2016-12-05 |

World Soil Day: Pulses are key to food security and sustainable agriculture

Pulses Pulses combine with soil in a unique symbiosis (Photo: CC0)

Soil and pulses play a key role in feeding the world, improving soil health and combating climate change, according to a new report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on World Soil Day. This year, the focus of World Soil Day is on the reciprocal relationship between soils and pulses. “Soils and pulses embody a unique symbiosis that protects the environment, enhances productivity, contributes to adapting to climate change and provides fundamental nutrients to the soil and subsequent crops,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva on December 5. The report highlights how pulses such as lentils, dry beans and chickpeas benefit soil health and improve growing conditions for other plants. FAO says that cereals grown after pulses yield 1.5 tonnes more per hectare than those not preceded by pulses. To generate comparable yields, up to 100 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer would need to be applied. The report describes pulses as “architects of soil health”. According to the authors, pulses “are responsible for the biological fixation of atmospheric nitrogen and for the solubilisation of phosphate ions from bound forms such as calcium and iron phosphates to make these nutrients available to plants.” Besides their role in the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, the authors add, “pulses also contribute to increasing soil organic matter, improving soil structure and maintaining soil biodiversity, leading to overall increased soil health.”

In addition, pulses support water filtration, preserve biodiversity, sequester more carbon and increase resilience to a changing climate. The report also discusses the role of pulses in restoring degraded soils and contributing to sustainable soil management. Pressures on soil resources are reaching critical limits: 33 percent of the world’s soils are already degraded due to acidification, salinization, erosion and urbanization, threatening the life-supporting ecosystem services they provide. FAO warns that the world is currently losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it, a trend pulses can help offset. The report cites a case study in India which showed how the cultivation of pigeon peas reduced soil runoff and erosion by up to 59 percent. In his message on World Soil Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed out that sustainable soil management will also advance progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly when it comes to addressing hunger, food insecurity, malnutrition and rural incomes, which is the aim of the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). “Pulses can boost soil health while supporting healthier and nutritious diets,” he said. Pulses have a high protein content and can improve the diets of the poorest. But they are also are a significant source of minerals, including iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorous and zinc. (ab)

2016-12-01 |

Land-use intensification leads to decline of species diversity, study

Wse Flowering meadows are rich in species (Photo: CC0)

The intensification of land use is a major driver of biodiversity loss, ultimately leading to the homogenization of grassland communities, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Nature. The study draws on research by a team of 300 scientists around lead author Martin Gossner from the Technical University of Munich (TUM). The scientists looked at the consequences of land-use intensification across different species groups, using data from 150 grassland areas collected since 2008 in Europe. They found that in areas with intensive use of grasslands, species diversity decreased and eventually only a small range of the same species remained. This threatens nature’s ability to provide valuable ecosystem services, ranging from soil formation for food production to pest control. For the study, more than 4,000 species were analyzed, using data from three regions in Germany with different conditions in terms of climate, geology, and topography, but similar forms of grassland management. According to the authors, their research is more comprehensive than previous studies which only focused on individual groups of species, such as birds within a particular habitat. The researchers looked at species ranging from single-celled organisms to vertebrates, including organisms below ground such as bacteria, fungi, and millipedes. “For the first time, we investigated all groups of species along the food chain on grasslands with different forms of land use in a variety of regions,” said Dr Gossner. The scientists analysed the impact of human land use, such as cutting grass, on the different species to see whether it made a difference if grass was cut twice or four times a year. They found that even a moderate use of meadows and pastures had a devastating effect on species diversity. “According to our observations, the homogenization of species does not progress proportionally to the intensity of use. Instead, even a moderate management of grassland results in cross-regional communities being reduced to the same, less demanding all-rounders,” said Gossner. This means that only those species will survive which do not have specific requirements regarding host plants or environmental conditions. The authors therefore highlight the need for more extensively managed grasslands in order to conserve multitrophic biodiversity and ecosystem service provision. “Interactions between plants and their consumers are increasingly weakened by intensive agricultural usage,” said Gossner. Thus, grassland areas that are cultivated extensively are key to protecting species diversity.

