Articles Posted in the Food category

Green revolution needed to feed the world, says UN

February 19, 2009
Posted in Food

Changing the ways in which food is produced, handled and disposed of across the globe – from farm to store and from fridge to landfill – can both feed the world’s rising population and help the environment, a new United Nations Environment Programme study has found.

More than half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain, says the report entitled “The Environmental Food crises: Environment’s role in averting future food crises”. The report was released this week at a UNEP Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum meeting in Nairobi.

“There is evidence within the report that the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on this planet,” says Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary-general and UNEP executive director.

The UNEP report lists some sobering stats about food:

  • Food losses and waste in the United States are estimated to be as high as 50 percent. Up to a quarter of all fresh fruits and vegetables in the US is lost between the field and the table.
  • In Australia food waste makes up about half of landfill.
  • Almost a third of all food purchased in the United Kingdom every year is not eaten.
  • In Africa, the total amount of fish lost through discards, post-harvest loss and spoilage may be around 30 percent of landings.
  • In developing countries, food losses in the field between planting and harvesting could be as high as 40 percent of the potential harvest because of pests and pathogens.
  • A third of the world’s cereals are being used as animal feed and this will rise to 50 per cent by 2050.
  • An estimated 30 million tonnes of fish are discarded at sea annually.

The report shows that many of the factors blamed for the current food crisis – drought, biofuels, high oil prices, low grain stocks and especially speculation in food stocks may worsen substantially in the coming decades.

Add to that climate change and the fact that the world’s population is expected to grow to over 9-billion people by 2050, from about 6.7-billion at present, and trouble lies ahead.

“We need a Green revolution in a Green Economy but one with a capital G”, says Steiner.

“We need to deal with not only the way the world produces food but the way it is distributed, sold and consumed, and we need a revolution that can boost yields by working with rather than against nature.”

Simply ratcheting up the fertiliser and pesticide-led production methods of the 20th century is not the answer, says Steiner.

“It will increasingly undermine the critical natural inputs and nature-based services for agriculture such as healthy and productive soils, the water and nutrient recycling of forests, and pollinators such as bees and bats.”

The report says that increased use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides, increased water use and cutting down of forests will result in massive decline in biodiversity. Already, nearly 80 percent of all endangered species are threatened because of agricultural expansion, and Europe has lost more than 50 percent of its farmland birds during the past 25 years of intensification of European farmlands.

Organic agriculture is highlighted as holding promise. A 2008 UN study of small-scale African farms found that organic practices outperformed traditional methods and chemical-intensive conventional farming and also found strong environmental benefits such as improved soil fertility, better retention of water and resistance to drought, says the report.

Organic agriculture is predicted to continue to grow, despite the economic crisis, says UNEP. Sales of certified organic produce could reach close to $70 billion in 2012, up from $23 billion in 2002.

Some of the findings in the report are:

  • Food prices may increase by 30-50 percent within decades.
  • Continuing to feed cereals to growing numbers of livestock will aggravate poverty and environmental degradation.
  • The removal of agricultural subsidies and the promotion of second generation biofuels based on wastes rather than on primary crops could reduce pressure on fertile lands and critical ecosystems such as forests.
  • The amount of fish currently discarded at sea could sustain a 50 percent increase in fish farming and aquaculture production, which is needed to maintain per capita fish consumption at current levels by 2050 without increasing pressure on an already stressed marine environment.
  • Up to 25 percent of the world’s food production may become lost due to ‘environmental breakdowns’ by 2050 unless action is taken.
  • Water scarcity may reduce crop yields by up to 12 percent and climate change may accelerate insects, diseases and weeds, reducing yields by another 2-6 percent worldwide.
  • Continuing land degradation, particularly in Africa, may reduce yields by another 1-8 percent.
  • Croplands may be swallowed up by urban sprawl, biofuels, cotton and land degradation by 8-20 percent by 2050.
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa, population growth is projected to increase from the current 770-million to over 1.7-billion in less than 40 years, and climate change, land degradation, water scarcity and conflicts mean that unless a major economic, agricultural and investment boom takes place, the situation may become very serious indeed.

“The Environmental Food Crises” report offers seven major recommendations:

  1. To decrease the risk of highly volatile food prices, price regulation should be created to buffer the tight markets of food commodities and the subsequent risks of speculation in markets.
  2. Encourage the removal of subsidies for first-generation (food crop-based) biofuels and promote environmentally sustainable higher-generation biofuels (based on waste) that do not compete for cropland and water resources, but also do not compete with animal feed.
  3. Reallocate cereals and food fish used in animal feed and develop alternatives to use in animal feed by developing alternative feeds based on new technology, waste and discards.
  4. Support farmers in developing diversifed and resilient eco-agriculture systems.
  5. Increase trade and market access by improving infrastructure, reducing trade barriers, enhancing government subsidies and safety nets, and reducing armed conflict and corruption
  6. Limit global warming
  7. Raise awareness of the pressures of increasing population growth and consumption patterns on ecosystems

