea – which is not new – is to make antibiotics more expensive so that farmers and veterinarians would only use them when necessary,” Van Boeckel said. “Imposing a 50% tax on antibiotics for food animals could decrease global consumption by more than 30%, and at the same time generate revenues from $1.7 to 4.6 billion, which could be invested into research for new antibiotics or improvements to farm hygiene.” He argues that there is no silver bullet solution to reduce antibiotic use in farm animals and points out that the recommendations are not mutually exclusive. But if the three measures were combined and fully implemented, this could reduce the antibiotic consumption by up to 80%. (ab)

2017-09-26 |

Transform food systems to tackle the global food crisis, says report

Cereal During the crisis, global food prices soared (Photo: CC0)

The root causes of the 2007/2008 food crisis, which brought the number of hungry people in the world to a peak, are still there, according the “Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2017”. The report, launched on September 26 by a network of civil society organizations and social movements, warns that today, despite some progress, many of the problems that led to the crisis in the first place persist. A decade ago, international prices of all major food commodities reached their highest level in nearly 30 years, pushing the number of people living in hunger to one billion. The authors emphasize that the crisis had been there all along. “The events of 2007/2008 simply brought the cracks of an unsustainable, broken food system into view, forcing policy makers to acknowledge its failures,” reads the preface. Featuring ten main articles, this 10th anniversary issue of the Watch takes stock of the past decade and looks at the challenges and opportunities ahead. The Watch sheds light on the intricacies behind the crisis, addressing climate change, unfair global trade rules, agribusiness mega-mergers, the role of women in transforming food systems and the right to food in emergency situations, just to name a few issues that are covered in the report.

The Watch says the ‘crisis’ – described by many as a multi-fold food, fuel, finance, climate and even a human rights crisis – was the result of a convergence of complex long- and short-term factors. The authors argue that for many, especially in the food sovereignty movement, the crisis did not come as a surprise: “It was the inevitable outcome of a model that prioritizes profit at the expense of everything else: our lives, our rights and our nature. The crisis was building for years and a billion people were pushed to hunger because of drastic food price volatility, and as a result of a multi-fold crisis that grew, squeezed and affected our food systems, climate and human rights.” The Watch exposes the conflictual dynamics between two opposing visions of life, production, and socioeconomic-ecological relations. In the preface, Bernhard Walter (Bread for the World - Protestant Development Service), Sofia Monsalve Suarez (FIAN International) and Marijke de Graaf (ICCO Cooperation) outline this conflict: On one side, there is the “vision of food sovereignty and vibrant local food systems centered on small-scale food producers who see food as a fundamental human right as well as the cornerstone of our identities, livelihoods, ecologies, biodiversity and sovereignty.” On the other side, “the homogenizing and hegemonic global food system, which is driven by increasingly concentrated transnational corporations and reduces food to a tradable commodity.” The pursuit of the right to food and nutrition is therefore a political struggle between opposing worldviews, they argue.

But there are also good news. The report highlights that the continuing food crisis has also served as a springboard for food sovereignty movements to advance alternatives. “Chief among these is agroecology,” write Sophia Murphy and Christina M. Schiavoni in the first chapter. “Standing in stark contrast to industrial models of production that require environmentally and economically costly external inputs while generating substantial waste and other social and environmental costs, agroecology now receives an unprecedented level of interest and visibility, including from some governments,” they argue. And social movements and civil society organizations all over the world are keeping up their struggle to transform food systems. “To have the wherewithal to feed ourselves into the future, we urgently need to build up resilient local and regional food systems and address the extreme concentrations of power in national and international markets,” Murphy and Schiavoni continue. In doing so, the central role and rights of small-scale providers and of women must be guaranteed. “The food price crisis of 2007- 2008 was an awakening. A decade on, with some powerful examples of food system transformation already at work, as well as some gains on various policy levels, there are still old habits to confront and many obstacles to overcome.” But the food sovereignty movement is ready for this challenge, the authors assure. (ab)

2017-09-20 |

UN report calls for fundamental shift in agriculture to stop land degradation

Landdegradation Land degradation: a major threat (Photo: CC0)

A fundamental shift away from intensive agriculture is needed to halt and reverse land degradation, according to a new report. The Global Land Outlook, published by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) on September 12, warns that consumption of the earth’s natural reserves has doubled in the last 30 years, with a third of the planet’s land now severely degraded. Each year, we are losing 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil. The report mainly blames agriculture and livestock, which cover over one-third of the world’s land surface. “Intensification, driven by a lucrative but largely inefficient food system, has boosted production. However, it has also disturbed cultural landscapes and accelerated land and soil degradation, water shortages, and pollution,” the authors write.

