News

14.03.2019 |

Environmental threats put human health in peril, UN warns

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We need to protect our planet (Photo: CC0)

Unsustainable human activities have degraded the Earth’s ecosystems, endangering the ecological foundations of society. Environmental damage to our planet is so dire that human health will be increasingly threatened unless urgent action is taken. This is the grim warning of the Global Environment Outlook 6, a landmark UN report released on March 13 as environmental ministers from around the world are gathering in Nairobi. The report, which was compiled by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries in a five-year process, says that an unhealthy planet leads to unhealthy people. And the planet is suffering. The climate is warming, species are going extinct, natural resources are being wasted, and many ecosystems are under enormous stress. “Providing a decent life and well-being for nearly 10 billion people by 2050, without further compromising the ecological limits of our planet and its benefits, is one of the most serious challenges and responsibilities humanity has ever faced,” the authors stress. The good news is that we can get there, but only if we prioritize the health of our planet. The scientists recommend we should focus on fundamentally changing three essential systems: food, energy and waste.

The 745-page report gives a detailed overview of current environmental threats and the impact for human health. Air pollution is a major contributor to the global burden of disease, leading to between 6 million and 7 million premature deaths annually. The report also warns that genetic diversity is declining, threatening food security and the resilience of ecosystems, including agricultural systems and food security. “The critical pressures on biodiversity are habitat change, loss and degradation; unsustainable agricultural practices; the spread of invasive species; pollution and overexploitation, including illegal logging and trade in wildlife,” the authors write. Our oceans and coast are also in a bad state: marine ecosystem degradation and loss, including death of coral reefs, and marine litter, including plastics and microplastics, are just some of the issues. Moreover, land degradation and desertification have increased and unsustainable farming systems have caused environmental and soil degradation. Pressure on water resources is also growing. Pollutants in our freshwater systems will see anti-microbial resistance become a major cause of death by 2050 and endocrine disruptors impact male and female fertility, as well as child neurodevelopment, the report warns.

At present, the world is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and internationally agreed environmental goals. Urgent action is now needed to reverse those trends. The food system is one of the three essential systems that require a transformation. The report says a huge amount of progress can be made by focusing on just three measures. First, we need to give farmers strong incentives to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and use their land as efficiently as they can. Second, we need to stop the loss and waste of food across the value chain. At the moment, about one-third of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted. Just over half (56%) of all food waste is generated in high-income countries, while 44% comes from poorer countries, where the causes of food waste vary greatly. Third, we need to encourage and empower people to adopt more sustainable and healthier diets. In many cases, that means eating less meat. Meat production uses 77% of agricultural land worldwide and industrial meat production and livestock operations are significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing red meat intake in countries with high consumption, especially of processed meat, would also improve human health. The scientists say that adopting these three measures would reduce the need to increase food production by 50% in order to feed 10 billion people in 2050.

The report highlights the fact that the world has the science, technology and finance it needs to move towards a more sustainable development pathway. “What is currently lacking is the political will to implement policies and technologies at a sufficient speed and scale,” said Joyeeta Gupta and Paul Ekins, co-chairs of the process. Policy interventions that address entire systems – such as energy, food, and waste – rather than individual issues, such as water pollution, can be much more effective, according to the authors. “The science is clear. The health and prosperity of humanity is directly tied with the state of our environment,” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “This report is an outlook for humanity. We are at a crossroads. Do we continue on our current path, which will lead to a bleak future for humankind, or do we pivot to a more sustainable development pathway? That is the choice our political leaders must make, now.” (ab)

05.03.2019 |

From nitrogen pollution to gene drives: UN highlights five key emerging issues

Nitrogen
Nitrogen pollution is a key threat (Photo: CC0)

Urgent action from nations around the world is required to tackle emerging environmental challenges that will have profound effects on our society, economy and ecosystems, the United Nations Environment Programme has warned. According to the Frontiers 2018/19 report, the five key issues are the latest developments in synthetic biology, landscape connectivity; thawing permafrost peatlands, nitrogen pollution and maladaptation to climate change. “In the first decade of the 20th century, two German chemists – Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch – developed a way to produce synthetic nitrogen cheaply and on a large scale. Their invention spurred the mass production of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and thus transformed farming around the globe,” Joyce Musya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment wrote in the foreword to the report. But this also marked the beginning of our long-term interference with the Earth’s nitrogen balance. “Every year, an estimated US$200 billion worth of reactive nitrogen is now lost into the environment, where it degrades our soils, pollutes our air and triggers the spread of “dead zones” and toxic algal blooms in our waterways,” she added. “The issues examined in Frontiers should serve as a reminder that, whenever we interfere with nature – whether at the global scale or the molecular level – we risk creating long-lasting impacts on our planetary home.”

