2017-05-24 |

Replace bee-killing neonic seed coatings with agroecological practices, report

Mais Monoculture makes corn more vulnerable to pests (Photo: CC0)

The use of environmentally harmful neonicotinoid insecticide seed coatings is unnecessary since there are many agroecological and other alternative farming methods that ensure productivity and resilience, while minimizing pollution. This is the finding of a new report released on May 22 by the Center for Food Safety, a US-based environmental organisation. The report compiles and analyses the peer-reviewed science on the efficacy of neonic seed coatings of corn and offers an overview of non-insecticidal alternatives to neonics. Neonicotinoid insecticides, mainly clothianidin and thiamethoxam, are applied to about 71 to near 100% of corn seed in the United States, affecting close to 90 million acres of farmland. They have been shown to harm pollinators, aquatic organisms, birds and other beneficial and non-target organisms. According to the report, this harm from neonic-coated corn seed is unnecessary since published studies reveal that the efficacy and yield benefit of neonic corn seed coatings might be lower than frequently claimed. “For years we have seen dramatically increasing use of these toxic pesticide, yet the peer-reviewed research shows that they rarely protect farmer profit or crop productivity,” said Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, the report’s author. “What we’ve also seen is that industry-sponsored analysis of the chemicals’ efficacy relies heavily on non-peer-reviewed research, and contains several biases that overestimate the value of neonic seed coatings for improving corn yield.” In fact, neonics may even reduce yields as they also harm organisms that normally help keep pest insects in check.

The report argues that US farmers can rarely find uncoated seed and are left with little choice. “One of the main reasons that neonic seed coatings are ubiquitous has nothing to do with yield or farmer profits, but rather monopoly control by seed and pesticide companies that make it extremely difficult for farmers to find and buy uncoated seed,” said Gurian-Sherman. However, there are many alternatives to neonics, which result in high productivity and are better for the environment. These agroecological farming methods rely on knowledge of the ecology of corn pests and the use of biological diversity to ensure productivity and resilience. Agroecological systems break pest cycles through crop rotations and cover crops, and provide high levels of natural pest enemies that usually keep pests under control. “Longer crop rotations have been noted for decades to reduce corn pest insects generally, including the pests that are the target of neonic seed coatings,” the author writes. For example, crop rotation is well understood to control corn rootworms. Where agroecological practices are used, infestation and yield loss from early-season pests is highly uncommon, the report says.

However, there is a trend in U.S. industrial agriculture toward increased monoculture corn rather than longer rotations. The report makes several recommendations for government action to counteract this trend. “Farmers will require substantial help through policies, incentives, and regulations to move away from destructive industrial farming practices like neonic seed coatings to environmentally and socially sustainable agroecology-based farming systems that are also profitable,” writes Gurian-Sherman. Resources are needed for farmers to learn about and adopt alternative pest control methods and affordable or subsidized insurance should be made available for the rare cases where target pests might be a problem. In addition, more research is required to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the pests, and ecological practices that can control them. The report concludes that the use of neonic seed coatings should be greatly restricted, eventually leading to prohibition. (ab)

2017-05-15 |

Commercial agriculture is dominant driver of tropical deforestation, study

Space Deforestation caused by livestock agriculture in Paraguay (Photo: European Space Agency)

Large-scale commercial agriculture has been the main driver of deforestation in the tropics, new research shows. Clearings for large-scale agricultural expansion were responsible for an increasing proportion – in some places, more than half – of all observed forest loss across the tropics between 2000 and 2012, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The team of scientists at Duke University in North Carolina analysed deforestation trends by clearing size for this 12-year-period, using high-resolution, satellite-derived maps of forest cover produced by the University of Maryland. They found that Southeast Asia and South America saw the most severe losses. Over the study period, 79% of deforestation in the tropics occurred in these regions. “In South America, more than 60% of the increase in deforestation was due to a growing number of medium- and large-sized forest clearings typical of what you see with industrial-scale commercial agricultural activities,” said Jennifer J. Swenson, associate professor at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. In Southeast Asia, losses increased from 1400 kha in 2001 to more than 3700 kha in 2012.