The report warns that there is enormous pressure on land resources due to rising food demand, a global shift in dietary habits, biofuel production, urbanization, and other competing demands. As a result, a significant proportion of managed and natural ecosystems are degrading. From 1998 to 2013, around 20% of the Earth’s vegetated land surface showed declining trends in productivity, apparent in 20% of cropland, 16% of forest land, 19% of grassland, and 27% of rangeland. Currently, more than 1.3 billion people are trapped on degrading agricultural land. “As the ready supply of healthy and productive land dries up and the population grows, competition is intensifying, for land within countries and globally. As the competition increases, there are winners and losers,” said UNCCD Executive Secretary Monique Barbut. The report identifies smallholder farmers, women and indigenous communities as the main losers: “Small-scale farmers, the backbone of rural livelihoods and food production for millennia, are under immense strain from land degradation, insecure tenure, and a globalized food system that favors concentrated, large-scale, and highly mechanized agribusiness. These farmers often have limited options to pursue alternative livelihoods,” the report reads. Millions of people have already abandoned their ancestral lands and migrated to urban areas.

The experts argue that our inefficient food system is further accelerating the rate of land use change, land degradation and deforestation. They call for a shift away from resource-intensive production, carbon-intensive processing and transport, land-intensive diets (primarily from the increased demand for animal products and processed foods), and the current high levels of food waste, including post-harvest losses. On the production side, this requires a fundamental shift in agriculture practices to support a wider array of social, environmental, and economic benefits from managing land-based natural capital. Farm output needs to be measured in terms that are more than just yield per area, but include nutritional value, and wider values in terms of both the costs to environment and society, and benefits of a healthy landscape. Expanding the scope of agriculture to include a broader range of ecosystem and social services could provide extra incentives and a lifeline for the half billion small farmers, who are currently in danger of being displaced. The report highlights that there are already ways of growing food without excessive environmental costs, both through changes to conventional systems and alternative production pathways, such as organic agriculture, where yields are fast approaching those of more intensive systems. “Organic agriculture addresses many of the drivers of land degradation and their offsite impacts by eliminating chemical fertilizers and pesticides, helping to build soil organic matter, and applying water conservation methods,” the authors write.

On the consumer side, the report recommends more plant-based and whole food diets. „Changing diets, especially in the richer countries, could have major positive impacts on both personal health and the condition of the land. Virtually every scenario of future food availability shows that reducing meat consumption, especially beef, is the quickest and most effective way to increase food security and reduce carbon emissions.” The authors are optimistic that with changes in consumer and corporate behavior, and the adoption of better land use and management, we will have sufficient land available in the long-term to satisfy all demands. But they stress that a move from the current “age of plunder” toward an “age of respect”, where we respect biophysical limits, is essential. Without this, we will not be able to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals - especially SDG 15, which calls for the protection, restoration and sustainable management of land-based ecosystems. (ab)

2017-09-18 |

World hunger is on the rise again, affecting 815 million people

MyanmarGirl Market girl in Myanmar, where 16.9% of the population are undernourished (Photo: CC0)

The number of undernourished people in the world has increased to an estimated 815 million in 2016, according to a report released by five UN agencies on Friday. For the first time since the turn of the century, the number of hungry people is on the rise again, up 38 million from the previous year. The report, published jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization, says that conflicts, exacerbated by climate-related shocks, are a cause of much of the recent increase in food insecurity.

Almost two thirds of the world’s hungry, or 520 million people, live in Asia, followed by Africa with 243 million and Latin America and the Caribbean with 42 million undernourished people. The report also noted a rise in the share of people globally who are chronically hungry, from 10.6% of the world population in 2015 to 11% in 2016. Africa remains the region with the highest share of undernourished people, affecting an alarming 20% of the population in 2016. The situation is especially urgent in Eastern Africa, where 33.9% of the population is estimated to be undernourished. In Asia, 11.7% of the population are suffering from hunger, while the share is 6.6% in Latin America and the Caribbean. The report only counts people as hungry if they have been unable to acquire enough food to meet their minimum dietary energy requirements (around 1,800 kilocalories per day) for more than a year.

