2017-12-11 |

Unsustainable agriculture and urbanisation threaten wild crop species

Rice Red rice paddy field in Japan (Photo: CC0)

Species of wild rice, wheat and yam are threatened by intensive agriculture and urban expansion, according to the latest red list of endangered species published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The conservationists warn that this could negatively impact food security. “Healthy, species-rich ecosystems are fundamental to our ability to feed the world’s growing population and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal 2 – to end hunger by 2030,” said IUCN Director General Inger Andersen in a press release. “Wild crop species, for example, maintain genetic diversity of agricultural crops that can adapt to a changing climate and ensure food and nutritional security.” For the red list update, 26 species of wild wheat, 25 species of wild rice and 44 species of wild yam were assessed. The researchers found that in total, three species of wild rice, two species of wild wheat and 17 wild yam species are threatened. The “IUCN Red List update raises the alarm about their decline and stresses the urgency to address it – for the sake of our own future,” Andersen added.

Deforestation and urban expansion alongside pressures from intensive agriculture, particularly over-grazing and extensive use of herbicides, are the primary threats to these species. IUCN therefore highlights the need to reduce intensive agricultural practices such as overgrazing and indiscriminate herbicide use in order to conserve crop wild relatives. The group also calls for a better preservation of crop wild relatives in gene banks and their use in plant breeding. Cross-breeding modern crop cultivars with crop wild relatives adds necessary genetic diversity, improving resistance to drought, disease and pests – all of which are likely to become increasing problems in a changing climate, the conservationists said. “The genetic diversity provided by crop wild relatives will allow us to develop more resilient crops in the era of climate change, helping ensure food security. We ignore the fate of these species at our own peril,” warns IUCN’s wild relative specialist Nigel Maxted. The group points to a recent study which found that 72% of crop wild relatives are not adequately preserved in gene banks and conservation in situ in the wild remains a challenge. According to ICUN, crop wild relatives are also of high economic value, contributing US$115 billion annually to the global economy. (ab)

2017-12-07 |

Healthy soils are key to food security and climate change mitigation, UN

Soil Healthy soils can ensure food security and mitigate climate change (Photo: CC0)

The world needs to step up efforts to preserve soils since they are crucial to climate change mitigation and food security, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has urged. “Soil is the foundation of agriculture, it is where food begins,” said FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo on World Soil Day which is celebrated on 5 December. “Maintaining the soil’s important functions and ecosystem services to support food production and increase resilience to a changing climate calls for sustainable soil management practices,” she stressed. Soil organic matter, with carbon as its main component, is crucial to soil health and fertility as well as water infiltration and retention. Almost 95% of food is produced on soils and worldwide, nearly 80% of the average calories consumption per person comes from crops directly grown in the soil. The world’s soils also act as the largest terrestrial carbon sink, reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to FAO, soils can sequester around 20 000 megatonnes of carbon in 25 years, more than 10% of the greenhouse gas emissions. Intensifying this role could significantly offset the rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
At the World Soil Day ceremony in Rome, FAO launched a comprehensive global map showing the amount of carbon stocks in the world’s soils. The map illustrates that globally, the first 30 centimetres of soil contains around 680 billion tonnes of carbon. This is a large amount compared with the carbon stored in the whole vegetation (560 billion tonnes). The map also shows that ten countries hold more than 60% of the total soil organic carbon stocks. Most carbon is found in Russia with 19.6% or 133 billion tonnes, followed by Canada (12.7%), the United States (8.3%), China, Brazil, Indonesia, Australia, Argentina, Kazakhstan and Democratic Republic of Congo. The map therefore reveals to decision-makers where the world’s natural carbon-rich soils are that need to be preserved to avoid further emissions and in which regions action should be taken to foster further sequestration.
FAO warned that the degradation of one third of the world’s soils has already prompted an enormous release of carbon into the atmosphere. However, by restoring these soils up to 63 billion tonnes of carbon could be removed from the atmosphere, significantly reducing the effects of climate change. “Maintaining – but especially increasing – soil carbon stocks should become an obligation as this will allow us to unlock the soil’s full potential to support mitigation and adaptation actions in a changing climate,” Semedo added. According to FAO, soils with high organic carbon content are likely to be more productive, better able to purify water and provide plants with optimal moisture conditions. Increasing soil organic carbon by improved management can help maintain productivity in drier conditions. This could be achieved through sustainable soil management, including mulching, planting cover crops, and moderate irrigation. Protecting the world’s soils is also fundamental for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 15 (Life on Land). The aim of SDG 15 is to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. (ab)