Source: UNEP

Image: by JBloom, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

News briefs: Biofuels and ivory

October 30, 2008
Posted in Green News

  • African governments need to prioritise the “new challenge” presented by biofuels as the continent’s arable land is increasingly being used to grow crops for biofuels instead of food, South Africa’s new president, Kgalema Motlanthe, reportedly told African leaders at the African Peer Review Forum in Benin over the weekend. [BuaNews] He said he did not oppose the production of biofuels. But in some cases the potential for cleaner energy was being put before considerations of widespread hunger and opportunities from other types of land use. He said biofuels projects should be located within broader land reform strategies that needed to be developed and driven by African governments and peoples themselves.
  • The Namibian government sold 7.2 tons of ivory for $1.2 million in Tuesday’s auction – an average price of $164 a kilo, according to Reuters. The price was apparently much lower than experts had predicted – predictions had ranged from $300 to $800 a kilo, the report said. Nonetheless, The Namibian reports that the Namibian government was pleased with the money generated. About 2 tonnes of the stockpiled ivory was not sold because it was of poor quality, say reports. The money will be put into the Namibian environment ministry’s Game Product Trust Fund, which funds conservation work, the Namibian says. The next ivory auction will be in Botswana tomorrow. And the debate continues over whether such auctions will help elephant conservation or lead to more poaching.

Organic farming could feed Africa, says UN report

October 23, 2008
Posted in Food, Green News

The potential of organic farming to meet Africa’s growing food needs may have been underestimated. Britain’s Independent reports that a new study by the UN Environment Programme, which it says was released yesterday, shows that organic farming methods have increased crop yields by up to 128 percent in East Africa and provided much-needed income boosts for small farmers.

The UN’s findings provide a counterargument to increasing calls for genetically modified crops and industrial agriculture on the continent in the face of the global food crisis. Organic farming is seen by many as a Western lifestyle choice rather than a practical solution to feed Africa’s many hungry mouths. [See UK government’s former chief scientist David King’s remarks on the subject in the Guardian]

Read the full report on the Independent

Another reason why shade-grown coffee is best

October 22, 2008
Posted in Lifestyle

Next time you buy a cup of coffee or coffe beans check if it’s shade grown. Coffee grown in this way is not only more environmentally friendly, it could also have long-term benefits for the millions of people in developing countries who rely on coffee for their livelihoods, say researchers.

Traditionally, coffee farmers in Latin America grew their plants under the shade of a diverse canopy of beans. But, in an effort to increase production, many have apparently abandoned these old methods in favour of “sun coffee”, which involves thinning or removing the canopy and using high-yield strains that grow best in direct sunlight.

Shade-grown farms boost biodiversity by providing a haven for birds and other animals and they require less synthetic fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides than sun-coffee plantations, say researchers from the University of Michigan. They also say that the canopy shields coffee plants during extreme weather events, such as droughts and severe storms, that are expected to become more frequent because of climate change.

“Shaded coffee is ideal because it will buffer the system from climate change while protecting biodiversity,” said Ivette Perfecto of the university’s school of natural resources and environment, who has studied biodiversity in Latin American coffee plantations for 20 years.

Shade trees help dampen the effects of drought and heat waves by maintaining a cool, moist microclimate beneath the canopy. They also act as windbreaks during storms and help reduce runoff and erosion, the researchers say.

“These two trends – increasing agricultural intensification and the trend towards more frequent extreme-weather events – will work in concert to increase farmer vulnerability,” said Brenda Lin, the lead author of the study, which was published in the October edition of the journal BioScience.

“We should take advantage of the services the ecosystems naturally provide, and use them to protect farmers’ livelihoods.”

Source: Science Daily

Manure could power America

August 13, 2008
Posted in Renewable energy

Cow poo is not to be sniffed at. It could be used to generate enough electricity to meet up to 3 percent of North America’s entire consumption needs, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to new research. Read more

Organic milk is healthier, study finds

May 28, 2008
Posted in Food, Lifestyle

Need a good reason to convince you to buy organic milk? It’s just plain healthier, according a study by Newcastle University.

Cows on organic farms that are allowed to graze as nature intended are producing better quality milk that contains significantly higher beneficial fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins than their conventional “high input” counterparts, says the university in a press release. During the summer months, when the cows are grazing on fresh grass in the fields one of the beneficial fats in particular – conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA9 – was found to be 60% higher.

“We have known for some time that what cows are fed has a big influence on milk quality,” said Gillian Butler of the Nafferton Ecological Farming Group at Newcastle University, who led the study in the release.

“What is different about this research is it clearly shows that on organic farms, letting cows graze naturally, using forage-based diet, is the most important reason for the differences in the composition between organic and conventional milk. Read more

Nitrogen fertilisers cause biodiversity loss – study

March 1, 2008
Posted in Conservation

wheat field © iStockphoto.comNitrogen-rich fertilisers have been shown to reduce biodiversity even in areas where they are applied in low amounts, the US National Academies reports. A recent study, published in Nature, looked at the biodiversity of agricultural plots subjected to slow fertilisation with nitrogen and others that were left alone as a control over a 20 year period. The fertilised plots showed a 17 percent drop in plant species compared to the control plots. The plots where nitrogen fertilisation was stopped in the middle of the study showed significant signs of recovery, though. This suggests that much of the damage can be undone.

An ecological consequence of excess nitrogen in the Mississippi River, from soil erosion and runoff from agricultural, is the creation of a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico – an oxygen-depleted area where most forms of marine life cannot survive. The dead zone is caused by a seasonal surge in the growth of algae, stimulated by nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the gulf from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers. The algae sinks and decays in the bottom waters. The decaying algae consume oxygen faster than it can be replenished from the surface and this reduces the amount of oxygen in the water, writes the NOAA. In 2006, the dead zone measured 6,600 square miles.

Source: The National Academies