2016-12-23 |

Shift to sustainable agriculture needed to protect biodiversity, UN conference

Bees Pollinators which are curcial for food security (Photo: A. Beck)

A major UN conference has agreed to step up efforts to integrate the protection of biodiversity across all sectors, including agriculture. At the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which ended on 17 December in Mexico, ministers from around the world adopted the Cancún Declaration. The six-page document recognises the need to mainstream the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the agriculture, forestry, fisheries and tourism sectors as a key action to achieve sustainable development, including ensuring food security and addressing climate change. In the text, countries pledge to “ensure that sectoral and cross-sectoral policies, plans and programmes, as well as legal and administrative measures and budgets established by governments, integrate in a structured and coherent manner actions for the conservation, sustainable use, management, and restoration of biological diversity and ecosystems.” They also committed to support sustainable production and consumption and to phase out incentives harmful to biodiversity.

The document stresses the need to make agriculture more sustainable to achieve biodiversity targets. “This is a turning point,” said Maria Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director-General. “The agriculture sectors and biodiversity have often been regarded as separate and even conflicting concerns, yet they are inextricably connected. Agriculture is by nature a major user of biodiversity, but it also has the potential to contribute to its protection,” she added. One measure laid down in the document is the conservation and cultivation of native varieties, as well as farmers’ landraces, locally adapted breeds and underutilized species, including those threatened by production intensification. In addition, countries committed to measures to promote diversified agro-ecological systems and the designation of agricultural biodiversity conservation sites. Another goal are sustainable consumption and production patterns, including more diversified diets based on a broader range of biodiversity. While UN representatives seemed to be satisfied with the results of the conference, some NGOs were disappointed with the outcome. Friends of the Earth International said the results do not rise up to the challenge of protecting biodiversity as they do not lead to the necessary system change to curb the accelerated loss of biodiversity. “It is a good idea to make sure all sectors take biodiversity into account when making decisions that can impact biodiversity. But unfortunately, the final decisions fail to impose action that would force the before mentioned sectors to act within planetary boundaries,” the organisation said in a statement. With regard to one goal mentioned in the declaration, the effective management and conservation of pollinators, several countries already announced the creation of a “coalition of the willing”. The “Promote Pollinators” coalition promised to take action to protect pollinators and their habitats by developing and implementing national pollinator strategies, sharing knowledge on new approaches and to developing research on pollinator conservation. (ab)

2016-12-19 |

Grow initiative expands corporate control over agriculture in the Global South

Maiz Grow in Vietnam: Maize for animal feed (Photo: CC0)

Under a programme called Grow, the world’s largest agribusiness corporations are taking control of food and farming in the Global South, warns a new report released on December 15 by the non-profit organisation GRAIN. According to the report “Grow-ing disaster: the Fortune 500 goes farming”, some of the biggest food and agribusiness companies such as Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Monsanto are promoting public-private partnerships within the framework of the Grow programme, which focuses on Latin America, Africa and Asia – the main growth markets for the global food industry. They are promising ”market-based solutions” to poverty, food insecurity and climate change, with the aim of supporting small farmers. In reality, however, those food companies are fostering close ties with governments in order to increase their control over markets and supply chains. The programme’s focus is on a few high-value commodities, for example potatoes, maize, coffee and palm oil, showing that the real objective of the Grow initiative is to expand the production of these cash crops to benefit just a handful of companies, most of which are based in the US and Europe. The report warns that the programme will have negative impacts on local communities, biodiversity, nutrition and the climate.
Grow is part of the New Vision for Agriculture, an initiative of the World Economic Forum (WEF) that was launched in 2009 and is led by 31 of the WEF's “partner” companies involved in the food business, whether in agriculture, food processing or retail. GRAIN criticises that The New Vision for Agriculture is “a vague document that calls for market-based approaches to increase global food production and ensure environmental sustainability. Its main emphasis is on contract farming linking small farmers to multinational companies or corporate plantations. Grow Asia is the Southeast Asian leg of a global initiative and is located within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its Food Security Framework. One of Grow Asia’s projects in Vietnam is a Monsanto and Syngenta-led project to assist the Ministry of Agriculture in converting 668,000 ha from traditional rice production for food to hybrid maize production for animal feed within five years. GRAIN reports that the conversion scheme has already had dramatic consequences for the Xinh Mun people who live in this region. Over the past several years, many of them were pushed into planting maize instead of their traditional upland rice by offering them seeds and fertilisers, as well as household staples such as rice and salt in exchange for signing contracts to grow maize. The report says the farmers didn’t realise that they would have to repay the cost of the seeds at twice the price at harvest time. Almost all village households ended up in debt and many farmers have lost their land in an effort to repay debts. Another project in Vietnam’s Lam Dong province promotes contract potato production linking small farmers with US-based food giant PepsiCo. The company needs a particular potato variety for its Lay’s brand of chips and aims at building up a more affordable local supply chain. In Latin America, the New Vision's companies have their sights set on the Pacific Alliance (composed of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru) but it has so far been limited to a national programme in Mexico. In Africa, the Grow programme is closely intertwined with the infamous New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa. The report describes a project in Ghana, where local people have been severely affected by the loss of land for food production and the decline in access to fish from the project's use of their water sources. For corporations, Grow offers a win-win scenario, the report concludes, but there is no future for small farmers or food traders and processors in this vision. (ab)