2017-11-21 |

Stop using antibiotics in healthy animals, WHO urges farmers

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

Farmers and the food industry should stop using antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned. On November 7, the global health body published new guidelines with the aim of preserving the effectiveness of antibiotics that are important for human medicine. According to WHO, the over-use and misuse of antibiotics in animals that are otherwise healthy is contributing to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance. It is not the first warning of that kind: As long ago as 1997, WHO warned against the sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production, as the development of resistant strains of bacteria made diseases untreatable with antibiotics. Some types of bacteria that cause serious infections in humans have already developed resistance to most or all of the available treatments, and the problem is that there are very few other promising options in the research pipeline. “Scientific evidence demonstrates that overuse of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance,” says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses at WHO. “The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry.” In some countries, approximately 80% of total consumption of medically important antibiotics is in the animal sector, largely for growth promotion in healthy animals.

The WHO guidelines recommend an overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals. The health body points to a systematic review published in the journal “The Lancet Planetary Health” which found that interventions that restrict antibiotic use in food-producing animals reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals by up to 39%. Healthy animals should only receive antibiotics to prevent disease if it has been diagnosed in other animals in the same flock, herd, or fish population. Antibiotics used in animals should be selected from those WHO has listed as being “least important” to human health, and not from those classified as “highest priority critically important”. In addition, the health experts recommend a complete restriction of the use of all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals for growth promotion. WHO highlights that many countries have already taken action to reduce the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. For example, since 2006, the European Union has banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. However, the guidelines do not explicitly address the problems of a farming system that depends on antibiotics to keep animals healthy. It just calls for the implementation of alternative options to using antibiotics for disease prevention in animals, including improved hygiene, better use of vaccination, and changes in animal housing and husbandry practices. (ab)

2017-11-16 |

Organic farming can feed a growing world population, new research

Organic Organic farming can feed the world (Photo: CC0)

Organic farming can feed the world’s growing population, according to new research published in the renowned scientific journal “Nature Communications”. The study shows that organic farming could produce enough food without needing more land if we eat less meat and dairy products, use less concentrated feed in livestock farming and reduce food waste. The study was carried out by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the University of Aberdeen, the Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt and ETH Zurich. The scientists used a food systems model which is able to simulate important aspects of organic agriculture, such as increased legume shares, absence of synthetic fertilizers, lower yields and lower use of food-competing animal feed components, such as grain legumes or cereals. “Our results show that adoption of organic agriculture by itself increases land demand with respect to conventional production, but it has advantages in terms of other indicators, such as reduced nitrogen surplus, and pesticide use. But when combined with complementary changes in the global food system, namely changed feeding rations, and correspondingly reduced animal numbers, and changed wastage patterns, organic agriculture can contribute to feeding more than 9 billion people in 2050, and do so sustainably,” the authors write.
“Organic agriculture involves the careful handling of the environment and resources and is frequently put forward as a potential solution to the challenges we are currently facing,” said one of the authors, Karlheinz Erb from the University of Klagenfurt. “On the other hand, critics point out that this shift to organic methods would entail a much higher level of land use and therefore cannot be considered as a viable alternative,” he added. The reason is that organic yields are in general lower than in conventional farming. The scientists considered different studies concerning this yield gap. They found that switching to 100% organic production would lead to an increase in land use of at least 16% if low yield gaps are assumed (8% lower organic yields on average) and up to 33% if high yield gaps (on average 25% lower) are assumed. However, dedicating a larger share of land to the cultivation of food would be feasible if we reduce, at the same time the amount of land used for growing animal feed or food that is later on lost or wasted. According to FAO estimates, one third of global food production is lost or wasted each year. If food waste was reduced (the scientists assume a 25% or 50% food waste reduction in their scenarios), large areas of crop land would become available and could compensate for the yield gap. More land for food production could be gained by switching from concentrated feed in livestock farming to grassland-based fodder from pastures, which cannot be used for food production.
The results show that even a 60% conversion to organic farming would result in a food system with significantly decreased environmental impacts, including lower overall greenhouse gas emissions, and little need for additional land. However, this would require 50% less food-competing feed and 50% reduced food wastage and the consumption of animal products would need to decrease by about a third. Co-author Professor Pete Smith from the University of Aberdeen is optimistic that change is possible. “This study is important as it shows we are not committed to remain on the express train to ever greater intensification of agriculture. If we are willing to reduce our consumption of animal products, reduce food waste, and to feed the remaining animals in the food system according to their biology - ruminants fed on grass and pigs and poultry fed on food leftovers - we can not only feed everyone in 2050, we choose the food production systems we want,” he said. “We can step off of that express train and feed people more sustainably.” (ab)

