Posts Tagged ‘deforestation’


Organizations Push for Global Ban on Genetically Modified Trees

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Five organizations released a letter in early October 2012 to the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity demanding a global ban on genetically modified (GM) trees. World Rainforest Movement, Global Justice Ecology Project, the Campaign to Stop Genetically Engineered Trees, Global Forest Coalition, and Biofuelwatch oppose the potentially damaging impact of GM trees on the environment and Indigenous communities.

GM trees pose inevitable and irreversible threats to forest ecosystems and the people who inhabit them. (Photo credit: Washington State Department of Natural Resources)

“The forestry industry is involved in developing GM trees for use in its industrial plantations, in order to achieve trees that can grow faster, have reduced lignin content for production of paper or agrofuels, are insect or herbicide resistant, or can grow in colder temperatures,” stated Isis Alvarez of Global Forest Coalition. “This research is aimed at increasing their own profits while exacerbating the already known and very serious impacts of large scale tree plantations on local communities and biodiversity.”

According to a 2012 report by Global Justice Ecology Project, GM trees pose “significant risks” to carbon-absorbing forest ecosystems and the global climate. Trees with less lignin would be more prone to pest attacks and would rot more quickly, altering soil structure and releasing greenhouse gases more quickly. Other dangers range from increased “flammability, to invasiveness, to the potential to contaminate native forests with engineered traits.” According to the Sierra Club, “the possibility that the new genes spliced into GE trees will interfere with natural forests isn’t a hypothetical risk but a certainty.” The substitution of natural forests by GM monocultures for industrial use would also threaten biodiversity, in the same way that oil palm plantations do today. Many of these consequences would impact Indigenous communities, reducing the ecosystem services that they rely on for their livelihoods and survival.

Despite these risks, several GM tree projects are moving forward. The GM tree research and development company ArborGen has a request pending with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to sell half a billion cold-tolerant eucalyptus seedlings each year for bioenergy plantations in the southern United States. Since eucalyptus trees are a documented invasive species in both Florida and California, this has raised red flags for many. Both the Georgia Department of Wildlife and the US Forest Service have submitted comments to the USDA expressing concerns about the impact of plantations on native ecosystems. Meanwhile, several universities, timber corporations, and seedling manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest are also collaborating to develop GM poplar trees for bioenergy production. About 30 species of poplar trees already grow from subtropical to subalpine regions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, meaning there is a serious risk of genetic contamination.

The Sierra Club warns that the “commercial development of out-of-doors applications in the absence of environmental safeguards is a prescription for disaster,” and it is clear that GM tree plantations pose inevitable and irreversible threats to forest ecosystems and the people who inhabit them. Today, 245 organizations and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations from 49 countries support a global ban on GM trees, according to Global Justice Ecology Project.

Do you think the development of GM trees should continue? Are there ways to regulate and limit the negative impacts of GM trees on the environment? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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  3. Food & Water Watch Campaigns to Remove GE Corn from Walmart
  4. USDA Gives Green Light to GE Alfalfa

Soybeans in Paraguay: A Boom for the Economy, Bust for Environmental and Public Health

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By Carly Chaapel

Soybean fields extend for miles on what was often thickly forested land in Paraguay. (Photo credit: MercoPress)

They are in bread, peanut butter, cookies, coffee creamer, crayons, candles, cows, and even cars. Soybeans, hailed as a “miracle crop” by many, have been harvested, pulverized, and processed to such an extent that it is nearly impossible to go a day without using them in some way.

In 2011, the United States and Brazil were the top two soybean producers in the world. Though Paraguay only contributes 3 percent of the global soybean supply, the rising demand for this cheap oil and protein has dramatically altered the Paraguayan agricultural landscape. Oxfam International executive director Jeremy Hobbs recently highlighted in the New York Times the destructive power that soybeans may have on the country’s entire political and economic stability.

This past June, President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay was impeached because of strong opposition to his agrarian reform and deaths during an attempt to remove squatters at a large farm belonging to a political opponent. He was a strong advocate for agricultural reform that would redistribute land and pull many of his people out of poverty. Just 2 percent of the Paraguayan population owns over three-quarters of the arable land.