But there is more bad news: The report says that some 155 million children aged under five are stunted (too short for their age), while 52 million suffer from wasting, meaning their weight is too low for their height. At the same time, multiple forms of malnutrition are threatening the health of millions worldwide. An estimated 41 million children are overweight. “This has set off alarm bells we cannot afford to ignore: we will not end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030 unless we address all the factors that undermine food security and nutrition,” the heads of the five UN agencies write in their joint foreword to the report. However, the report singles out just one cause - conflict - as one of the key drivers behind the resurgence of hunger and many forms of malnutrition. “Over the past decade, conflicts have risen dramatically in number and become more complex and intractable in nature. Some of the highest proportions of food-insecure and malnourished children are found in countries affected by conflict, a situation that is even more alarming in countries characterized by prolonged conflicts and fragile institutions,” the five UN officials added. According to David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, 60% of the chronically food insecure or 489 million people live in conflict zones. “With all the technology and wealth, this is a shame,” he said at the press conference in Rome. “We should be going into another direction.” If current trends continue, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 of ending global hunger and malnutrition by 2030 will not be reached.

The UN report comes just a few days after FAO published its forecast for the global cereal production to reach 2.6 billion tonnes in 2017, an all-time record. World cereal stocks are expected to hit a record high of 719 million tonnes. However, food loss and waste affects more than a third of the total amount of food produced. In addition, only 43% of the cereal production is directly used as food, while 35% is used as animal feed. The remained is burnt or processed into fuel and other industrial products. (ab)

2017-09-12 |

Organic farms store more carbon in the soil and for longer, study finds

Soil Organic soils have higher levels of soil organic matter and humic substances (Photo: CC0)

Soils on organic farms sequester more carbon and for longer periods of time than soil from conventional farms, new research suggests. A large-scale field study conducted in the United States shows that organic soils have significantly higher levels of humic substances, which are very effective in locking away carbon in long-term reserves. The study, directed by The National Soil Project at Northeastern University in collaboration with The Organic Center, found that soils from organic farms had 26% more long-term carbon storage potential than soils from conventional farms. The results will be published on October 1 in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Agronomy. According to the authors, this is the first time scientific research has given an accurate picture of the long-term soil carbon storage on organic versus conventional farms throughout the U.S., since most studies focus only on individual farms or total soil organic carbon.

The researchers at Northeastern University compared over 1000 soil samples from organic and conventional farms across the US, taking into consideration different farming methods, crops and soil types. They used data from the National Soil Project, which has been measuring the organic soil content of primarily conventional soils since 2008, as well as soil samples of organic farmers who acted as so-called “citizen scientists”. In 2015 and 2016, those farmers collected 659 organic soil samples from 39 states. Similar to previous studies, the result was that soils from organic farms have 13% more soil organic matter. But the research team also measured humic substances, in particular their main components fulvic and humic acid. “We don’t just look at total soil organic carbon, but also the components of soil that have stable pools of carbon – humic substances, which gives us a much more accurate and precise view of the stable, long-term storage of carbon in the soils,” said Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center. The study showed that fulvic acid and humic acid were consistently higher in organic than in conventional soils. On average, organic farms had 44% higher levels of humic acid, the component of soil that sequesters carbon over the long term, and 150% more fulvic acid than soils not managed organically.

The authors highlight that organic agriculture can make a real difference in climate change mitigation due to the higher levels of humic substances. These substances resist degradation and can remain in the soil for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. The more humic substances in a soil, the longer that healthy soil is trapping and keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. “These results highlight the potential of organic agriculture to increase the amount of carbon sequestration in the soil, and by doing so help decrease a major cause of climate change,” said Dr. Shade. According to Dr. Tracy Misiewicz from The Organic Center, practices commonly used in organic farming such as the use of manure and legume cover crops, extended crop rotations, fallowing and rotational grazing, are likely involved in increasing humic substances in soil. Dr. Geoffrey Davies, leader of the National Soil Projects, told Civil Eats: “What I’d like to do next is to see if the humic substances in organic soils are the same as in conventional soils. If they differ, he said, that will be another indication that with conventional farming practices such as fertilizer use, “we’re going against nature.” (ab)

2017-09-06 |

African forests threatened by export-oriented agricultural expansion

Baum Forests in Cameroon are at risk (Photo: CC0)

Export-oriented and industrial agricultural expansion in Africa could threaten the continent’s valuable tropical forests, researchers from Stanford University have warned. According to a study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in April, multinational companies are increasingly looking to Africa to expand production of in-demand commodity crops such as soy, cocoa and oil palm as land in other world regions is getting scarce. This could cause the same levels of destruction as seen in Asia and Latin America unless measures are introduced to prevent deforestation. “Sub-Saharan Africa, with its abundant cheap land and labor, would seem an obvious next step for multinational companies looking to expand farther,” reads Standford’s press release. Since 2015, agricultural production in the region has grown at the fastest rate globally, and cropland is predicted to expand more than 10 percent by 2025. But lead author Elsa Ordway suggests that “in Africa, we have the opportunity to take lessons learned from other regions and recommend preventive policies.”