2017-11-13 |

Climate change: Earth is approaching tipping points, warn scientists

Corn Higher temperatures will result in yield losses (Photo: CC0)

As global temperatures continue to rise, Earth is approaching dangerous tipping points, leading scientists have warned. Future Earth and the Earth League, two international organizations representing sustainability scientists, have published the statement “The 10 Science ‘Must Knows’ on Climate Change” to provide support to negotiators at the COP23 climate conference. According to Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, “some crucial climate-change facts tend to get lost in the noise of daily deliberations - even at an event such as the UN climate summit.” This is why the authors wish to “remind everyone of the very reason why ten thousands of people meet in Bonn: unprecedented risk to humanity due to global warming, as revealed by science.” Professor Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Chair of the Earth League, stressed that climate change caused by humans is no longer a future threat. “It has arrived, it is dangerous and it will get worse,” he said. “In the last two years evidence has accumulated that we are now on a collision course with tipping points in the Earth system,” he added. By crossing these thresholds, the planet may see abrupt, and possibly irreversible, shifts in the workings of the Arctic, Amazon, and other parts of the globe.

The ten points of the statement build on numerous international assessments and reports. The scientists warn that climate change will have a profound impact on human health by placing new pressures on the food and water security in nations around the world. “Accelerating changes in Earth’s natural systems are a significant threat to human health and livelihood as a result of possible impacts on nutrition, food availability, respiratory diseases, and the spread of parasites,” they say. For example, a recent estimate suggests that crop-yield losses could be 3-7% per degree of warming. By 2050, more than half of the world's population will live in water-stressed areas, and a billion or more will not have sufficient water. “These health threats will become increasingly severe over time without steps to reduce the risks. Areas with weak health infrastructure, mostly in developing countries, will be the least able to cope without assistance to prepare for and respond to health emergencies. Another issue mentioned in the statement is that climate change is likely to exacerbate migration, civil unrest and even conflict. In 2015, more than 19 million people globally were displaced by natural disasters and extreme weather events, and climate change will likely cause that number to grow.