The first chapter covers the opportunities and challenges that synthetic biology holds for society. “Gene-editing techniques are advancing rapidly, bringing the promise of many biological and ecological benefits, from eradicating human diseases to preventing species extinction. CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest, quickest tool in the genetic editing tool box, allowing extraordinary precision in the manipulation of genomes,” the authors write. However, “this ability to create synthetic life and alter existing DNA carries with it the risk of cross contamination and unintended consequences,” they warn. “CRISPR-based gene drives (…) require multifaceted societal debate because of their power to modify, suppress or replace the entire population of the target species.” The authors stress that the release of only a few gene-drive-bearing organisms into the environment can transform an entire species population and potentially the whole ecosystem. “The intentional or accidental release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment could have significant negative impacts on both human and environmental health. Misuse of these technologies and a failure to account for unintended consequences could pose significant geopolitical threats.” The authors point to the rise of DIY biohackers and garage labs, recognizing that regulating the use of easily accessible and low-cost technologies like CRISPR and gene editing kits will be a challenge for authorities. There is also concern that the technology could be misused by terrorists to destroy agricultural crops or turn harmless microbes into biological weapons.

The second key issue is ecological connectivity – the linking and bridging of fragmented habitats into a connected landscape to prevent species extinctions. Large-scale industrialization has caused widespread fragmentation of previously intact landscapes around the globe, causing a spiralling decline of some species as they can no longer disperse to find food or mates. There are promising initiatives to promote landscape connectivity across the globe, but much more focus in planning to reconnect habitat patches or preserve existing connectivity is needed. Another environmental threat is the thawing of permafrost peatlands – the ground in the northern hemisphere that remains permanently frozen and holds approximately half of the world’s soil organic carbon. With rising global temperatures, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average and scientists are becoming increasingly alarmed at the accelerating rate of permafrost thaw. Permafrost thaw could set in motion an uncontrollable snowball effect, as carbon is released from the thawing peat and heats the atmosphere, thus worsening climate change ad infinitum.

Nitrogen pollution – the disturbance of ecosystems, human health and economies by massively altering of the global nitrogen cycle through human activity – is another major threat. Nitrogen is largely benign in its unreactive forms. In the form of nitrous oxide, however, it is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, in addition to the effects of various nitrogen compounds on air quality and the ozone layer. “Altogether, humans are producing a cocktail of reactive nitrogen that threatens health, climate and ecosystems, making nitrogen one of the most important pollution issues facing humanity,” the report warns. “Yet the scale of the problem remains largely unknown and unacknowledged outside scientific circles.” A cohesive global approach to nitrogen management is needed in order to transform the nitrogen cycle into a sustainable, non-polluting, profitable circular economy. Chapter five focuses on the various ways in which adaptation to climate change can go wrong, from processes that do not work to adaptive actions that damage resources, compound the problem faced by vulnerable populations, or pass on responsibility for solutions to future generations. But Joyce Musya remains optimistic: “By acting with foresight and by working together, we can stay ahead of these issues and craft solutions that will serve us all, for generations to come.” (ab)

27.02.2019 |

UN: Future of food ‘under severe threat’ from biodiversity loss

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More diversity on farms and plates (A. Beck)

The plants, animals, and micro-organisms that are the foundation of food production are in decline, putting the future of our food, livelihoods, health and environment under severe threat. This dire warning has been issued by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a report released on February 22. It is the first global assessment of biodiversity for food and agriculture, i.e. all the species that support our food systems and sustain the people who grow or provide our food. The report draws on information provided by 91 countries, 27 reports from international organizations and inputs from over 175 authors. But not only the plants and animals that provide food, feed, fuel and fiber are in decline. Biodiversity loss also affects the myriad of organisms that support farming through ecosystem services, dubbed “associated biodiversity” by the authors. This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) which keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.

The report presents mounting evidence that plant diversity in farmers’ fields is decreasing. Globally, there are approximately 382,000 species of vascular plants, out of which a little over 6,000 have been cultivated for food. Of these, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine crops (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava) account for 66% of total crop production by weight. The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. According to the report, 7,745 out of 8,803 reported livestock breeds are classed as local, i.e. they occur in only one country. 594 of these breeds are extinct. Among those local breeds still in existence, 26% are classed as being at risk of extinction and 67% as being of unknown risk status.