For the study, the scientists assessed the effects of domestic- and export-oriented agricultural expansion in recent decades in order to find out how international demand for commodity crops, such as cocoa, is affecting sub-Saharan Africa’s tropical forests, which are second in size only to the Amazon. Analyses were conducted at the global, regional and local scales. Although deforestation rates in Africa remain well below those in South America and Southeast Asia, the region has lost an area of intact forest about the size of Iceland since 2000. The authors found that commodity crops are further expanding in sub-Saharan Africa, increasing pressure on tropical forests. They write that four Congo Basin countries, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d'Ivoire were most at risk in terms of exposure, vulnerability and pressures from agricultural expansion. These countries had the highest percent forest cover and lowest proportions of potentially available cropland outside forest areas. The study results indicate that foreign investment in these countries was concentrated in oil palm production (81%), with a median area receiving foreign investments of 41 582 thousand hectares. Cocoa, the fastest expanding export-oriented crop across the region, accounted for 57% of global expansion in 2000–2013 at a rate of 132 thousand hectares per year.

According to the study, deforestation from agricultural expansion in sub-Saharan Africa is often associated with small-scale farmers, consisting of subsistence farming and commodity crop production for domestic and international markets. However, more recently, investments in large-scale, industrial plantations in sub-Saharan Africa are on the rise. In recent years, multinational companies have bought up a land area larger than Costa Rica in the heavily forested Congo Basin, mostly for crops such as oil palm and soy. As multinationals move in, they are more likely to acquire land by clearing intact forest due to property conflicts resulting from the region’s land tenure complexities. This could have devastating consequences, the scientists warn, since these forests are an important source of local income, food and subsistence means in addition to regulating climate, safeguarding water quality and controlling disease. But the authors say that Africa could be spared the massive deforestation seen in other regions by implementing policies that prioritize forest conservation and local control of the land. “Civil society, policymakers and private companies can benefit from many years of trial-and-error with anti-deforestation policies in South America and Southeast Asia to design more effective interventions in sub-Saharan Africa,” said co-author Eric Lambin. The study recommends policies that alleviate poverty in local regions and incentivize forest conservation. Measure could include encouraging shade cultivation of crops such as cocoa and ensuring that small and medium-scale farmers dominate crop cultivation instead of industrial plantations. (ab)

2017-09-01 |

Study shows negative effects of pesticide exposure on birth outcomes

Pesticides Pesticide exposure increases the risk of birth defects (Photo: CC0)

High exposure to agricultural pesticides as a result of living close to fields increases the risk of adverse birth outcomes, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, have gathered new evidence on the negative effects of pesticide exposure on birth outcomes, such as weight, gestation and abnormalities. For the study, they used individual birth and demographic characteristics for over 500 000 birth observations between 1997–2011 in the agriculturally dominated San Joaquin Valley of California. The San Joaquin Valley is the state’s most productive agricultural region, growing an abundance of high value, high chemical input, and labor-intensive fruit, vegetable, and nut crops. The researcher coupled the birth statistics with pesticide use data from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation which includes detailed temporal and geographical information on agricultural pesticide use, the date of pesticide application, pounds of active ingredients and the method of application. The scientists were then able to determine if residential agricultural pesticide exposure during gestation - by trimester and by toxicity - influenced birth weight, gestational length or birth abnormalities.

For the majority of births, there was no statistically identifiable impact of pesticide exposure on birth outcome. But especially for the mothers exposed to very high levels of pesticides, the researchers found negative effects for all birth outcomes - birth weight, low birth weight, gestational length, preterm birth, birth abnormalities. “Mothers exposed to extreme levels of pesticides, defined here as the top 5 percent of the pesticide exposure distribution, experienced between 5 and 9 percent increases in the probability of adverse outcomes with an approximately 13-gram decrease in birth weight,” said lead author Ashley Larsen, an assistant professor in UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. The top 5th percentile group was exposed to 4,200 kilograms of pesticides applied in the 1-square-mile regions encompassing their addresses during pregnancy.

The authors say that there is still a lack of research on the adverse health impacts of agricultural pesticide, which may in part be due to logistical challenges of health research. Since controlled studies are clearly unethical, much of the available evidence relating pesticides to adverse health outcomes comes from occupationally exposed groups, such as certified pesticide applicators which may not reflect exposures that are relevant for the broader agricultural community. While the authors describe their findings as “the most comprehensive to date”, they were unable to isolate the roles of individual chemicals and their mixtures in driving the negative outcomes. “We don’t have a good understanding of how different chemicals interact with each other in the environment,” Larsen said. “Additional work is needed to understand which chemicals or combinations of chemicals are most dangerous to human health.” (ab)

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