Point 8 on the list is a call to action: “The world needs to act fast: If humans continue to emit greenhouse gases at current rates, the remaining carbon budget to reduce risk of exceeding the 2 degrees Celsius target will be exhausted in around 20 years. Emissions should peak by 2020 and approach zero by around 2050 if the world is serious about reducing risk.” This must also be done in concert with halting deforestation, turning agriculture from carbon source to carbon sink, and protecting existing carbon sinks on ocean and land, the document says. But even if the world meets the Paris Agreement targets, communities across the globe will still need to build resilience and adapt to the changes already under way. “Even keeping temperature rise to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, some regions will experience increased risks of rising sea levels, forest fires, and water and food insecurity and may see increases in extreme heat, disease, and weather events,” the authors write. Safeguarding and strengthening the resilience of natural systems, from forests to soils to oceans, as the climate warms will therefore require a global transformation to sustainability. “The cumulative scientific evidence indicates that sustainable development, with transformations to sustainable food systems, decarbonised energy systems, resilient cities, human equity and justice, universal health and education, eradicated poverty and hunger, sustainable consumption and production, healthy oceans, safe water, and protected biodiversity, form a fundamental cornerstone for success in achieving good climate adaptation and climate resilience,” the scientists conclude. (ab)

2017-11-10 |

Industrial meat and dairy is creating a climate crisis, report

Cattle Cattle pens (Photo:,

The world’s three largest dairy and meat companies are emitting more combined greenhouse gases than all of France and nearly as much as some of the biggest oil companies. According to research released by the non-governmental organisations GRAIN and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) as well as the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, business as usual growth of meat and dairy production would make meeting the Paris climate goals impossible and climate catastrophe inevitable. The researchers estimated corporate emissions from livestock, using a comprehensive methodology created by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They found that the five biggest meat companies – JBS from Brazil, the U.S. corporations Cargill, Tyson and Dairy Farmers of America, and Fonterra Group from New Zealand – together emitted 578 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2016. This is more than the total emissions of the United Kingdom (507 MtCO2e in 2015) or France (464 MtCO2e) and more than the climate footprint of oil companies such as Exxon or Shell, which emitted 577 MtCO2e and 508 MtCO2e in 2015 respectively. With 932 MtCO2e in 2016, the top 20 meat and dairy companies together even emitted more greenhouse gases than Germany. If these 20 companies were a country, they would be the world’s 7th largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The organisations stress that they are not blaming free range beef ranchers, or sustainable poultry farmers, or small and mid-size family dairy farmers and that they are not talking about pastoralists and livestock holders across the world, who feed themselves and the communities surrounding them. “It’s the corporations who own, run and profit from factory farms and confined animal feed operations that are the culprits,” they write. “These are landlords of a system so powerful that it is, in large part, determining land-use patterns worldwide, driving protein production and consumption globally and changing cultural dietary norms, all in the name of expanding markets and profits.” The authors warn that by 2060, if growth in meat and dairy production continues as projected by the FAO, emissions from this sector will take up the entire budget of global emissions, making it impossible for global temperatures to stay below the 1.5 degree increase targeted under the Paris Agreement.

The publishers highlight that is time to stop the dairy and meat giants from destroying the climate and shift our support to making our small farmers, herders and ranchers resilient. “If we are serious about feeding the planet while fighting climate change, the world needs to urgently invest in a transition to food systems that hinge on small-scale producers, agroecology and local markets. These systems provide for moderate levels of meat and dairy, but they do so in a way that regenerates soils, provides livelihoods to rural and urban communities and makes crops and animals resilient to the vagaries of an unpredictable climate.” The authors also outline how to achieve this. The first measure is to redirect public money from factory farming and agribusiness towards small-scale agroecological family farms. Governments should also use their buying power to support small producers, helping them to build jobs and markets for local products. As numerous cities make energy choices to tackle climate change, so too should municipalities invest in farm-to-hospital and farm-to-school programs that deliver healthier food and strengthen rural communities while emitting fewer greenhouse gases. (ab)

2017-11-06 |

Surge in agrifood mergers threatens farmers and consumers, report warns

Feld Agrifood mergers are driving industrialisation along the whole food chain (Photo CC0)