Brazil, which had stricter policies limiting agricultural expansion until 2012, was the only country showing a reverse trend. Average annual deforestation decreased from approximately 3000 kha to 2150 kha between the first and second halves of the study period. “This unique trend may be short-lived, however, given Brazil’s relaxed forest policies of the last few years,” Swenson added. According to the researchers, the emerging prominence of large-scale drivers of forest loss in many regions and countries, in particular Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Paraguay and Bolivia, suggests the growing need for policy interventions which target industrial-scale agricultural commodity producers. Small-scale farmers also contribute to forest clearings but to a smaller extent. “A small family farm that produces sustenance crops or food for local consumption typically causes less than 10 hectares - or just under 25 acres - of land to be cleared per year,” said co-author Kemen G. Austin. “These small clearings can have relatively modest impacts on biodiversity, habitat connectivity, carbon storage, water quality, erosion control and other vital ecosystem services the forest provides.” By comparison, an industrial-scale plantation - such as one that grows and processes palm oil or soybeans for the global market - can cause nearly 2,500 acres of land to be cleared annually. As the size of the cleared land increases, so do the scale and scope of the potential ecological impacts, the study warns. (ab)

2017-05-09 |

Share of GM soybean declined in 2016, 87% of world’s arable land GMO-free

Soybean Soybean, the most adopted GM crop (Photo: CC0)

The global area planted with genetically modified crops reached 185.1 million hectares in 2016 - at least according to the annual report of the GMO-friendly organisation “International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA)”. The global hectarage is up 3% from the 179.1 million hectares in 2015, when the area decreased for the first time since the commercial introduction of GM crops in 1996. The figures published on May 4 show that 91% of the cultivation of GM crops is still concentrated in just five countries. The United States top the list with with 72.9 million hectares or 39 per cent of the global area. Brazil ranks second with 49.1 million hectares, followed by Argentina (23.8 million hectares), Canada (11.6 million hectares) and India (10.8 million hectares). Other GM producing countries with an area of over one million hectares include Paraguay, Pakistan, China, South Africa, Uruguay and Bolivia. In Brazil, the area planted with GM crops increased by 11%. The country now accounts for one third of the area planted with genetically modified soybean. However, in Argentina, the hectarage of GM crops decreased by 3% and in India even by 7%.

Soybean remained the most adopted GM crop, covering 91.4 million hectares or 50% of the global area of GM crops. Genetically modified maize occupied 60.6 million hectares in 2016, 13% higher than the 2015 area, followed by cotton (22.3 million hectares) and rapeseed (8.6 million hectares). The good news is that the share of the three main GM crops, based on the global area planted with each individual crop, decreased as compared to the previous year. In 2016, 78% of soybean fields were planted with GM soybean (2015: 83%), the share of GM cotton as compared to conventional crops was 64% (2015: 75%) and for GM maize the figure was 26% (2015: 29%). Only the share of canola remained stable at 24%. Insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are the only two traits that have been developed and cultivated on a large scale. 47% of GM crops grown in 2016 were herbicide tolerant, 12% were insect resistant and 41% had a combination of both traits (stacked traits). Both the hectarage of GM crops featuring insect resistance and herbicide tolerance decreased while stacked traits increased by 29% or 16.9 million hectares in 2016.

As every year, the report praises the alleged benefits of GM crops to the skies. ISAAA claims that the adoption of GM crops has conserved biodiversity by removing 19.4 million hectares of land from agriculture in 2015 and led to a 19% reduction in herbicide and insecticide use. Additionally, in developing countries, planting GM crops is reported to have helped alleviate hunger by increasing the incomes for 18 million small farmers and their families, bringing improved financial stability to more than 65 million people. At least this is what ISAAA says, which is sponsored by agrochemical giant Monsanto and CropLife International, the association of agricultural biotech companies. However, the good news is that the 185.1 million hectares planted with GM crops in 2016 only made up roughly 3% of the total agricultural area and 13.8% of arable land while the rest still remains GMO-free. (ab)