The contributing countries reported that wild food species and many species that provide ecosystem services, including pollinators, soil organisms and natural enemies of pests, are rapidly disappearing. 24% of nearly 4,000 wild food species – mainly plants, fish and mammals – are decreasing in abundance. But the proportion of wild foods in decline is likely to be even greater as the state of more than half of the reported wild food species is unknown. The largest number of wild food species in decline appear in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Asia-Pacific and Africa. This has a negative impact on local communities. The Gambia, for example, mentions that massive losses of wild foods have obliged communities to turn to alternatives (often industrially produced foods) to supplement their diets. In Cameroon, communities lost income from the sale of wild food products, as well as valuable nutritional benefits. As a result, migration increased among these populations as they can no longer make a livelihood from the wild food products.

“Biodiversity is critical for safeguarding global food security, underpinning healthy and nutritious diets, improving rural livelihoods, and enhancing the resilience of people and communities,” stressed FAO’s Director-General José Graziano da Silva. “Less biodiversity means that plants and animals are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. Compounded by our reliance on fewer and fewer species to feed ourselves, the increasing loss of biodiversity for food and agriculture puts food security and nutrition at risk,” he added. The driver of biodiversity loss cited by most countries is changes in land and water use and management, followed by pollution, overexploitation and overharvesting, climate change, and population growth and urbanization. “In many parts of the world, biodiverse agricultural landscapes in which cultivated land is interspersed with uncultivated areas such as woodlands, pastures and wetlands have been, or are being, replaced by large areas of monoculture, farmed using large quantities of external inputs such as pesticides, mineral fertilizers and fossil fuels,” says the report. “Loss and degradation of forest and aquatic ecosystems and, in many production systems, transition to intensive production of a reduced number of species, breeds and varieties, remain major drivers.”

The good news is that many biodiversity-friendly management practices and approaches are attracting growing interest and in many cases are becoming more widely adopted. The practices applied in the reporting countries include organic agriculture, integrated pest management, sustainable soil management, agroecology, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, diversification practices in aquaculture, ecosystem approach to fisheries and ecosystem restoration. In California, for example, farmers allow their rice fields to flood in winter instead of burning them after growing season. This provides 111,000 hectares of wetlands and open space for 230 bird species, many at risk of extinction. As a result, many species have begun to increase in numbers, and the number of ducks has doubled. Conservation efforts, both on-site (e.g. protected areas, on farm management) and off-site (e.g. gene banks, zoos, botanic gardens) are also increasing globally.

While the rise in biodiversity-friendly practices is encouraging, FAO highlights that more needs to be done to stop the loss of biodiversity. Although most countries have put in place legal, policy and institutional frameworks for the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity, these are often inadequate or insufficient. The report calls on governments and the international community to do more to promote pro-biodiversity initiatives and create incentives. “Key tasks include addressing the drivers of biodiversity loss within the food and agriculture sector and beyond, strengthening in situ and ex situ conservation measures, and increasing the uptake of management practices that promote the contributions of biodiversity to sustainable production,” said Graziano da Silva. But the report also highlights the role the general public can play in reducing pressures on biodiversity for food and agriculture. Consumers can opt for sustainably grown products (e.g. organic farming, fair trade, welfare-friendly animal products, sustainable forestry or fishing practices), opt for shorter supply chains by buying from farmers’ markets, or boycott foods seen as unsustainable. (ab)

22.02.2019 |

Global crop diversity in decline as just four crops dominate, study

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Soybeans - one of the Big Four (Photo: CC0)

Crop diversity around the world is declining, presenting a challenge for both the environment and food security. This is the result of new study from the University of Toronto Scarborough, published in the journal PLOS ONE on February 6. “What we found is that a very small number of crops, in particular wheat, rice, soybean and corn, are starting to dominate agricultural lands globally and within all different regions of the world,” said lead author Adam Martin, who is an ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences. The research team looked at what types of crops are being grown on large-scale industrial farms worldwide and examined how this has changed over the past 50 years. They used crop production data on the area harvested from the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) from 1961–2014, which is reported for 161 plant-based commodity groups.