Ever-fewer, ever-larger corporations are concentrating control at every stage of the food chain, from field to fork, a new report shows. According to the Agrifood Atlas released by Friends of the Earth Europe and two German political foundations, this could have dire consequences for future food production. Between 2015 and 2016, five of the largest 12 mergers between publicly-traded companies came in the agrifood sector, with a total value of almost US $500 billion, the report found. “Takeovers and mergers like Monsanto by Bayer, Kraft with Heinz and Dow with DuPont are just the tip of the iceberg,” the authors write. “A spate of corporate marriages is concentrating control at each link in the value chain.” They warn that in many parts of the agrifood sector, individual corporations have gained so much market sway that they have the ability to shape markets and policies. “The increasing size and power of agri-food corporations threatens the quality of our food, the working conditions of the people producing it, and our ability to feed future generations,” said Mute Schimpf, campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

The organisations behind the report fear that the growing consolidation in the food chain could lead to less consumer choice as increased monopolies are putting the food chain into fewer hands. They say almost half of all food sold in the EU comes from just ten supermarket chains while 50 food processing companies account for half of all global food sales. In addition, the concentration also has a negative impact on jobs and working conditions: “Agrifood corporations are driving industrialization along the entire global value chain, from farm to plate. Their purchasing and sales policies promote a form of agriculture that revolves around productivity,” the report reads. “The fight for market share is achieved at the expense of the weakest links in the chain: farmers, and workers. The price pressure exerted by supermarkets and food firms is a major cause of poor working conditions and poverty further back in the chain.”

The authors highlight that mergers and market concentration in the agricultural sector are also promoting the onward march of industrial agriculture and its associated effects on the environment and climate. The loss of soil fertility and biodiversity, marine pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases are all partly due to the spread of industrial farming. “As a result, global biodiversity and the variety and independence in our food chain are at risk. Activists fighting for the right to access to water, land and seeds are met with ever more violent public or private repressions all across the world,” according to Barbara Unmüßig, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The publishers highlight that the report comes as the European Commission faces a crunch decision on whether to authorise the Bayer-Monsanto mega-merger, and after Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan's announced intention to rein in supermarkets' outsize buying power. “The EU can play a leading role in rejecting these consolidations. An alternative food system is possible and is being built by local food producers and citizens across Europe,” adds Mute Schimpf. (ab)

2017-11-01 |

Agriculture can help close "alarmingly high" emissions gap, UN says

Soil Soil carbon sequestration can help to close the emission gap (Photo: NRCS,,

There is an urgent need for action if the goals of the Paris climate agreement are to be met. A new UN report says that current state pledges cover no more than a third of the emission reductions required to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, creating a dangerous gap. The agricultural sector could help close this gap with measures such as soil carbon sequestration and the reduction of food loss and waste. According to the 2017 edition of UN Environment’s “Emissions Gap Report”, released on October 31, as things stand, even the full implementation of current unconditional and conditional pledges countries have made would not be enough to keep global warming well below 2°C. Temperature increases of at least 3°C by 2100 are very likely. the UN has warned. Emissions in 2030 would still be 11 to 13.5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) above the level required to meet the 2°C goal. In order to attain this target, emissions of all greenhouse gases should not exceed 42 GtCO2e in 2030. The gap in the case of the 1.5°C target is 16 to 19 GtCO2e. Should the United States follow through with its stated intention to leave the Paris Agreement in 2020, the picture could become even bleaker, the authors warns. “One year after the Paris Agreement entered into force, we still find ourselves in a situation where we are not doing nearly enough to save hundreds of millions of people from a miserable future,” said Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment.

However, the report also presents practical ways to slash emissions through action in the agriculture, buildings, energy, forestry, industry and transport sectors. Significant potential for emission reduction exists in the agricultural and forestry sectors, the report highlights. “Carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere can be an important strategy: “Land-based carbon removal options, including forests, wetlands and soils have been managed by humans for many years and as such, there is a wealth of knowledge that can be readily applied today with confidence,” the report says. “In addition, these approaches present opportunities to meet other global sustainability goals, such as improved water quality, ecosystem restoration, biodiversity preservation and improved crop yields.” The report argues that soil carbon sequestration uses agricultural and land management practices that are generally well known by farmers and land managers, and for the most part, does not require additional machinery or infrastructure. It therefore represents a readily available option to be implemented.

