Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

Feb26

Agricultural Population Growth Marginal as Nonagricultural Population Soars

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The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)

Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.

It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.

Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.

In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.

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Dec10

5 Strategies the United Nations Special Rapporteur Suggests for Public Health

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By Alison Blackmore

With 1.3 billion people now overweight or obese, nearly 1 billion undernourished, and even more suffering from critical micronutrient deficiencies, it is no secret that our food system is broken. Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report in 2011 urging governments to move away from the practice of merely prescribing health warnings and applying band-aids to public health challenges. Instead, he urged governments to address the root causes of the international health crisis.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food urges governments to address the root causes of the international health crisis. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Today, Nourishing the Planet looks at the five actions that Mr. De Schutter suggests that governments take to protect the human right to adequate food around the world.

Taxing unhealthy products. De Schutter reported that taxing unhealthy products can be an effective strategy to encourage healthy diets, since price is an important determinant in consumption levels. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2007 showed that a 10 percent tax on soft drinks could lead to an 8–10 percent reduction in purchases. Because foods high in fat, salt, and sugar are cheap while nutritious diets can be expensive, many consumers gravitate toward unhealthy food choices out of financial necessity. To ensure a more equal food system, the report advises governments to direct the tax revenues raised from foods high in fat, salt, and sugar toward making healthy food more affordable and accessible to poor communities.

Example: Despite strong opposition from retailers city-wide, in May 2010 the Washington, D.C. Council added sweetened soda to those items subject to the 6 percent sales tax. The city intended to use the tax revenue to support D.C.’s Healthy Schools Act, a landmark measure seeking to improve school nutrition and increase Physical Education programs.

Regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar. Taxing foods high in fats, sugar, and salt is just one way of suppressing a sugar-high food system before it crashes. De Schutter also suggests that governments regulate junk food and fast food advertisements, especially those catered to children; provide accurate and balanced nutritional information to consumers; and adopt a plan to replace trans-fats with polyunsaturated fats in nearly all food products.

Example: In October of 2011, Denmark imposed a so-called “fat tax” on products high in saturated fats in order to repress rising obesity rates, which have led to increasing medical and social problems. Denmark has a long history of taxing unhealthy products to promote healthy diets, such as a tax on candy and a ban on trans-fats—perhaps a reason the country’s obesity rate in 2011 was 1.6 percent lower than the European average of 15 percent.

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Nov29

White House Report Highlights Importance of Reauthorizing Farm Bill

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Earlier this week, the White House Rural Council released a report highlighting the economic importance of reauthorizing the Farm Bill, the United States’ primary food and agriculture policy tool.

The Farm Bill can impact food prices, environmental conservation programs, and international trade. (Photo Credit: wlfarm.org)

The bill—which impacts food prices, environmental conservation programs, international trade, agricultural research, food and nutrition programs, and the well being of rural communities—has been stalled in congress for over a year, in part due to disagreement over reductions to the food stamp program. House Republicans aim to cut $40 billion in food stamp funds over the next 10 years, while Senate Democrats aim to cut only $4 billion.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, failure to pass the bill before the end of the year could double milk prices for Americans, spark retaliatory tariffs from Brazil, and leave livestock producers who have been hit by storms and drought without standard federal assistance.

The Obama Administration’s report, which urges Congress to reauthorize as soon as possible, highlights the potential benefits of a new Farm Bill. According to the Administration, the new bill could:

  1. Build on recent momentum of the U.S. agriculture economy, a key engine of economic growth;
  2. Continue federal conservation efforts, working alongside a record number of farmers and ranchers to conserve soil and water resources; (more…)
Nov10

UN Says Sustainable Farming Can Help Close Global Emissions Gap

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Agriculture offers opportunities to mitigate and adapt to climate change, according to a report released on November 5 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Reductions in emissions from agriculture could help to close the greenhouse gas emissions gap. (Photo Credit: ucanr.edu)

The Emissions Gap Report 2013—which involved 44 scientific groups in 17 countries and was coordinated by UNEP—measures the difference between the pledges that countries have made to cut emissions and the targets required to keep global temperature change below 2 degrees Celsius (°C).

The report finds that if the global community does not embark immediately on wide-ranging actions to narrow the greenhouse emissions gap, the chance of remaining on the least-cost path to keeping global temperature rise below 2°C this century will diminish quickly and lead to a host of challenges.