At a global scale, the researchers found little change in crop diversity from 1961 through to the late 1970s. In the 1980s, there was a massive increase in global crop diversity as different types of crops were being grown in new places on an industrial scale for the first time. This period was then followed by a “levelling-off” of crop diversification beginning in the early 1990s. Crop diversity has increased on a regional scale since the early 1960s. In North America for example, 93 different crops are now grown compared to 80 back in the 1960s. The problem, Martin says, is that on a global scale more of the same kinds of crops is being grown on much larger scales. Currently, just four crops – soybeans, wheat, rice and corn – are grown on almost half the world’s agricultural lands, while the remaining 152 crops cover the rest. “Ironically, the world is growing a more diverse array of crops than ever before, but at the same time, this very small number of commercially important crops are becoming much more dominant in all different regions of the world. So big farms in Asia or Africa or the Americas are actually starting to look much more similar to one another,” Martin explained.

The lack of genetic diversity within individual crops is also pretty obvious, said Martin. For example, in North America, six individual genotypes comprise about 50% of all corn crops planted. “So large industrial farms are often growing one crop species, which are usually just a single genotype, across thousands of hectares of land.” According to the study, the decline in global crop diversity presents a challenge for a number of reasons. First, it affects regional food sovereignty. “If regional crop diversity is threatened, it really cuts into people’s ability to eat or afford food that is culturally significant to them,” says Martin. But there is also an ecological issue if there’s increasing dominance by a few genetic lineages of crops, because the global agricultural system becomes increasingly susceptible to pests or diseases. This could affects yields. “Think potato famine, but on a global scale,” Martin said. He also pointed to a deadly fungus that continues to devastate banana plantations around the world. The researchers highlight that there’s a policy angle to consider, since government decisions that favor growing certain kinds of crops may contribute to a lack of diversity. It will be important to look at what governments are doing to promote more different types of crops being grown or whether, at a policy-level, they are favoring farms to grow certain types of cash crops.

The authors stress that their analyses can play an important role in setting and measuring global priorities for agricultural sustainability and diversity. They remind that crop diversity also plays an important role in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015. Target 2.5 of SDG 2 calls for the conservation of a “...genetic diversity of seeds, (and) cultivated plants…”, while Target 2.4 calls for “…resilient agricultural practices…” that confer a multitude of ecosystem services beyond yield alone. According to the study, “diversified agroecosystems that incorporate multiple crop species are key in meeting this target”. However, the authors criticize that political support for such systems remain limited. “Our analyses suggests that at regional scales, diversified polyculture assemblages would also be critical in addressing both the trend towards, and consequences of, increasing homogenization in agricultural systems globally.” (ab)

20.02.2019 |

Experts present new vision for sustainable food systems in Europe

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A new food policy is required (Photo: CC0)

A group of leading food experts have mapped out a new vision for reforming European food systems in a report launched on February 7th. EU food and farming systems require a fundamental change of direction in order to address climate change, halt biodiversity loss, curb obesity, and make farming viable for the next generation, says the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). Their report is the result of a three-year process of participatory research, drawing on the collective intelligence of more than 400 farmers, food entrepreneurs, civil society activists, scientists and policymakers, as well as on the findings of major multi-stakeholder scientific assessments and the latest advice of the EU’s scientific bodies. The expert panel proposes a “Common Food Policy”, a policy framework setting a direction for the whole food system, realigning the various sectoral policies that affect food production, processing, distribution, and consumption, and refocusing all actions on the transition to sustainability. “A Common Food Policy can spark a wholesale transition to sustainable food systems in a way that the CAP, as a Common Agricultural Policy, cannot,” said IPES-Food co-chair and lead author Olivier De Schutter.

The panel argues that a Common Food Policy is needed to put an end to conflicting objectives and costly inefficiencies of existing policies. The report points out that policies affecting food systems in Europe – agriculture, trade, food safety, environment, development, research, education, fiscal and social policies, market regulation, competition, and many others – have developed in an ad hoc fashion over many years. “As a result, we have anti-obesity strategies, alongside agri-trade policies that make junk food cheap and abundant. We offer premiums to young farmers, alongside a subsidy model that drives up land prices and undermines access to land. And we have strict environmental standards, while the advisory services farmers would need to meet them are being defunded,” explained De Schutter. “A Common Food Policy can put an end to these costly contradictions by tackling the root of the problem: the way we make policies and set priorities in food systems,” he added. But a reform is also needed to harness social innovation and grassroots experimentation which is emerging rapidly at the local level, from community-supported agriculture schemes and farmers’ markets to the creation of local food policy councils and urban food policies. The authors write that these initiatives are often highly sustainable, reducing environmental impacts, and reconnect actors, such as producers and consumers. However, EU and national policies are ill-equipped to encourage this type of experimentation and those initiatives are often not eligible for CAP funding.