2016-12-15 |

Fight against hunger in Asia-Pacific is losing momentum, FAO warns

Diets2 Diets are changing in Asia (Photo: CC0, akshayapatra)

Progress towards ending hunger in Asia and the Pacific has slowed down in recent years, according to a new study published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). If the fight against hunger and malnutrition is not picking up momentum, most countries of the region will not meet the UN’s second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of zero hunger by 2030. With some 490 million people, the Asia-Pacific region is home to more than 60% of the world’s hungry people. 12% of the region’s population is undernourished with most of them living in South Asia. Although the prevalence of undernourishment in the Asia Pacific region dropped by half from 24.3% in 1990, progress has slowed down in the last five years compared to the two decades before, the report said. With recent reduction rate, only two countries would reach the target of eliminating hunger by 2030 and even with their best historical rates only nine countries would meet the zero hunger goal. “The analysis in this report is an eye-opener and a wake-up call to all of us here in Asia and the Pacific,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative. “To some, the year 2030 may still seem far away, but it’s only 14 years from now and we still have nearly half-a-billion hungry people in this region.”

The report also notes that nearly one in three children in the region are suffering from stunting. “Many countries in the region face the challenge of a triple burden of malnutrition whereby an inadequate intake of calories, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity prevail simultaneously.” Obesity has been increasing rapidly in parts of the region. While figures differ country to country, the regional rate of obesity has been increasing by more than 4% annually. The study highlights that diets in Asia and the Pacific are undergoing rapid transition as countries and their inhabitants are growing richer. According to FAO, per capita rice consumption has declined and consumption of livestock products, fish, fruits and vegetables has grown rapidly. “The most striking example of this is the rapid take up of dairy products across the region,” said Kadiresan. This presents a tremendous opportunity to improve nutrition, she said, but policy-makers also need to ensure that the region’s small-holder dairy farmers benefit from this trend. They need fair access to markets and support that enables them to compete in the marketplace. The report says that changes in diets also require that foods other than rice receive more investments in agricultural research and more policy attention. “Most countries in this region are spending too little on agricultural research,” said Kadiresan. “So in order to meet both the zero hunger goal and ensure everyone is well nourished in Asia-Pacific by 2030, we will, collectively, need to put our money where our mouths are to ensure we can meet these twin challenges,” she added. (ab)

2016-12-13 |

Rising methane emissions from agriculture threaten climate goals, scientists warn

Reis Flooded paddy field (Photo: Sandy Hartmann)

Global methane emissions from agriculture and other sources have increased dramatically in recent years, threatening efforts to combat climate change, new research shows. A team of international scientists warns that atmospheric methane concentrations have jumped rapidly since 2007 after a period of relative stagnation in the early 2000s. “Unlike CO2, atmospheric methane concentrations are rising faster than at any time in the past two decades and, since 2014, are now approaching the most greenhouse-gas-intensive scenarios,” they write in the journal Environmental Research Letters on December 12. This is alarming since methane’s warming potential is about 28 times greater on a 100-year horizon than that of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. „Keeping global warming below 2 °C is already a challenging target, with most of the attention placed primarily on CO2 emissions,” the paper reads. “Such a target will become increasingly difficult if reductions in methane emissions are not also addressed strongly and rapidly.“