Since 1996, over 1.2 million hectares of Paraguayan forest have been cleared and replaced with large swaths of treeless soy fields. Paraguay is currently the fourth largest exporter of soy, and much of the harvest is shipped to Europe and China as cattle feed and biofuels. According to the World Bank, however, undernourishment affects 10 percent of the population in Paraguay. Regardless of Paraguay’s booming US$1.6 billion soy export economy, 40 percent of the population still lives in poverty.



Innovation of the Week: Helping Individuals Make Sustainable Choices with Global Effects

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By Jenna Banning

“The best way to keep forests standing,” according to the Rainforest Alliance, “is by ensuring that it is profitable for businesses and communities to do so.”

This ad encourages farmers to implement environmentally friendly and socially just practices. (Photo credit: Rainforest Alliance)

Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit organization established in 1986 that works with businesses and communities across the world, helping to promote environmental, social, and economic sustainability. The group focuses on rainforests, which support more than two-thirds of the world’s plants and animals as well as many farmers, but which are under threat from unsustainable forestry, deforestation, agriculture, and tourism practices. Approximately 50,000 square miles of the earth – roughly the size of Mississippi – is deforested annually in order to produce paper, lumber and foods for the global market. To combat this, Rainforest Alliance is working with farmers, forest managers, and tourism operators to encourage production practices for their goods and services which also protect the resources on which they depend.



What Works: Rebuilding Degraded Ecosystems through Farming

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By Matt Styslinger

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) some 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems have been degraded over the past 50 years. With increasingly scarce land and water resources expected in the coming decades, as well as rising demand for food, farmers will need to find ways to produce more on the world’s remaining arable land. Without alternatives, expansion of agriculture can lead to deforestation and loss of other vital ecosystems that millions of people rely on for their livelihoods. But some innovative farmers are producing more food by using agriculture to rebuild ecosystems and turn degraded land into productive farms.

Some innovative farmers are producing more food by using agriculture to rebuild ecosystems and turn degraded land into productive farms. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Severe droughts and rapid population growth in the 1970s and 80s significantly degraded the farmland of the Sahel, a region of Africa running along the entire southern edge of the Sahara desert. Traditional management practices are now being revived to reverse the trend, including farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR). By pruning shoots that periodically and naturally sprout from below-ground root webs in and around their fields, farmers promote the re-growth of trees. The trees reduce erosion, improve the ability of the soil to hold moisture, offer partial shade, and are a source of fuel, food, and animal fodder. The Web Alliance for the Re-Greening in Africa (W4RA) project is helping to create web-based information exchanges between farmers to promote awareness of FMNR. The organization SahelEco has initiated two projects—Trees Outside the Forest and the Re-Greening the Sahel Initiative—to encourage policymakers, farmers’ organizations, and government leaders to provide the support and legislation needed to put the responsibility of managing trees on agricultural land into the hands of farmers.



John Foley’s TED Talk Calls Agriculture “The Other Inconvenient Truth”

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By Cameron Scherer

When asked to identify the greatest threats to our 21st century lifestyle, most of us would likely choose war or economic crisis over farming. But according to Jonathan Foley, Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, agriculture is in fact the “single most powerful force unleashed on this planet since the end of the Ice Age.”

The Aral Sea used to be a source of irrigation and fish. Today, as a result of intensive agriculture, only a fraction of its original volume remains. (Photo credit:

In an online video of his recent TED Talk “The Other Inconvenient Truth,” Foley speaks in depth about the havoc modern agriculture is wreaking on our global environment. He says the Earth is running out of available land for farming. Today, we devote 16 million square kilometers – an area the size of South America – to croplands, and 30 million square kilometers – an area the size of Africa – to pasture for livestock. Together, this acreage comprises 40 percent of Earth’s land surface, an area 60 times greater than urban and suburban land combined.

As agriculture expands into deserts and other arid climates, our global demand for crops is putting a huge strain on our fresh-water resources as well. Seventy percent of the water we consume goes towards agriculture. Looking at it a different way, we use enough water to fill 7,305 Empire State Buildings every day.