The report also gives options on the consumer side to reduce the emission gap. Efforts can be made to lower the carbon footprint of peoples’ diets. The impact of shifting food patterns to a diet recommended by the World Health Organization, which aims at reducing the consumption of animal products and fat, could decrease total greenhouse gas emissions by 0.37 to 1.37 GtCO2e per year in 2030, the report estimates. Another option is reducing food waste and loss. “Within the agricultural supply chain, significant losses can be identified when factors such as harvesting inefficiency, bad harvesting conditions, deterioration during storage, and consumer behaviour are considered,” the authors write. Estimates of total losses vary considerably between 30 to 50%. A 45 to 75% reduction in the amount of wasted food has the potential of saving up to 2 GtCO2e per year. The report estimates the basic emission reduction potential of agriculture at 3 GtCO2e per year in 2030. If measures which the report describes as uncertain are added such as biochar, peat-related emission reductions, and dietary changes, the agricultural sector could save a further 3.7 GtCO2e in 2030. This means that the combined measures in the agricultural sector alone could close almost half of the emission gap that needs to be filled in order to meet the 2°C goal. (ab)

2017-10-27 |

Food lost to drought could feed 81 million people, World Bank

Dürremais Droughts reduce crop yields (Photo: CC0)

Droughts are responsible for the loss of enough food to feed 81 million people every year, or a country the size of Germany, the World Bank said on Tuesday. According to the report “Uncharted Waters: The New Economics of Water Scarcity and Variability”, prolonged periods without rain around the world have shockingly large and often hidden consequences for farms, firms and families. The World Bank describes droughts as “misery in slow motion” which have lasting effects on health and wealth of families, trapping subsequent generations in poverty and malnutrition. The authors write that between 2001 and 2013, enough calories to feed 81 million people every day on 2000 calories were lost to dry shocks each year. Specifically, total losses in areas that experienced droughts amounted to an average annual reduction of 59.2 trillion kilocalories over that time period. Regions that suffered large declines in production because of rainfall shocks include southern Mexico and Central America, northern South America, Western Europe, most of the Sahel and Southern Africa, Indonesia, and southern Australia. “Many of the affected regions overlap with areas that are already facing large food deficits and are classified as fragile,” the report said.

The report shows how rainfall shocks, coupled with water scarcity, affect farms, firms, and families. For families, the legacy of rainfall shocks can ripple through generations, harming not just the women who experienced them, but also their children. It finds that in rural Africa, women born during extreme droughts bear the marks throughout their lives, growing up mentally and physically stunted, undernourished and unwell because of crop losses. Their suffering is often passed on to the next generation, with their children more likely to be stunted and less healthy, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty. On farms, droughts have a significant impact on crop yields, with even moderate dry shocks reducing productivity. Repeated years of below-average rainfall also forces farmers to expand into nearby forests as they try to recoup productivity losses by increasing the amount of land that they cultivate. Since forests act as a climate stabilizer and help regulate water supplies, deforestation further exacerbates climate change.

For firms, the report calculates the economic costs of droughts as four times greater than that of floods. The World Bank says that a single water outage in an urban firm can reduce its revenue by more than 8%. And if that firm is in the informal sector, as many are in the developing world, sales decline by 35%, ruining livelihoods and stagnating economic growth. “These impacts demonstrate why it is increasingly important that we treat water like the valuable, exhaustible, and degradable resource that it is,” said Guangzhe Chen, Senior Director of the World Bank’s Water Global Practice. “If water is not managed more prudently - from source, to tap, and back to source - the crises observed today will become the catastrophes of tomorrow,” he writes in the foreword to the study. Report author Richard Damania also warns that if the deepening water deficits that climate change will bring are not taken seriously, water scarcity might spread to new regions of the world, potentially exacerbating issues of violence, suffering, and migration.