2017-05-03 |

World Bank accused of fuelling land grabs through financial intermediaries

Bagger IFC projects caused land grabs and deforestation, says report (Photo: CC0)

The World Bank Group has indirectly financed projects that fuelled land grabbing, displaced thousands of people and caused deforestation and environmental damage worldwide. These are the findings of an investigation conducted by the human rights organization Inclusive Development International, which are summarized in the report “Unjust Enrichment: How the IFC Profits from Land Grabbing in Africa”. The report alleges that the World Bank’s private-sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), is supporting harmful investment projects by outsourcing its development funds to the financial sector. Through shadowy investments in financial intermediaries, such as commercial banks and private equity funds, the IFC has contributed to some of the most notorious land grabs in Africa, says the report, which was published on May 1 by Inclusive Development International, Bank Information Center, Accountability Counsel, Urgewald and the Oakland Institute. “Tens of millions of hectares of land on the African continent have been grabbed by foreign investors in recent years. This has led to loss of life, land, and livelihoods for millions, and threatened the very survival of entire communities and indigenous groups,” said Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute.

The report followed the trail of IFC money and uncovered 134 harmful or risky projects financed by 29 IFC financial-sector clients. These projects are found in 28 countries and on every continent except Antarctica. In Africa, the investigation uncovered 11 projects backed by IFC clients that have transferred approximately 700,000 hectares of land to foreign investors. The projects include agribusiness concessions in the Gambela region of Ethiopia that were cleared of their indigenous inhabitants during a massive forcible population transfer campaign in the area and a gold mine in Guinea that led to the violent forced eviction of 380 families. In Gabon, Ecobank Transnational, an IFC financial-sector client, has financed oil palm plantations and processing facilities operated by the Singaporean company Olam. The project is being developed on a 300,000-hectare concession that local and international environmental groups warn threatens to destroy large areas of the Congo Basin rainforest, harming biodiversity and the livelihoods of thousands of people. According to one investigation, Olam’s plantations have led to the destruction of at least 19,000 hectares of rainforest and had adverse impacts on the land and resource rights of local communities.

In addition, export-oriented industrial sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone and Zambia, funded by multiple IFC financial intermediaries, have been accused of grabbing small-holder farmland and displacing thousands of people, leading to declining incomes and food security. “These projects are antithetical to the World Bank’s mission of fighting poverty through sustainable development,” said David Pred, Managing Director of Inclusive Development International. “They also make a mockery of the IFC’s social and environmental Performance Standards, which are supposed to be the rules of the road for the private sector activities that the IFC’s intermediaries support.” IFC responded to some of the allegations in the report, stating that it has already exited investments in banks highlighted in the report, including ICICI and Kotak Mahindra in India and BDO Unibank in the Philippines. The IFC Executive Vice President recently announced additional improvements in the way IFC works by scaling back IFC’s high-risk investments in financial institutions, increasing its oversight of intermediaries and bringing more transparency to these investments. “We welcome the IFC’s new commitments to encourage a more responsible banking system,” said Pred. “However, rather than simply divest, we want to see the IFC work with its clients to redress the serious harms that communities have suffered as a result of the irresponsible investments that we have brought to light.” (ab)

2017-04-28 |

EU Parliament calls for better access to land for small and medium farmers

Land Land concentration in the EU (Photo: CC0)

The European Parliament has called for urgent action to combat the concentration of agricultural land and to provide access to land for small and medium farmers. On April 27, it adopted a resolution and approved with a large majority an own-initiative report that recognizes the problem of land concentration in the EU and demands adequate responses. Land grabbing, the large-scale purchase of land for financial investment and industrial agricultural production, is no longer just a problem for developing countries. The report shows that not only in the former communist countries, but all over Europe, corporations are buying up large areas of land, often through legal loopholes. This has further increased the level of farmland concentration and tenure across the EU. Currently, only 3% of farms control more than 52% of arable land in Europe, whereas 76.2% of farms control only 11.2% of the agricultural land. The resolution underscores that this places inequality of land use in the EU – with a Gini coefficient of 0,82 – on a par with that of countries such as Brazil, Columbia and the Philippines, which are infamous for their notoriously unfair land distribution.