2016-11-29 |

Study: Organic farming in Kenya produces comparable yields, more profits

Maz Maize trial plot in Thika, Kenya (Photo: FiBL, Franziska Hämmerli)

Organic farming in Kenya can produce comparable yields to conventional systems and is more profitable for farmers after a conversion period due to premium prices. This is the finding of a long-term study, carried out by the Swiss Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in close cooperation with partners in Kenya. The study, published on November 1 in the journal “Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment”, compares the results of conventional and organic farming at high and low input levels over a six-year period. The maize-based field trials were established in 2007 at two locations in the central highlands of Kenya, Chuka and Thika, which have different conditions with regard to soil fertility and rainfall. The researchers did not compare apples with oranges but rather conventional and organic high input systems, which represent commercial-scale, export-oriented production that uses irrigation water, as well as low input systems that correspond to local smallholder practices under rain-fed conditions. In the conventional trial sites, synthetic fertilisers and farmyard manure were used whilst the organic systems only received organic inputs.

The researchers found that after a three-year conversion phase, crop yields from high-input organic systems were similar to those of high-input conventional systems at both sites. In the low-input systems at Thika, maize yields were three times higher in conventional farming when only maize was planted. However, yields in both systems were similar when maize was intercropped with beans. Even though production costs were higher in organic systems than in conventional ones this was soon balanced out because organic farmers made higher profits at local markets in Chuka and Thika and regional markets (Nairobi). In the first two years, profits in conventional farming was higher, but from the third year onwards, profits were similar even when organic produce was sold at regular prices. From the fifth year onwards, organic high input systems attracted a price premium of 20 to 50% and this made it 1.3 to 4.1 times more profitable than conventional systems.

The study also revealed that nutrient balances on both sites were negative in the low-input systems as well as in the conventional high-input system. Only the organic high-input system had a positive nutrient balance due to the practice of leaving crop residues in the field. The scientists therefore highlighted the need to improve management practices to increase soil fertility. The authors point out that appropriate policy measures need to be put in place in order to utilise the full potential of organic farming. The study reads: “More attention has to be paid to the use of simple machinery and techniques in reducing production costs in organic farming. It is also important to develop appropriate marketing opportunities for organic produce, and to implement policy measures to ensure that the economic benefits from this premium market actually reach the farmers.” The scientists recommend giving high priority to the intercropping of maize and beans in low input farming systems. The study concludes that “high-input organic farming is productive, economically viable, resource-conserving and can contribute to sustainable agricultural production in Kenya and the regions in sub-Saharan Africa that have environmental conditions” similar to the two trial sites. (ab)

2016-11-24 |

Growing inequality: Richest 1% now own 50.8% of the world’s wealth

Slum3 The report exposes shocking inequality (Photo: CC0)

Economic inequality continues to rise, with the wealthiest 1% of the world’s adults now owning more than half of all global assets. The Global Wealth Report 2016, published by financial services company Credit Suisse on Tuesday, finds that the poorest half of the world collectively own less than 1% of total wealth. Meanwhile, the richest 10% now control 89% of all global assets. The top 1 percent owned 50.8 percent of global household assets, up from 45.4 percent in 2009. “The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report shows once again that economic inequality remains at shockingly high levels,“ said Max Lawson, Head of Inequality policy at the anti-poverty organisation Oxfam. „This huge gap between rich and poor is undermining economies, destabilizing societies and holding back the fight against poverty,“ he added. In September 2015, world leaders pledged to win this fight against poverty and agreed on a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). These goals aim at eradicating extreme poverty for all people everywhere by 2030, ending hunger and all forms of malnutrition and reducing inequalities within and among countries, among other objectives. However, Lawson warns that “political concerns about inequality are not being translated into the action needed to give hope and opportunities to the millions who have been left behind“. He said that „governments must act now by cracking down on tax dodging, increasing investment in public services and boosting the income of the lowest paid.” The Global Wealth report also looks at the poorer half of the world population, giving particular attention to those in the bottom 20%, who currently number around one billion adults. It won’t come as a surprise that members of the bottom billion are predominantly poor people in developing countries, including millions of small-scale farmers and food-insecure people. According to the report, half of all adults in the world own less than $2,222, and the bottom 20% of adults own no more than $248. The richest nations, with wealth per adult over $100,000, are found in North America, Western Europe, and among the rich Asia-Pacific and Middle Eastern countries. Switzerland ranks first, with global average wealth per adult of $562,000, followed by Australia, the United States and Norway. Those countries with wealth below $5,000 are heavily concentrated in central Africa and south Asia. The report reads: “This group encompasses all of central Africa apart from Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. India is the most notable member of the Asian contingent, which also includes Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.” (ab)

2016-11-21 |

Climate change action needs to focus on small-scale farmers

Farmr Investing in small-scale farmers pays off (Photo: CC0)