The report puts forward 80 short-, medium- and long-term reform proposals grouped around five objectives: (1) ensuring access to land, water, and healthy soils; (2) rebuilding climate-resilient, healthy agro-ecosystems; (3) promoting sufficient, healthy and sustainable diets for all; (4) building fairer, shorter and cleaner supply chains; and (5) putting trade in the service of sustainable development. “Farmers cannot simply be expected to shift to a new production model. We must take steps in parallel to guarantee access to land, to rebuild regional processing facilities, to facilitate access to markets, and to spark changes in consumption habits,” said De Schutter. IPES-Food calls for the creation of a European Commission Vice-President for Sustainable Food Systems and a Food Intergroup in the EU Parliament to oversee and harmonize sectoral policies. In addition, the experts want the EU to reform public procurement and value added tax rules, and restrict junk food marketing, in order to shift the incentives in favor of healthy and sustainable diets. Furthermore, EU member states should be obliged to develop Healthy Diet Plans (covering public procurement, urban planning, fiscal and social policies, marketing, and nutrition education) as a condition for getting CAP payments.

According to the experts, EU policies must be urgently reoriented towards low-input, diversified agroecological systems. Proposals include introducing an EU-wide ‘agroecology premium’ as a new rationale for CAP payments, incentivizing nitrogen-fixing legumes, pastures and agroforestry, putting independent farm advisory services in place, promoting farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing, and ultimately phasing out the routine use of chemical inputs. Moreover, food importers should be made accountable for ensuring their supply chains are free from deforestation, land grabbing and rights violations. Increasing support is needed for initiatives linking farmers and consumers (‘short supply chains’), relocalized processing and value-adding activities, local food policy councils, and urban food policies. “Ultimately, this report is a call to action,” concluded De Schutter, calling on the European institutions to take on the challenge of working with all food system actors to complete, adopt, and implement a food policy for Europe. “The Common Food Policy offers a Plan B for Europe: it is about reclaiming public policy for the public good, and rebuilding trust in the European project.” (ab)

14.02.2019 |

69.8 million hectares farmed organically worldwide in 2017

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Organic market fruits and vegetables (Photo: CC BY-NC 2.0, bit.ly/CCBYNC20, bit.ly/SalFal)

Organic farming is on the rise across the globe. A total of 69.8 million hectares were farmed organically at the end of 2017, representing a growth of almost 11.7 million hectares or 20% compared to the previous year. These are the latest figures of the report “The World of Organic Agriculture” published by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) and IFOAM – Organics International. The study collects data on 181 countries with organic farming activities. Australia has the largest area farmed organically with 35.6 million hectares, followed by Argentina with 3.4 million hectares and China with 3 million hectares. Due to the large organic area in Australia, almost half of the global organic agricultural land is in Oceania (35.9 million hectares), followed by Europe with 21% and Latin America with 11.5%. Currently, only 1.4% of the world’s agricultural land is organic, but many countries have far higher shares. The three countries with the largest shares are Liechtenstein (37.9%), Samoa (37.6%) and Austria (24%). In Estonia, 20.5% of the farmland is organic and in Sweden and São Tomé and Príncipe, the figures are 18.8% and 18% respectively. In fourteen countries, 10% or more of all agricultural land was under organic management in 2017.

According to the report, there were 2.9 million organic farmers in 2017. Around 40% of the world’s organic producers live in Asia, followed by Africa (28%) and Latin America (16%). As in previous years, the country with most organic producers was India (835,200), followed by Uganda (210,352) and Mexico (210,000). Consumer demand for organic products is also increasing across the globe. Global retail sales of organic food and drink reached 97 billion US dollars in 2017, up from 89.7 billion US dollars in 2016. The countries with the largest organic markets were the United States with 40 billion euros, followed by Germany (10 billion euros), France (7.9 billion euros) and China (7.6 billion euros). The top buyers of organic food worldwide live in Switzerland. Swiss consumers spent 288 euros per person on organic products in 2017, while consumers in Denmark spent 278 euros and people in Sweden 237 euros. Looking at the shares the organic market has of the total market, the winner is Denmark with a share of 13.3%, ahead of Sweden with 9.1% and Switzerland with 9.0%.