The impact of this land concentration on rural areas is devastating: Existing small- and medium-size farms or new entrants can hardly access land at fair prices. In addition, the land rush is boosted by the subsidies of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Around 80% of CAP subsidies go to only 20% of farms. This trend runs counter to the European sustainable, multifunctional agricultural model, in which family farms are an important feature, the resolution text says. The European Parliament therefore calls on both the EU Commission and the governments of the Member States to stop the further concentration of Europe’s agricultural areas. “The question of land distribution also raises the question of the socially desirable form of agriculture,” said Maria Heubuch, who shadowed the report for the Greens/EFA Group. „Let's face the facts: Concentration of land in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations is poison for rural regions. Jobs are being cut, added value is declining, and people’s relationship to food and confidence in agriculture are lost,” she added.

The resolution clearly “recognises the importance of small-scale family farms for rural life, since they play an active role in the economic fabric of rural areas by conserving the cultural heritage and maintaining rural life, sustaining social life and making sustainable use of natural resources, in addition to producing a sufficient amount of healthy and high-quality food”. It calls on the Member States “to give small and medium-sized local producers, new entrants and young farmers – while ensuring equal gender access – priority in the purchase and rental of farmland, including pre-emptive rights where established, as the ownership of as much as possible of the land they farm is in the interest of a sustainable and reliable development of their farms, particularly at a time when non-farmers are increasingly interested in purchasing agricultural plots.” The resolution also calls on the Member States to focus their land-use policies on using available tools – such as taxation, aid schemes and CAP funding – to maintain a family-farm-based agricultural model throughout the EU.“

The European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) and the Hands on The Land coalition welcomed the adoption of the report. They said the report could serve as a starting point to develop regulation at the European level to prevent land grabbing by large (often non farming) companies. “The European Parliament is now recognizing that it is time to redirect European and national land policies in order to prevent land speculation and to support peasant farming. This will result in more employment in the countryside and a fairer use of our European agricultural lands to provide nutritious and healthy food available for all, also for those who are most affected by the protracted economic crisis” said Antonio Onorati, member of the Coordinating Committee of ECVC. The organisations hope that the report will help to push the EU Commission to propose legislative changes for fairer land governance. (ab)

2017-04-25 |

Short food chains and local markets benefit both farmers and consumers

Vgtbls Vegetables at a market (Photo: CC0)

Short food chains and local markets, where farmers and producers sell directly to the consumer, can improve farmers’ income and product quality, according to an article published by Euractiv. The article, which is part of a special report dedicated to the topic of “Farmers under pressure”, draws on a recently released study of the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS). The study found that short food supply chains and local markets have flourished recently in all EU countries, both in rural and urban areas. On average, 15% of EU farms sell more than half of their production directly to consumers, the researchers said. “Organic producers have been the pioneers of the short supply chain from the development of producers markets and shops to community supported agriculture,” Eric Gall, IFOAM EU Deputy Director and Policy Manager, told Euroactiv. “Short supply chains help in reconnecting producers and consumers and therefore achieving a fair price for those employed in the agricultural sector.” This has been confirmed by the EPRS study: “On the producers’ side, selling agricultural products directly to consumers enables them to retain a greater share of the products’ market value, through the elimination of intermediaries, which can potentially increase their income,” writes author Marie-Laure Augère-Granier.

Across the EU, a growing number of consumers buy food products on local farmers’ markets, directly at the farm, through basket/box delivery systems or other community-supported agriculture schemes. The EPRS study points out that European customers tend to associate local products with higher quality standards (freshness, nutritional value), healthy eating, more environment-friendly production methods and a lower carbon footprint. It quotes from a 2011 Eurobarometer survey which shows that nine out of ten citizens agree that there are benefits to buying products from a local farm. According to another Eurobarometer survey from 2016, four out of five European citizens think that “strengthening the farmer’s role in the food chain” is either fairly or very important. “The mutual benefits brought about by local food systems and short food supply chains explain why the latter have been gaining ground in recent times in all EU Member States,” the study reads. “They constitute an alternative to conventional longer food supply chains, with large retailers such as supermarkets, where consumers purchase anonymous food products without any indication of the price actually paid to the producer. They are a way to reconnect producers and consumers and to re-localise agricultural production.”