More efforts to support small-scale farmers are needed if we want to achieve food security in a changing climate. This was the message of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) at the UN climate conference COP22 which concluded on Friday in Marrakech. According to IFAD president Kanayo F. Nwanze, small-scale farmers are not only responsible for the bulk of food production in developing countries, but also face some of the worst threats to their own food security. „Where do the poorest and hungriest live? In developing countries. Which areas are the most abundant agriculturally? Rural areas. What is their main activity? Smallscale agriculture,“ Nwanze said in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian. „We are looking at about 500 million small farms worldwide catering for up to 3 billion people on our planet. So, if you want to achieve zero hunger you must focus: these people are our clients. They are also often neglected and forgotten.“ Although the Paris climate agreement recognises the importance of food security for the first time, and the Marrakech Action Proclamation calls on all parties to „ensure food security and to take stringent action to deal with climate change challenges in agriculture”, farming and small-scale farmers in particular, did not take centre stage at the Marrakech climate talks. Thomson Reuters Foundation reports that development agencies had hoped for the establishment of a work plan on agriculture that would include concrete assistance measures for small-scale farmers. However, such a plan was put off. José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization, was also disappointed: „This lack of progress on agricultural issues puts at risk efforts to help farmers adapt to climate change and meet a global goal to end hunger by 2030, the FAO chief was quoted by Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A recent IFAD report showed that investing in climate adaptation for smallholder farmers would also pay big financial returns. For each dollar invested in smallholder agriculture, farmers could earn a return of up to $2.60 over a 20 year period by applying climate change adaptation practices. The report, released by IFAD on 9 November, demonstrates that widespread adoption of agricultural practices in the production of major staples could help farmers adapt to climate change, increase food security and reduce emissions. Among the most promising agricultural practices outlined in the report is alternate wetting and drying (AWD) in rice production. AWD consists of repeated interruptions of flooding during the season, causing the water level to decline as the upper soil layer dries out, before subsequent re-flooding. This practice increases the efficiency in water usage, offers stable yields and brings a significant reduction in methane emissions, the report said. (ab)

2016-11-17 |

Paraguay uses 94% of farmland for export crops while 10% of citizens face hunger

ox Small farmers in Paraguay are left behind (Photo: CC0)

Paraguay produces food for almost nine times its population, yet 10 per cent of its own citizens are facing hunger and malnutrition. This warning comes from Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, after returning from her first official visit to the South American country on November 10. The objective of her mission was to evaluate the realisation of the right to food in the country. According to FAO figures, 700,000 of Paraguay’s seven million people are suffering from chronic undernutrition. Between 2008 and 2014, malnutrition rates among children under five years did not improve significantly, with only a slight decline from 5.9% to 5.6%. Despite a decade of impressive economic growth in Paraguay, more than 1,5 million people still live in poverty. “Rates of extreme poverty are three times higher amongst rural and indigenous communities than in urban areas,” said Hilal Elver. Paraguay has transformed from being a net importer towards a large-scale exporter. The country is currently the world’s fourth largest soya exporter and the third largest bovine meat exporter. Between 2007 and 2015, soybean production increased from around 6 million tonnes of soya to over 9 million. However, the intensive monoculture production of soybeans has left small holder farmers behind and has exacerbated unequal access to land, the expert stressed. According to official statistics, only 6% of agricultural land is available for domestic food production, whilst 94% is used for export crops. “Land distribution in Paraguay is one of the most unequal in Latin America,“ said Elver. „According to figures provided during my visit, between 60 to 80% of the land belongs to 2-3% of the population. I also received information that an estimated 300,000 small holders and their families completely lack access to land.“ The food expert warned that without support, smallholder farmers will not be able to compete with large agribusinesses. “Large-scale industrial agriculture uses far less labour per hectare than small-scale farming techniques, resulting in significantly lower overhead costs,“ said Elvers. „I was informed that a typical soy farm in Paraguay needs one worker for around 400 hectares, whereas a normal family plot is usually the size of 10 hectares.“ Small-scale farmers increasingly find themselves forced to abandon their livelihoods and communities in search of employment in the cities. But the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food also underlined that Paraguay’s agricultural development model has not only a negative impact on people but also on the environment. Intensive mono-cropping and livestock production has also resulted in the highest rate of deforestation in the world, exacerbating existing environmental problems caused by transgenic crops and the extensive use of agrochemicals. “It is vital that development plans and policies take into account the true cost of industrial farming methods on soil and water resources, as well as the social and economic impact on people rather than focusing only on short term profitability and economic growth,” Ms Elver said. She called on Paraguayan authorities to adopt a national strategy on the right to adequate food and protection of small holder farmers aligned with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. (ab)