“This publication shows our ongoing engagement with transparency in the organic sector,” FiBL director Prof Urs Niggli and IFOAM Executive Director Louise Luttikholt write in the foreword to the report. They stress that it also demonstrates the contribution of organic agriculture to the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. “Given that organic agriculture touches on almost all of the goals, this book not only shows the land area, number of producers and market figures; it also highlights the contribution of organic agriculture to tackling climate change, ensuring food and nutrition security, halting biodiversity loss, and promoting sustainable consumption,” they conclude. (ab)

11.02.2019 |

Massive decline in insects could lead to catastrophic collapse of nature

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Butterflies are in decline (Photo: CC0)

More than 40% of insect species could become extinct over the next few decades, leading to a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, a new study has warned. According to the first global scientific review, published in the journal Biological Conservation, insects could even vanish within a century at the current rate of decline. The authors made a review of 73 historical reports of insect declines from across the world and systematically assessed the reasons behind the decline. They found that insect decline is not just a local phenomenon; the biodiversity of insects is threatened worldwide. “Our work reveals dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades,” they wrote in the abstract of the study. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. Insect biomass is declining by a staggering 2.5% a year, the review found. The 2.5% rate of annual loss over the last 25-30 years is “shocking”, one of the authors, Francisco Sánchez-Bayo from the University of Sydney, told the Guardian. “It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.”

In terrestrial ecosystems, the taxa most affected were butterflies, Hymenoptera (the order comprising insects with membranous wings such as the wasps, bees, and ants) and dung beetles (Coleoptera). In addition, four major aquatic taxa (Odonata, Plecoptera, Trichoptera and Ephemeroptera) have already lost a large proportion of species. The authors write that affected insect groups not only include specialists that occupy particular ecological niches, but also many common and generalist species. But there is also a small number of species whose abundance is increasing. “These are all adaptable, generalist species that are occupying the vacant niches left by the ones declining. Among aquatic insects, habitat and dietary generalists, and pollutant-tolerant species are replacing the large biodiversity losses experienced in waters within agricultural and urban settings,” the abstract reads.

The study warns that habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization is the main driver of the declines. They blame pollution, mainly that by synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. “Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” the authors were cited by the Guardian. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.” Additional causes are biological factors, including pathogens and introduced species, as well as climate change. Climate change is particularly important in tropical regions, but only affects a minority of species in colder climes and mountain settings of temperate zones.

“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” Sánchez-Bayo told the Guardian. The decline in insect populations will especially affect the birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish that eat insects. “If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death,” he added. In order to stop the decline, decisive action is needed. According to the authors, “a rethinking of current agricultural practices, in particular a serious reduction in pesticide usage and its substitution with more sustainable, ecologically-based practices, is urgently needed to slow or reverse current trends, allow the recovery of declining insect populations and safeguard the vital ecosystem services they provide.” In addition, effective remediation technologies should be applied to clean polluted waters in both agricultural and urban environments.” (ab)

04.02.2019 |

Radical rethink needed to tackle obesity and climate change, report

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Obesity is increasing worldwide (Photo: CC0)

Public health experts have called for a radical rethink of business models and food systems in order to tackle obesity, undernutrition and climate change. Governments must limit the political influence of powerful food and beverage corporations and prioritise the public good over commercial interests, according to a new report published by The Lancet Commission on Obesity in January. The report, which is the result of a three-year project led by 26 experts from 14 countries, says that three pandemics – obesity, undernutrition, and climate change – represent “The Global Syndemic”, with rising rates of obesity and greenhouse gas emissions, and stagnating rates of undernutrition. This syndemic “represents the paramount health challenge for humans, the environment, and our planet in the 21st century”. The authors argue that maligned economic incentives, lack of political leadership, and insufficient societal demand for change are preventing action. “At the moment economic incentives are driving us to over-produce and over-consume, leading to obesity and climate change,” said one of the Commissioners, Professor Corinna Hawkes from University of London. “At the same time many millions still do not have enough nutritious food, leading to undernutrition. It’s a warped system with an outdated economic model at its core,” she added.