Geneviève Savigny, policy advisor at the European coordination committee of Via Campesina, told Euroactiv that short food chains are nothing new, although they are now quite fashionable. The French farmer considers them a win-win game “as consumers find good and fresh products with good value for money, and producers get a much better price than in wholesale.” However, she also adds that, in the light of the growing concentration of the agri-food industry, farmers who are producing for the local market need support. She argues that a fair EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is required to ensure decent prices and income to farmers. “For producers in direct sales, CAP is needed to enable investments in equipment for processing on the farm or collectively. Direct payment geared towards ‘active persons’ and not only hectare would be a legitimate support,” she told Euroactiv. (ab)

2017-04-21 |

People4Soil calls on Juncker to put soil protection back on EU agenda

Soil Soils need better protection (Photo: CC0)

More than 500 organisations have called on the President of the European Commission to develop a legally binding framework for the protection of soils. Ahead of Earth Day on April 22, People4Soil, a coalition of European NGOs, research institutes, environmental groups and farmers associations, sent an open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, asking him to put EU legislation for soil preservation back on the agenda. The organisations are worried about the increasing degradation of soils both in the EU and at global level and warn that erosion, sealing, loss of organic matter, compaction, salinisation, landslides and contamination have negative impacts on human health, food security, natural ecosystems, biodiversity and the climate, not to mention the economy. In their letter, they quote scientific research and reports which document the poor state of European soils. According to a UN report released in 2015, the major threats to soils in Europe are soil contamination, soil organic matter decline, soil sealing and land take due to urbanisation processes. The number of sites where potentially polluting activities have taken place in Europe now stands at approximately three million, the report warns, and only around 17,000 sites have already been treated. If current trends continue and no changes in legislation are made, the numbers reported above are expected to increase by 50% by 2025. According to People4Soil, every year 1000 square kilometers of land are sealed by concrete and asphalt surfaces in Europe, the equivalent of approximately 500 football pitches every day. “In this definitely worrying picture, the lack of a dedicated legally binding framework, fixing principles and rules to be complied with by the Member States is unacceptable,” the open letter reads.

In May 2014, the European Commission withdrew proposals for a Soil Framework Directive after an eight-year-long opposition of several EU member states, despite the evident lack of EU policies and national regulations to guarantee an adequate protection for soils. People4Soils says that even where the Member States have their own legislation, as in the case of soil contamination, there is a spread between standards, procedures, reference values used for the assessment of the contamination status, and the remediation obligations. They point to a recent assessment conducted on behalf of the European Commission which criticised the lack of a coherent, strategic policy framework across all EU policy clusters as well as missing common definitions on soil status, resulting in the impossibility of establishing targets and priorities for the conservation of soil and its functions. At international level, the importance of soil protection has been reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the 193 UN Member States in 2015. SDG 15 has the target of combatting desertification, restoring degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and striving to achieve a land degradation-neutral world. People4Soils now calls on Juncker to fill the gap at EU level and to locate the road map for a Soil Framework Directive within the priorities of the European Commission. The initiative has also launched a petition via the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) that can be signed online. (ab)

2017-04-18 |

Small farms are essential to the provision of food and nutrients, study

Farmer Small farms feed the world (Photo: CC0)

Small and medium farms are essential to sustain the quality of global food supply, according to a new study published in the journal “The Lancet Planetary Health” that maps global nutrient production from farms across the world. The researchers found that farms smaller than 50 hectares produced more than half of the food globally and that small farms with less than 20 hectares provided more than 80% of essential nutrients in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and the rest of East Asia Pacific. “Small and medium farms (...) are particularly important in low income countries, where they produce the vast majority of food and nutrients,” said lead author Mario Herrero of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia. The scientists analysed global datasets to estimate the production of 41 major crops, seven livestock products and 14 fish groups. They estimated how much calcium, folate, iron, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and zinc is produced in farms of different sizes and how much each farm type contributed to the production of different agricultural commodities and associated nutrients.