Based on the current trajectory, greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to reach 8–12 gigatons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (GtCO2e)—roughly comparable to 80 percent of current emissions from the world’s power plants. This is above the level that would provide a likely chance of remaining on the least-cost pathway; to be on track to stay within the 2°C target, emissions should reach a maximum of 44 GtCO2e by 2020, the report says.

Reductions in emissions from agriculture, an often-overlooked source of emissions, could help to close the emissions gap, the authors say. They estimate that emission-reduction potentials for the sector range from 1.1 GtCO2e to 4.3 GtCO2e.

Worldwide, agriculture contributes between 14 and 30 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions because of its heavy requirements for land, water, and energy. The agriculture sector releases more emissions than every car, train, and plane in the global transportation sector.

Activities such as operating fuel-powered farm equipment, pumping water for irrigation, raising dense populations of livestock in indoor facilities, managing soils, and applying nitrogen-rich fertilizers all contribute to agriculture’s high greenhouse gas footprint.

UNEP attributes an estimated 38 percent of agricultural emissions to nitrous oxide from soils, 32 percent to methane from enteric fermentation in ruminant livestock, 12 percent to biomass burning, 11 percent to rice production, and 7 percent to manure management. Direct agricultural emissions account for 60 percent of global nitrous oxide emissions and 50 percent of global methane emissions, according to the report. (more…)

Oct24

GM Crops Causing a Stir in Washington State, Mexico, and Hawaii

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Courts, councils, and voters across North America are weighing in on genetically modified (GM) crops this month.

Research on the health effects of GM crops is woefully inadequate. (Photo Credit: The Daily Mail)

In Washington state, voters are beginning to cast ballots in favor of or opposing Initiative 522, which would mandate that all GM food products, seeds, and seed stocks carry labels in the state. According to the initiative, polls consistently show that the vast majority of the public, typically more than 90 percent, would like to know whether or not the food they buy has been produced using genetic modification.

Initiative 522 is making big headlines. On October 16, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued the initiative’s top opponent—the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—for allegedly violating campaign disclosure laws by concealing the identities of its donors. The lawsuit accuses the GMA, a D.C.-based food industry group, of infringing the law by soliciting and receiving contributions and making expenditures to oppose Initiative 522 without properly registering and reporting as a political committee, and of concealing the true source of the contributions received.

Days after Ferguson sued the group, the GMA agreed to name the companies that contributed to the $17.1 million campaign to defeat the initiative. High on the list are Pepsico, Coca-Cola, and NestleUSA, each having contributed more than $1 million. A more extensive list of donors, published by the Seattle Times, names General Mills, ConAgra Foods, Campbell Soup, The Hershey Co., and J.M. Smucker Co. as additional donors.

The fight to require labels on GM foods in Washington state is reminiscent of last year’s fight over Proposition 37—which also proposed mandatory GM labels—in California. According to California Watch, food and agribusiness companies, including The Hershey Co., Nestlé USA, Mars Inc., and Monsanto, contributed $44 million in opposition of Prop 37, while those in favor contributed $7.3 million. Although 47 percent of Californians voted in favor of Prop 37, it ultimately failed to pass.

Opponents of GM labeling have argued that the labels would imply a warning about the health effects of eating those foods, although no significant differences between GM and non-GM foods have been officially established. They also argue that consumers who do not want to buy GM foods already have the option of purchasing certified organic foods, which by definition cannot be produced using GM ingredients.

The initiative’s proponents, on the other hand, argue that GM labeling is about people’s right to know what is in the food they eat and feed their families. These groups argue that U.S. companies, which are already required to label GM foods in 64 countries around the world, should be required to provide the same information to shoppers back home.

“As things stand, you can find out whether your salmon is wild or farm-raised, and where it’s from, but under existing legislation you won’t be able to find out whether it contains the gene of an eel. That has to change,” wrote Mark Bittman, a food columnist for the New York Times. “We have a right to know what’s in the food we eat and a right to know how it’s produced. This is true even if food containing or produced using GMOs were the greatest thing since crusty bread.”