2016-11-15 |

More efforts needed to increase carbon sequestration in agricultural soils, study

Soils Agricultural soils are a crucial carbon sink (Photo: CC0)

Radical land use change coupled with enhanced carbon sequestration in productive agricultural lands has the potential to mitigate climate change, according to a new paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. However, if urban sprawl and the conversion from grassland and forest into cropland continue, agricultural soils could turn from a carbon sink to a significant source of carbon dioxide. Researchers from the University of Exeter, INRA and CERFACS in France and University of Leuven in Belgium warn that business-as-usual land use change is likely to lead to significant soil organic carbon loss due to the impact of climate change. This could endanger the functioning of soil’s vital ecosystem services such as food security, aquifer quality, soil erosion protection and flood regulation, the scientists say. “A reduction in anthropogenic CO2 levels is crucial to prevent further loss of carbon from our soils,” said lead author Dr Jeroen Meersmans from the University of Exeter. The researchers combined soil carbon models, land use and management data and different climate change scenarios, using France as a case study. They predict that land under almost all uses will be subject to dramatic losses of soil carbon by the end of the century. The study found that up to 25 percent of soil carbon in France could be lost to the atmosphere by 2100. According to Meersmans, an integrated strategy to protect soil functions and mitigate climate change would require the “promotion of land use changes and management that contribute to soil carbon sequestration”. One way to maintain soil’s important role as a carbon sink would be to convert cropland to grassland or forest. But the scientists say this is unrealistic because of the pressures on land resources imposed by urban expansion and food production. Therefore, the solution to enhanced carbon sequestration lies in productive agricultural lands. According to the study, by promoting or enforcing environment specific land and/or agro-management techniques, such as green manuring, reduced tillage, erosion prevention, smart irrigation, agroforestry and crop rotations at farm or landscape level, policy makers can attempt to counter that soils will act as very large sources of CO2 by the end of the century. “Purposive, targeted land use and agricultural practice changes would be needed if climate change mitigation is to be maximized,” says co-author Dr Dominique Arrouays of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. “Therefore, the efforts to enhance carbon sequestration in soils, as proposed by France during the COP21, should be promoted immediately,” urges Arrouays. (ab)

2016-11-10 |

Climate tax on meat and dairy would cut emissions and save lives, study

Meat Higher meat prices would reduce consumption and cut emissions (Photo: CC0)

A climate tax on meat and dairy products could lead to lower emissions and save half a million lives a year, new research published in the journal Nature Climate Change has found. According to scientists at Oxford University, beef would have to be 40% more expensive globally to account for the greenhouse gas emissions caused by its production. The price of milk and other meats would need to increase by up to 20%, and the price of vegetable oils would also need to rise. The researchers have calculated that such price increases would lead to a 10% decrease in the consumption of food items that are high in emissions. This could save about one billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2020, more emissions than are currently caused by global aviation. “Emissions pricing of foods would generate a much needed contribution of the food system to reducing the impacts of global climate change,” said lead author Dr Marco Springmann from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford. “If you’d have to pay 40% more for your steak, you might choose to have it once a week instead of twice.” In this first global analysis of the issue, the researchers looked at different pricing models, including one in which all food items were priced in line with the emissions their production caused, and one in which the tax revenues were used to compensate consumers for higher food prices and to subsidise fruit and vegetable consumption. “Food prices are a sensitive topic,” said Dr Springmann. “We approached the design of climate policies for the food and agriculture system from a health perspective to find out whether the emissions of food production could be priced without putting peoples’ health at risk.” The scientists found that emissions pricing of foods, if properly designed, would be beneficial to human health in high-income, middle-income and most low-income countries and lead to half a million fewer deaths from chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, strokes and cancer. However, careful attention must be paid in low-income countries to make sure that climate taxes do not have a negative impact on poor people. In some countries, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, higher food prices could reduce food availability and increase underweight-related deaths. Therefore, emissions pricing would need to be combined with income compensation and subsidies for fruit and vegetables. If properly designed, these policies would result in net positive health impacts in all 150 countries covered by the study due to a lower consumption of red meat, healthier diets and a reduction in the number of people who are overweight or obese. “So far, food production and consumption have been excluded from climate policies, in part due to concerns about the potential impact on food security,” said Dr Springmann. “Here we show that pricing foods according to their climate impacts could not only lead to lower emissions, but also to healthier diets in almost all countries around the world.” (ab)