The Commission identifies food and agriculture, transportation, urban design, and land use as the underlying drivers of “The Global Syndemic”. “Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories,” said Commission co-chair Prof Boyd Swinburn of the University of Auckland. “In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth, and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes.” The authors write that food systems, for all their past successes in feeding human populations and improving their health and life expectancy, are now becoming more industrialised, globalised, and dominated by large actors capable of economies of scale and of maintaining long supply chains. Agricultural systems tend to favour energy-rich staple food production, without sufficient attention to nutrient-rich foods. Furthermore, ultra-processed foods are a key driver of the global obesity pandemic; nearly 2 billion people are overweight or obese. The food system is also driving severe environmental damage, contributing up to 29% of anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions and causing rapid deforestation, soil degradation, and massive biodiversity loss. The authors stress that a fundamental reorientation of food systems is required – “superficial repairs at the edges will not deliver the global outcomes needed for the 21st century.”

The Commission developed nine recommendations and more than 20 actions to tackle “The Global Syndemic”. They call for national and international governance levers to fully implement policy actions which have been agreed upon through international guidelines, resolutions and treaties. The authors propose a legally binding Framework Convention on Food Systems, similar to the UN conventions on tobacco and climate change, to support countries in drawing up sustainable and healthy food policies. Municipal governance and civil society engagement should also be strengthened to create pressure for policy action at all levels. The report also recommends to reduce the influence of large commercial interests in the public policy development process so that governments can implement policies in the public interest that benefit human health, the environment, and the planet. Governments should adopt and institutionalise clear, transparent, and robust guidelines on conflicts of interest. “Vested interests constitute a major source of policy inertia that prevents change to the existing systems. For example, national food producers and transnational ultra-processed food and beverage manufacturers often exert a disproportionate influence on legislators and the policy making process,” the report says.

Governments should also create sustainable and health-promoting business models to shift business outcomes away from a short-term profit-only focus. “To achieve this goal, first, national governments should eliminate or redirect subsidies away from products that contribute to The Global Syndemic towards production and consumption practices that are sustainable for human health, the environment and the planet.” Reducing subsidies to oil companies and large monocultural agricultural firms would allow subsidies to be directed towards innovations in clean energy and transportation and healthy, local food systems. In addition, economic systems need to be created that include the costs of ill-health, environmental degradation, and greenhouse-gas emissions in the costs of products.

Governments should also ensure information is readily available to consumers on the environmental footprints and health impacts of products. “People must be aware about the pros and cons of what they eat, and be encouraged to eat healthy food. Yet consumers often do not even know what they are consuming because labels do not provide understandable information,” writes José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, in a comment. “Consumers must be empowered to make informed healthy dietary choices.” The authors expect that full disclosure would create a demand-driven pressure for businesses to shift to healthier and sustainable practices and products. “We need far-sighted policy makers and private sector leaders to drive forward actions that produce benefits for obesity, undernutrition, economy and sustainability,” says Prof Hawkes. (ab)

28.01.2019 |

Scientists call for a shift to healthy diets from sustainable food systems

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The planetary health diet is mainly plant-based (Photo: CC0)

Feeding a growing population of 10 billion by 2050 with a healthy and sustainable diet is possible but we need to change dietary patterns, improve food production and reduce food waste. This is the message of a major new report published by the EAT Lancet commission in mid-January. It was written by 37 scientists from 16 countries with expertise in various fields including health, nutrition, environmental sustainability, food systems and political governance. “Food systems have the potential to nurture human health and support environmental sustainability; however, they are currently threatening both,” the authors warn. Current diets are one of today’s greatest causes for ill-health worldwide. They are not only increasing the burden of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases, but are also damaging the planet. “Global food production threatens climate stability and ecosystem resilience. It constitutes the single largest driver of environmental degradation and transgression of planetary boundaries,” said Prof Johan Rockström, co-chair of the commission and one of the lead authors. “A radical transformation of the global food system is urgently needed. Without action, the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.”

The authors argue that the lack of scientific targets for a healthy diet have hindered efforts to transform the food system. Therefore, they developed detailed science-based targets for both healthy diets and sustainable food production. The “planetary health diet” requires global consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar to decrease by about 50%, while the intake of nuts, fruits, vegetables, and legumes must double. “To be healthy, diets must have an appropriate calorie intake and consist of a variety of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal-based foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and few refined grains, highly processed foods, and added sugars,” says co-chair Dr Walter Willett from Harvard University, USA. The planetary health diet allows 2,500 kilocalories per day and consists of about 35% of calories as whole grains and tubers, protein sources mainly from plants. It includes only 14g of red meat per day but 500g per day of vegetables and fruits. “The food group intake ranges that we suggest allow flexibility to accommodate various food types, agricultural systems, cultural traditions, and individual dietary preferences – including numerous omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan diets.” The authors found that the global adoption of the reference dietary pattern would improve the intakes of most nutrients and could avert between 10.9-11.6 million premature deaths per year.