Walmart’s Sustainable Agriculture Strategy: A Model for the Private Sector and Sustainable Agriculture?

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By Sheldon Yoder

Walmart hopes to base its sustainable agriculture strategy on its biggest strength: purchasing power. “What we do well is issue a purchase order,” said Beth Keck, the company’s director of sustainability during a roundtable event Friday at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s our number one competency.”

Walmart plans to buy and sell $1 billion worth of product from small and medium farmers around the world. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In order to do this, the company plans to purchase and sell $1 billion of food grown by one million small and medium farmers around the world. Walmart also plans to double its sale of locally purchased produce in the U.S by the end of 2015.

“Sustainability is a business strategy, not a charitable giving strategy,” said Keck, who has been instrumental in developing the goals. “We’re thinking about sustainability from the customer’s point of view. We don’t want customers to have to choose between products that are sustainable or products that are affordable.”

The company plans to produce more food with fewer resources as part of its commitment to global sustainable agriculture. This involves focusing more on agriculture in its sustainability index, investing money in its supply chain to ensure product freshness, and reducing food waste.



Five plants you’ve never heard of that can slow climate change

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By Philip Newell

According to a recent New York Times article, an increase in temperature due to climate change will likely decrease yields of current crop varieties in the United States by 30 percent. The article also points out that there is some good news- by developing heartier, more tolerant crops now, we can adapt to changes in climate.

While climate change will not be stopped by a handful of crops, these plants present significant potential. If they are cultivated more widely and endorsed by farmers, agricultural development agencies, and the funding and donor community, they can be a key component to the global mitigation of climate change.

Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces five plants that you have likely never heard of that are helping create resilience to climate change.

The Marula Tree can be processed into a variety of goods, and provides fertile habitat for growing additional crops! (Photo credit: Marula natural products)

1. Cowpea:  Grown in Africa for generations, the cowpea is one of the most ancient crops on the continent. This perseverance is partly because of its ability to survive harsh weather and drought conditions. The black-eyed pea, as it is known to Americans, is a very healthy food, allowing the body to absorb even more nutrients from other grains such as rice or sorghum. This legume is not only good for human health; but it can actually improve the health of the field in which it grows. Legumes are a type of plant that (among other things) acts as a nitrogen-fixer. This means that when grown, legumes, like the cowpea, absorb nitrogen from the air and deposit it into the soil. The next crop grown on that land then benefits from the increased levels of nitrogen in the soil. This can allow farmers to skip the application of expensive chemical fertilizers. Even among legumes the cowpea is a hero, due to its long roots. These tap roots reach way down into the soil, helping provide moisture accessible to the cowpea and future crops. And cowpeas’ stems and leaves are good fodder for livestock.



Innovation of the week: Agroforestry project restores wildlife habitat and generates income in Borneo

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By Matt Styslinger

Since 2002, on a 2,000 hectare plot of deforested land in the Indonesian state of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, an organization called Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) has been regenerating forest to create habitat for orangutans. By combining agriculture and forestry, the Samboja Lestari project has planted more than a million trees—including 1,000 different species. The reforestation efforts have not only established a safe haven for orangutans, it has improved food security and incomes of the local community, stabilized the local micro-climate, increased the availability of water, and begun to established a sustainable agroforestry system managed by local people.

The Samboja Lestari project is using agroforestry to regenerate forest in Borneo to improve rural livelihoods and provide habitat for orangutans (Photo credit: RARE Conservation)

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and historically has been covered with rainforest. Borneo’s forest is around 130 million years old, making it the world’s oldest rainforest. But the island has lost an estimated 50 percent of its forest cover since the 1970s due to logging, slash and burn agriculture, and the establishment of large-scale oil palm plantations to produce biofuels. The rapid loss of forest has produced massive amounts of CO2, making Indonesia the third largest producer of greenhouse gases after the U.S. and China. Deforestation jeopardizes the future of many rare species—including clouded leopards, Sumatran rhinos, and orangutans. It has also impoverished rural communities who have lost important resources, such as clean water, fish, fertile soil, and forest-grown food and medicines.