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Aug29

Cities Can Work with Farmers to Meet Growing Need for Water

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By Sophie Wenzlau 

As world population grows, meeting the demand for clean freshwater can be a serious challenge, especially for arid and semi-arid cities such as Los Angeles and Dubai. According to a report published in Water Policy earlier this year, cities around the world are struggling to access the water they need to support continued growth.

Half of all cities with populations greater than 100,000 are located in water-scarce basins. (Photo Credit: Business Insider)

According to UN Water, world population is projected to grow from 6.9 billion in 2010 to 8.3 billion in 2030 and to 9.1 billion in 2050. At the same time, urban population will increase by 2.9 billion, to a total of 6.3 billion in 2050, as a result of urban population growth and movement into urban centers. Growth in cities has led to a dramatic increase in urban water use; since 1950, global water use in cities has increased five-fold as a result of increasing domestic and industrial demand.

To meet the growing demand for water, many cities—such as San Antonio, Adelaide, Phoenix, and San Diego—have had to supplement the use of local water resources with significant water imports from major rivers or aquifers. As a result, urban water use has contributed to the depletion of many important freshwater sources, such as the Colorado, Yellow, and Amu Darya rivers, and resulted in significant ecological damage.

In response to increasing water scarcity, some cities are promoting innovation, efficiency, and conservation in water use. For example, the city of San Diego—which is largely dependent on the depleted Colorado River—has taken steps to promote conservative use of local water resources and decrease reliance on imported water by diversifying local water supplies. In San Diego, these measures have included the development of a water recycling system, a desalinization system, urban conservation policy, and, most notably, an urban-rural water conservation partnership in which the city compensates farmers in surrounding areas for implementing agricultural water conservation measures.

According to Water Policy, San Diego’s agricultural conservation partnership is an innovative model worthy of consideration by other cities, for “half of all cities with populations greater than 100,000 are located in water-scarce basins, and in these basins agricultural water consumption accounts for more than 90 percent of all freshwater depletions.” San Diego’s model is innovative in that it frees up water for metropolitan consumption by addressing inefficiencies in the region’s most water-intensive sector. According to the San Diego County Water Authority, agricultural conservation measures are expected to provide 37 percent of city water supply by 2020.

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May10

EU Bans Class of Pesticides Thought Harmful to Bees

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By Laura Reynolds

On April 29, the European Union voted to largely ban the use of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide, for two years beginning in December 2013. The ban had 15 member state supporters, including France, Germany, and Poland; eight opponents, including the United Kingdom; and four abstaining votes.

Neonicotinoids are a possible cause of the rapid decline in bee populations worldwide. (Photo credit: University of California)

The ban restricts the use of three pesticides—imidacloprid, clothianidin, and thiamethoxam—on flowering crops, which honeybees depend on for pollen and hive health. Environmental groups, beekeepers, scientists, and the public hailed the ban as a victory for the precautionary principle, which urges caution and careful scientific study in circumstances where the effects of a chemical or action on the environment are not sufficiently clear.

Neonicotinoids are thought to be particularly harmful for insects because the chemical is applied directly to a plant’s seed instead of its leaves or flowers. This makes the pesticide present in the plant’s pollen. Neonicotinoids are also persistent chemicals, meaning that they do not degrade within weeks or months, but rather remain in the nerve systems of insects, causing systemic and lasting damage.

In the United States, a coalition of beekeeping companies and environmental groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency in March over its approval of neonicotinoids for domestic use. The groups cited a lack of scientific understanding of the pesticides’ effect on bees and other insects, and drew a possible connection between the chemicals and the ongoing collapse of honeybee hives across the country and worldwide.

This bee population crisis, known as colony collapse disorder, emerged in 2005, and scientists have not yet identified a clear cause. Numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies have both confirmed and denied a link between neonicotinoids and beehive collapse. Scientists agree that viruses, mites, drought, and loss of native habitat could also be contributing to the collapse.

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Apr11

Global Food Prices Continue to Rise

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Continuing a decade-long increase, global food prices rose 2.7 percent in 2012, reaching levels not seen since the 1960s and 1970s but still well below the price spike of 1974. Between 2000 and 2012, the World Bank global food price index increased 104.5 percent, at an average annual rate of 6.5 percent.