The researchers say that globally, an estimated 51-77% of major food groups, including cereals, livestock, fruits, pulses, roots and tubers and vegetable, comes from farms smaller than 50 hectares. Exceptions are sugar and oil crops, which tend to be produced mostly on large farms. The share of food produced on small farms can vary remarkably depending on the world region. Small farms with less than 20 hectares produce more than 75% of most food commodities in sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia, south Asia, and China, the study found. Very small farms with less than two hectares are especially important in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, where they contribute around 30% of most food commodities and where they are managed by millions of smallholder farmers. In China, such farms produce more than 50% of all food commodities (except for fibre crops), in particular fruits (64%), vegetables (60%), sugar crops (59%), roots and tubers (72%), and livestock (63%). In Europe, west Asia and north Africa, and central America, medium-size farms sized between 20 and 50 hectares also contribute substantially to the production of most food commodities. By contrast, large farms over 50 hectares dominate food production in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand, producing 75-100% of all cereal, livestock and fruit in those regions.

The study found that areas with small and medium farms had greater agricultural diversity than areas with large farms. According to the scientists, the majority of global micronutrients (53–81 percent) and protein (57 percent) are produced in more diverse agricultural landscapes. Small farms with less than 20 hectares provide 71% of global vitamin A production, which is essential for the immune system and vision. “The historical intensification of agriculture has yielded more but less diverse food and a reduction in the sources of key essential nutrients,” the authors write. “Our data suggest that although most commodity groups are present across all farm sizes, there is a risk that numbers of species cultivated, particularly highly nutritious food groups, will decrease as farm sizes increase.” The authors say that reversing this trend is essential to safeguard the adaptive capacity of agriculture to maintain the supply of essential nutrients for human health. “A sustainable food system that meets the needs of a growing population means we must focus on quality as well as quantity, and it is vital that we protect and support small and medium farms and more diverse agriculture so as to ensure sustainable and nutritional food production,” said Mario Herrero. (ab)

2017-04-07 |

European Patent Office continues to grant patents on plants

Ptnts No patents on conventionally bred plants (Photo: Andreas Hermsdorf/

The European Patent Office (EPO) continues to grant patents on conventionally bred plants despite strong opposition from the EU and civil society organisations. According to new research by No Patents on Seeds!, an initiative supported by over 300 NGOs and farmers’ organisations worldwide, the EPO green-lighted 40 patents on plants derived from conventional breeding in 2016. This brings the total number of such patents granted by the EPO to 200. Last year, another 60 patents were granted on processes for the genetic engineering of plants. Most patent holders are big players such as Bayer and Monsanto. Taking into account some of their affiliates, BASF and Monsanto top the list with 30 new patents granted by the EPO in 2016, followed by Bayer with 20 patents. DuPont and Dow AgroSciences received a total of 14 patents and Syngenta got eight. According to the initiative, the overall number of European patents on plants now stands at about 3000. The organisations criticize that the EPO does not care about increased pressure from the EU and civil society but is “working behind the scenes” instead “to create new loopholes to allow the continued patenting of conventionally bred plants and animals”.