Biologist, and founder of BOS, Willie Smits has dedicated his career to saving the wild orangutan, which live exclusively on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. BOS hosts over 1,000 orphaned orangutans. “This is proof of our failure to save them in the wild,” says Smits in a TED talk about Samboja Lestari. “Deforestation, especially for oil palm to provide biofuel for the western countries, is what’s causing these problems… [These are] peat swamp forests, on 20 meters of peat, the largest accumulation of organic material in the world. When you open this for growing oil palm, you’re creating CO2 volcanoes,” he says.

Smits believes that the only way to help the orangutans is to integrate local people in the restoration of their habitat. “We have to make sure that local people are the ones that benefit,” he says. “We set up the infrastructure and management and monitoring [of the project]. But we made sure that in every step of the way the local people were going to be fully involved so that no outside forces would be able to interfere.”



What Works: Farming with trees

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By Kim Kido

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

Poor soils, lack of irrigation, and limited access to inputs, including fertilizer, are some of the barriers farmers face to increasing food production, and alleviating food insecurity, in sub-Saharan Africa.  Incorporating trees on farms can help increase yields by building soil fertility, reducing erosion, retaining water, or providing shade. And many species produce high-value fruits, timber, fodder, or medicine that can be sold or used to meet household needs. Ecosystem benefits like habitat creation and carbon sequestration are added benefits.

Trees on a farm in Kenya. (Photo credit: International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT))

Planting nitrogen-fixing leguminous tree species, like Faidherbia or Acacia albida, in maize fields has helped achieve up to four-fold yield increases in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. During the rainy season, when crops are planted, the Faidherbia acacia loses its nitrogen-rich leaves as it enters dormancy. Crops are provided with a source of nitrogen, and the tree’s bare branches don’t block sunlight. And when the availability of fodder is limited in the dry season, the trees produce seed pods that livestock can eat.

While legumes improve soil fertility, planting fruit trees amongst other crops can provide emergency income and a source of food in times of scarcity. For small farmers like Virginia Wangui Njunge, who farms two acres north of Nairobi in Kenya, planting fruit trees is a way to minimize risk by increasing productivity and crop diversity. Njunge sells avocados, guavas, apples, and mangos from her trees that grow along with vegetable crops, including tomato and cabbage. Intercropping fruit trees with annual and indigenous vegetable crops to provide food and income while trees mature is a common practice in Kenya.



What Works: Stopping the Sands and Increasing the Harvest

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By Molly Theobald

This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!

Farmers in the Sahel are using creative solutions to combat desertification. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Throughout the Sahel, recurrent drought, deforestation, and over-farming, is turning once lush farm land into desert.  And when the sand starts spreading, it can be difficult to stop. Picked up by the wind, dust and sand travels vast distances to cover villages, roads, crops, and irrigation systems, making it increasingly difficult to farm and maintain infrastructure.

Farmers are especially impacted by desertification. Dry, cracked and depleted soils make for poor harvests, while sand covered roads make it nearly impossible to transport crops to the market. Yet, farmers are also the people who hold some of the best tools with which to put a stop to the spreading sands.

In Mauritania, for example, where moving sand dunes cover two-thirds of the country’s land area, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), partnered with the government of Mauritania to help protect the country’s towns and cities. Between 2000 and 2007, a series of fences were designed to use wind to create artificial dunes surrounding Nouakchott, the country’s capital. These dunes reduced the strength of the wind and slowed the advancement of more sand. Set at a 120 to 140 degree angle, deflection fences were also erected in order to redirect the incoming winds and sands, further reducing sand build up. Both fences are made from branches and twigs that were collected from mature forests.

Once the dunes have been halted with hand-woven fences, the process of creating long-term barriers begins.  Although dunes are perhaps the least hospitable environment upon which to grow trees and other vegetation, walls of mature plant growth also provide one of the most effective barriers for sand. Depending on the climate and soil conditions, drought-tolerant and indigenous tree species are selected and planted to act as barriers.