A shift towards the planetary health diet would also achieve the second target of sustainable food production, making sure that the global food system exists within planetary boundaries. “Five key environmental processes regulate the state of the planet,” explains Rockström. “Our definition of sustainable food production requires that we use no additional land, safeguard existing biodiversity, reduce consumptive water use and manage water responsibly, substantially reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, produce zero carbon dioxide emissions, and cause no further increase in methane and nitrous oxide emissions.” The authors stress the need to decarbonise the food value chain from production to consumption by 2050 and to maintain greenhouse-gas emissions at or less than 5 Gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year for methane and nitrous oxide associated with food production. “There is no silver bullet for combatting harmful food production practices, but by defining and quantifying a safe operating space for food systems, diets can be identified that will nurture human health and support environmental sustainability,” Professor Rockström added.

The Commission proposes five strategies to adjust what people eat and how it is produced. First, policies to encourage people to choose healthy diets are needed. Alongside advertising restrictions and education campaigns, affordability is also crucial, and food prices must reflect production and environmental costs. As this may increase costs to consumers, social protection for vulnerable groups may be required. Second, agriculture needs to be refocused from producing high volumes of a few crops, most of which are used for animal production, to producing a diverse range of nutritious foods from biodiversity-enhancing food production systems. Third, the authors say we need to sustainably intensify agriculture by reducing yield gaps on cropland, improving the efficiency of fertiliser and water use, recycling phosphorus, implementing climate mitigation options and enhancing biodiversity within agricultural systems. They also call for an effective governance of land and ocean use, for example through protecting intact natural areas on land, prohibiting land clearing and restoring degraded land. Finally, food waste must be at least halved. “Designing and operationalising sustainable food systems that can deliver healthy diets for a growing and wealthier world population presents a formidable challenge,” said Rockström. This requires nothing less than a new global agricultural revolution. (ab)

22.01.2019 |

‘We are fed up!’: 35,000 march in Berlin for sustainable farming

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35,000 took to Berlin’s streets (Photo: Nick Jaussi/www.wir-haben-es-satt.de)

Thousands took to the streets of Berlin last Saturday, 19 January, to demand a new food and farming policy that benefits small farmers and protects the environment. Farmers, consumers, conservationists, beekeepers and food activists joined the march which was led by 171 tractors and ended in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Equipped with colourful posters and creative costumes, some 35,000 people walked under this year’s motto “Axe EU funds for agro-industries!”. Many dressed up as cows or pigs, others buzzed across the city as butterflies. Protesters lay down in the street, reenacting the dying of bees and insects due to the use of pesticides. A giant dead bee, upside down, was floating in the air, carrying the slogan “Agroindustry kills”, while a ladybird pleaded “Keep me alive. Agricultural reform now!”. Farmers from all parts of Germany had travelled for many hours by tractor in order to take part. The event was organised by a broad alliance of more than 100 farmers’, environmental, animal welfare and development organisations, known as “Wir haben es satt!” (we are fed up). 2019 marks the ninth year in a row that protesters gather in Berlin during the International Green Week – Europe’s biggest agricultural fair that currently takes places in the capital.

The protesters called on the German government to change course in agricultural policy. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is currently being reformed, meaning that the German government will have the chance to decide what type of farming will be fund with taxpayers’ money. The alliance argues that public subsidies should only be used to support sustainable and climate-friendly agriculture, animal welfare and small-scale family farms and farming communities that produce good food for all. “With over €6 billion that Germany distributes every year as EU farming subsidies, environmental and animal-appropriate transformation of agriculture must be promoted,” said Saskia Richartz, a spokesperson for the alliance. In Germany, €6.3 billion of EU agricultural funds are distributed to farms every year, more than three-quarters of which are per-hectare subsidies. This favours large, industrial farms. The 3,300 largest businesses receive €1 billion in subsidies a year, while the smallest 200,000 farms have to share about €700 million. “European agricultural policy must be changed: only those who respect animal welfare and protect our environment should receive EU money,” said Hubert Weiger, Chair of BUND/Friends of the Earth Germany. “We need a strong Europe, but it needs to become more environmentally just and sustainable, and socially fair.” (ab)

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