2016-11-07 |

Pat Mooney: Peasant systems are more innovative than industrial agriculture

Reisbauern The peasant system is more flexible (Photo:, Manfred Schütze/

Small-scale farmers are more successful in feeding the world than industrial food systems. The reason is that peasant systems are more innovative, diverse and flexible, says Pat Mooney, recipient of the Right Livelihood Award and Executive Director of ETC Group, a civil society organization headquartered in Canada. On October 25, Mooney took part in an event in Berlin to mark the launch of the “Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2016”, an annual report published by FIAN, ICCO and Brot für die Welt. This year’s Watch warns that peasant seeds systems and agricultural biodiversity are under threat as a result of increasing corporate pressure. In an interview after the event, Mooney talked about the future of food and farming and the new wave of giant mergers, such as Bayer’s takeover of Monsanto, which according to Mooney are not just about seeds and pesticides but also about who will control Big Data in agriculture. “They already made some arrangements there and realize that they can make the next step of mergers,” he said. “They will use the same arguments they use now, they will say ‘World hunger requires we do this, climate change requires we do this, we must be able to scale up to respond to this crisis, let us take advantage of the technologies, the big data technologies, to put it all together.” However, it is not agribusiness but small-scale farmers who are key to feeding the world and who are better prepared to meet the challenges of climate change, argues Mooney. He thinks that peasant systems are more efficient. “One of the reasons why peasants are so successful at producing and providing food for the world, especially for hungry people, is because the industrial system is so bad at doing it. For every Euro that is spent by consumers in industrialized countries on the industrial food chain, they spend two more Euros in covering the damages, the health and environmental damages of that same industrial food chain.” In addition, the system is inefficient since a large share of food does not make it from farm to table. Apart from that, Mooney considers the peasant system as the better option “because it is the most flexible, it has the most diversity in it and it is the most able to adapt to changes quickly”. Mooney criticised that the industrial system puts a large amount of research and development resources into just one crop: corn. “That is a terribly non-innovative system – we can’t just live on corn in the future. Peasants are working with 6,883 crops. They have much more diversity to work with.” According to Mooney, the history of farmer’s capacity to adjust to climate change is incredible. “For example peasants in Africa, in the course of a century, adapted corn as a new crop to 17 different microclimates around Africa – in only one century! The ability to adapt rapidly to new conditions, and even involve new species, is very high in the peasant system,” says Mooney. (ab)

2016-11-02 |

Organic crop area in the EU increases by 21% since 2010

Organic Organic farming is on the rise in the EU (Photo: CC0)

The area devoted to organic farming in the European Union has increased by more than one fifth, from 9.2 million hectares in 2010 to 11.1 million hectares in 2015. According to data released by the EU’s statistical office, Eurostat, 6.2% of the total utilised agricultural area is now certified as organic or currently under conversion. Also the number of registered organic producers is on the rise, reaching 271,500 organic farmers by the end of 2015, up 5.4% compared with 2014. With 1.9 million hectares, Spain is the country with the largest area dedicated to organic argiculture, followed by Italy (1,492,579 ha), France (1,361,512 ha) and Germany (1,060,291 ha). These four countries together are accounting for half ot the EU’s organic crop area. Between 2010 and 2015, the area devoted to organic farming has grown in all Member States except the United Kingdom and the Netherlands where the area decreased by 29% and 4% respectively. Considerable progress was made in Croatia and Bulgaria. Both countries recorded almost a fourfold increase of the area devoted to organic farming.

Austria is the leading country when it comes to the highest share of organic crop area, with one fifth (or 552 thousand hectares) of its total agricultural area farmed organically in 2015. In Sweden, 17% of the total farmed area is under organic agriculture, in Estonia the figure is 16%. At the bottom of the table ranks Malta with only 0.3% of the area farmed organically, followed by Ireland (1.6%) and Romania (1.8%). Increasing the size of the area devoted to organic agriculture could offer great benefits. According to the Eurostat press release, “organic farming combines best environmental practices, a high level of biodiversity, the preservation of natural resources and high production standards based on natural substances and processes.” In addition, “it provides for a specific market responding to a specific consumer demand while at the same time delivering public goods in terms of environmental protection, animal welfare and rural development.” (ab)

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