According to European patent law, unlike genetically engineered crops, plants and animals “obtained from essentially biological processes” are not patentable. However, EPO has a different stance. Its Enlarged Board of Appeal ruled in March 2015 on the precedent cases of broccoli and tomato, that even though essentially biological processes for the production of plants are not patentable, the resulting plant or fruit can be patented. In December 2015, the EU Parliament rejected this in a resolution approved with a huge majority. A notice adopted by the European Commission in November 2016 confirmed that plants and animals derived from conventional breeding are not patentable. In February, also the EU Competitiveness Council backed these positions and reiterates that EU legislator’s intention when adopting the relevant directive on the legal protection of biotech inventions was to exclude from patentability products derived from conventional breeding. The Council called on Member States to ensure that the EPO respects these conclusions. The EPO, did indeed stop granting several patents in conventional breeding. However, it seems to keep open loopholes for companies and patent lawyers who adapt their patent applications accordingly. “It is shocking to see just how easy it is for companies and patent lobbyists to escape political decision-making. All they need to do is to slightly change the focus of their patent claims in order to continue claiming seeds, plants and harvest as their invention,” said Christoph Then for No Patents on Seeds!. “This allows companies, such as Bayer and Monsanto, to take increasing control of agriculture and food production.”

According to the initiative, one trick frequently used by companies is to simply claim plant characteristics, such as genetic conditions or changes in the phenotype of plants. The scope of these patents covers all plants with these same characteristics, no matter which process was used in breeding. In addition, in many cases random mutations are claimed as inventions although the EU had clearly stated that only methods for genetic engineering can be considered inventions. In 2016, up to 65% of patents granted on conventionally bred plants were based on random mutations. One example of how these loopholes are being exploited are patents on beer held by Carlsberg and Heineken. Starting with random mutations, all barley plants with a specific quality in brewing, the brewing process and the beer produced thereof are claimed as inventions. Similar patents on random mutations were granted to Bayer (oilseed rape), Monsanto (plants for oil production) and DuPont (maize). No Patents on Seeds! calls on the member states of the EPO to take decisive action at their next meeting in June to stop patents on conventional plant and animal breeding. (ab)

2017-04-05 |

International food trade is depleting groundwater resources, study finds

NASA Fields irrigated by water from aquifers 1 km under the desert (Credits: NASA/Landsat/ Robert Simmon and Jesse Allen)

Around 11% of non-renewable groundwater used for irrigation is embedded in international food trade, new research shows. Scientists at the University College London and NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies found that Pakistan, the US and India are the countries exporting the most crops that depend on non-renewable aquifers. The study, published in the journal Nature on March 29, determines which specific crops come from groundwater reservoirs that won’t renew on the scale of a human life-time, where they are consumed and which products and countries have the biggest impact. The reserachers used FAO trade data on countries’ agricultural commodities and combined it with a global hydrologic model to trace the sources of water used to produce 26 specific crop classes. Their results show that the crops using the biggest amounts of non-renewable groundwater are rice (29%), followed by wheat (12%), cotton (11%), maize (4%) and soybeans (3%). Two-thirds of the exported food that depends on non-renewable groundwater are produced in Pakistan (29%), the United States (27%), and India (12%). In these countries, the amounts of exported crops produced using unsustainable groundwater increased remarkably between 2000 and 2010. In India, exports of groundwater-depleting crops doubled in that period. The amount increased by 70% in Pakistan and by 57% in the US.

According to the researchers, the major importers include the United States, Iran, Mexico, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom, Iraq, and China. These countries turned from net exporters in 2000 to net importers in 2010. “It's not just individual countries that experience groundwater depletion, but also their trade partners,” said lead author Carole Dalin of the University College London. “When people consume certain imported foods, they should be aware that they can have an impact on the environment elsewhere.” The study warns that countries that export and import crops that depend on non-renewable aquifers may be at risk of losing these crops and their profits in the future. Co-author Michael Puma gives the example of Japan importing corn from the United States: “It's important from Japan’s perspective to know whether that corn is being produced with a sustainable source of water, because you can imagine in the long term if groundwater declines too much, the United States will have difficulty producing that crop.” The researchers say that their results can help target efforts to improve the sustainability of water use and food production. Decision makers and local farmers will need to decide on a strategy for using non-renewable water resources that balance the needs of short-term production versus long-term sustainability. The study lists solutions to minimize groundwater depletion. Water-saving strategies in the producing countries include improving irrigation efficiency and growing more drought-resistant crops, together with measures such as the regulation of groundwater pumping. (ab)

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