But the report also offers proposals for how to tackle these challenges. “Avoiding this misery in slow motion will call for fundamental changes to how water is managed”, the authors write. They recommend constructing new water storage and management infrastructure. Irrigation infrastructure has the potential to buffer crops against drought-related losses, and eliminate the need for farmers to expand into forests. But the authors also point out that in arid areas, free irrigation water can induce maladaptation, whereby farmers grow water-intensive crops that increase their vulnerability to drought. Crop productivity could then suffer badly in times of drought as a result of the unmet extraordinary water needs, and impacts are worsened. The report also noted that when flood and droughts turn into economic shocks, safety nets must be put in place to protect the most vulnerable people. In rural areas, this could take the form of crop insurance schemes, while in cities, affordable access to clean water needs to be ensured. (ab)

2017-10-22 |

Rural areas are key to eradicating hunger and poverty, FAO says

Area Rural areas need to be connected to urban markets, an FAO report says (Photo: A. Beck)

Rural areas are key to the eradication of poverty and hunger and economic growth in developing countries, according to the 2017 State of Food and Agriculture report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. And with the majority of the world's poor and hungry living in these areas, achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will depend on unlocking this vast potential, argues the report. It states that the transformation of rural economies has been credited with helping hundreds of millions of rural people lift themselves up out of poverty since the 1990s, but progress has been uneven. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are still lagging behind. The prospects for eradicating hunger and poverty in these countries are overshadowed by the low productivity of subsistence agriculture, limited scope for industrialization and above all explosive urbanization, the report warns. Another challenge is rapid population growth, especially among young people. Between 2015 and 2030, the number of people aged 15-24 years is expected to rise by about 100 million to 1.3 billion. Most of that increase will take place in sub-Saharan Africa. Rural people who relocate to cities will likely run a greater risk of joining the ranks of the urban poor, instead of finding a pathway out of poverty. FAO says that the solution can be inclusive rural transformation.

Targeted policies and investment to rural areas are required to achieve inclusive rural transformation and build vibrant food systems. The report makes the case that a major force behind rural transformation will be the growing demand coming from urban food markets, which consume up to 70% of the food supply even in countries with large rural populations. The value of urban food markets in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow from US$150 billion to US$500 billion between 2010 and 2030. “Urbanization thus provides a golden opportunity for agriculture. However, it also presents challenges for millions of small-scale family farmers,” writes FAO’s Director-General José Graziano da Silva in the foreword to the report. He warns that more profitable markets can lead to the concentration of food production in large commercial farms, to value chains dominated by large processors and retailers, and to the exclusion of smallholders. Urban demand alone will not improve production and market conditions for small farmers.

The report therefore outlines three lines for action to achieve rural transformation. First, supportive public policies and investments are required. “To ensure that small-scale producers participate fully in meeting urban food demand, policy measures are needed that: reduce the barrier limiting their access to inputs; foster the adoption of environmentally sustainable approaches and technologies; increase access to credit and markets; facilitate farm mechanization; revitalize agricultural extension systems; strengthen land tenure rights; ensure equity in supply contracts; and strengthen small-scale producer organizations”, da Silva writes. The second line for action is to build up the necessary infrastructure to connect rural areas and urban markets. The report says that in many developing countries the lack of rural roads, electrical power grids, storage facilities, and refrigerated transportation systems is a major bottleneck for farmers seeking to take advantage of urban demand for fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy. Third, rural areas need to be connected to small urban centres. Half of the total urban population in developing countries, or 1.45 billion people, live in cities and towns of fewer than 500,000 people. “Territorial networks of small cities and towns are important reference points for rural people, the places where they buy their seed, send their children to school and access medical care and other services,” da Silva adds. Transformed rural economies won't necessarily be a silver bullet solution to stop migration to the cities and tackle poverty and food insecurity, but it could generate much-needed jobs and contribute to making migration more of a choice, rather than a necessity, the report concludes. (ab)

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