According to the scientists, around 60% of all methane emissions globally are human-induced, while the rest stems from wetlands and other natural sources. The analysis suggests that agriculture is mainly to blame for the recent rapid rise in global methane concentrations - with smaller contributions from fossil fuel use and possibly wetlands. Livestock production and agriculture account for nearly two-thirds of human-induced methane emissions. Cattle emit methane through bodily functions and manure, while rice fields emit methane when being flooded. “The fossil fuel industry has received most of the attention in recent years. Agricultural emissions need similar scrutiny,” said Rob Jackson, chair of Stanford’s Earth System Science Department and co-author of the paper. Although methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, it also “presents the best opportunity to slow climate change quickly,” said Jackson because it is much more short-lived in the atmosphere than CO2. This means that actions taken to reduce emissions will show rapid results, the researchers said. One possible solution for agriculture is to change the way rice is cultivated by reducing the flooding of paddy fields. „Modification of rice agriculture practices (e.g., semi-inundated paddies, dry cultivation) is well tested and promising, assuming yield and quality of the staple food for more than 3 billion people can be guaranteed“, the authors write. Other strategies include promoting less meat-intensive diets and modifying ruminants’ diet to limit methane emissions from intestinal processes. Measures in other areas could be covering landfills to capture methane emissions. According to the study, such mitigation policies in the agriculture and waste sectors are key to reducing methane emissions in most of the high emitting regions. “We still need to cut carbon dioxide emissions, but cutting methane provides complementary benefits for climate, economies and human health,” Jackson added. (ab)

2016-12-08 |

Land concentration in the EU has reached alarming levels, study finds

Field Land concentration is a huge problem in the EU (Photo: CC0)

Farmland in Europe has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer large farms while the number of small farms is declining at an alarming rate. A new report published by Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy institute based in the Netherlands, found that land in the EU is more unevenly distributed than wealth. According to data from Eurostat, large farms defined as agricultural holdings of 100 hectares and more, made up only 3.1% of all European farms in 2013. However, these farms controlled 52% of the total utilised agricultural area in the EU. At the same time, small farms with less than 10 hectares, or three quarters of all farms in the EU, only controlled 11% of farmland. This land inequality translates into a Gini co-efficient of 0.82, putting Europe on par with countries that are infamous for their unequal land distribution such as Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines. Land concentration and farmland grabbing is a particular problem in Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Slovakia, more than 80% of the total utilised agricultural area is in the hands of large holdings with more than 100 hectares. “This process of land concentration and land inequality has particularly affected Europe’s small farms,“ writes Sylvia Kay, the author of the report. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of holdings of less than 10 hectares dropped by a third. The land controlled by small farms declined by a quarter while the total utilised agricultural area occupied by large farms in the EU grew by 15% over the same period. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of small farms in Germany decreased by 79%. The figure was 77% for Slovakia, 68% for both Italy and the Czech Republic and 56% for France. According to the author, land grabbing is also becoming a problem in Europe. Relatively low land prices in Eastern European Member States have been a major incentive for investors to acquire farmland in these countries and establish large holdings. One example given in the report is the Lebanese owned Maria Group, which holds 65,000 hectares of land in Romania. It als owns a large slaughterhouse and a port to export meat and cereals, largely to the Middle East and East Africa.
“If left unchecked, there is a danger that land grabbing and land concentration, particularly when reinforced by other processes and policy biases, will block the entry into farming of young and aspiring farmers, while leading to the further exit of Europe’s small farmers,“ warns Kay. This would have a negative impact on European food security, employment and biodiversity since the decline of small-scale farming in Europe would also mean that the multiple benefits of this type of farming system will disappear. “Small-scale farmers form the backbone of European agriculture,“ argues Kay. “They are strengthening food security by producing healthy and plentiful food of known provenance; they support food sovereignty by building up local markets and shorter producer-to-consumer food chains (…), they are protecting the environment and local biodiversity by practising a form of non-conventional, diversified agriculture (i.e. with fewer chemical inputs and based on natural cycles of regeneration); and they bring dynamism to rural areas by generating employment and sustaining rural community life based on local food cultures and traditions.“ (ab)

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)

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