Global food prices rose 2.7 percent in 2012 (Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

The price increases reverse a previous trend when real prices of food commodities declined at an average annual rate of 0.6 percent from 1960 to 1999, approaching historic lows. The sustained price decline can be attributed to farmers’ success in keeping crop yields ahead of rising worldwide food demand. Although the global population grew by 3.8 billion or 122.9 percent between 1961 and 2010, net per capita food production increased by 49 percent over this period. Advances in crop breeding and an expansion of agricultural land drove this rise in production, as farmers cultivated an additional 434 million hectares between 1961 and 2010.

Food price volatility has increased dramatically since 2006. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the standard deviation—or measurement of variation from the average—for food prices between 1990 and 1999 was 7.7 index points, but it increased to 22.4 index points in the 2000–12 period.

Although food price volatility has increased in the last decade, it is not a new phenomenon. According to World Bank data, the standard deviation for food prices in 1960–99 was 11.9 index points higher than in 2000–12. Some price volatility is inherent in agricultural commodities markets, as they are strongly influenced by weather shocks. But the recent upward trend in food prices and volatility can be traced to additional factors including climate change, policies promoting the use of biofuels, rising energy and fertilizer prices, poor harvests, national export restrictions, rising global food demand, and low food stocks.

Perhaps most significant has been an increase in biofuels production in the last decade. Between 2000 and 2011, global biofuels production increased more than 500 percent, due in part to higher oil prices and the adoption of biofuel mandates in the United States and European Union (EU). According to a 2012 study by the University of Bonn’s Center for Development Research, if biofuel production continues to expand according to current plans, the price of feedstock crops (particularly maize, oilseed crops, and sugar cane) will increase more than 11 percent by 2020.

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Mar22

The Looming Threat of Water Scarcity

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By Supriya Kumar

Some 1.2 billion people—almost a fifth of the world—live in areas of physical water scarcity, while another 1.6 billion face what can be called economic water shortage. The situation is only expected to worsen as population growth, climate change, investment and management shortfalls, and inefficient use of existing resources restrict the amount of water available to people. It is estimated that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, with almost half of the world living in conditions of water stress.

Global water scarcity map. (Photo credit: International Water Management Institute)

Water scarcity has several definitions. Physical scarcity occurs when there is not enough water to meet demand; its symptoms include severe environmental degradation, declining groundwater, and unequal water distribution. Economic water scarcity occurs when there is a lack of investment and proper management to meet the demand of people who do not have the financial means to use existing water sources; the symptoms in this case normally include poor infrastructure.Large parts of Africa suffer from economic water scarcity.

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Feb28

To Combat Scarcity, Increase Water-Use Efficiency in Agriculture

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By Sophie Wenzlau

This blog was originally published as part of an online consultation organized by The Broker  on the role of water in the post-2015 development agenda. Click here to read the original post. 

Photo Credit: World Bank

The South Centre has argued that “as oil conflicts were central to 20th century history, the struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world order.” Water scarcity, which already affects one in three people on earth, is set to increase in magnitude and scope as the global population grows, increasing affluence drives up demand, and the climate changes. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), “half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including 75 to 250 million people in Africa.” In the Sahel region of Africa, desertification caused by overgrazing, unsustainable farming, and the collection of wood for fuel is already responsible for systemic crop failure, soil erosion, and devastating famine. Failure to act on water scarcity will lead to more of the same.

Though water scarcity will surely play a defining role in the 21st century, the assumption that ‘water wars’ are inevitable is overly deterministic and assumes the worst of people. Historically, the need to manage trans-group or trans-boundary water basins has actually tended to facilitate cooperation between groups with competing interests. In the last fifty years, there have been only 37 incidents of acute conflict over water, while during the same period, approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed. According to Nidal Salim, director of the Global Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, the potential to peacefully overcome water scarcity does exist; it depends on political will, trust between nations, and real manifestations of cooperation.

To peacefully overcome water scarcity, leaders at all levels must prioritize efforts to cooperatively increase water-use efficiency, reduce water waste, and manage demand.

Increasing efficiency in irrigation—which is responsible for the consumption of 70 percent of the world’s total water withdrawal—would be a sensible place to start. Improved water management in agriculture could increase global water availability, catalyze development, reduce soil erosion, and lead to increased and diversified agricultural yields, augmenting our ability to feed a population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050.

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