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Global attention needed to end food insecurity: An interview with Rajendra Aryal

Rattana Lao

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The devastating effect of global food insecurity is grave and it is severely affecting lives and livelihoods of more than 108 million people worldwide. To address this plight, global development agencies such as the FAO, WFP, UNICEF and many other NGO partners met earlier in Rome to discuss and draw policy recommendation on how best to address global food insecurity once and for all. Rattana Lao talked with Rajendra Aryal, Senior Advisor with the global Food Security Cluster (gFSC) in Rome on why this topic matters and what the global community needs to do in order to end global food crisis.

What is food insecurity?

To understand food insecurity, it is important firstly to define what food security is. It is a situation when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life. Currently there is more than enough food produced to feed everyone. However, the world is still facing a situation of food insecurity in many parts unfortunately. Availability of food is one thing, but it is another thing to have it distributed to those who need it. Food insecurity arises due to poverty, inequality and lack of access to food. There are different types of food insecurity. It can be in terms of poor farmers who do not have enough land and as a result cannot produce sufficient food or it can be in terms of those who live in agriculture-based areas like Myanmar and Thailand but cannot afford to buy food. Even in commercialised areas, food insecurity is possible. Food might be available for some but the insecurity could be due to lack of access for the others.

Who are the most affected?

It is estimated that almost 108 million people around the world are currently facing food insecurity. This is an alarming 35% increase from 2015. Out of these numbers, around 30 million people living in North-Eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are facing severe food insecurity with millions on the verge of a famine. 5.7 million children are facing malnutrition and 1.4 million children are almost dying from the crisis. 27 million people also lack access to clean water. This situation is unfortunately worsening.

What are the causes of this crisis?

There are two major causes: protracted conflicts and natural disasters. When these conflicts occur, they disrupt trade and economic activities and also create obstacles for transportation and inhibit access to food supply chain. Food is hardly produced when countries are at war. Then, conflicts can instigate currency instability, disable the market from functioning properly that makes it impossible for the country to buy sufficient food for its people. Natural disasters like drought result in subsequent crop failures and worsen the situation, such as currently in Somalia.

Are food insecurity and famine the same thing?

They are not the same thing but they are not mutually exclusive. Food security can cause death, however famine is declared only if 20% of the households in the area face extreme shortages and lack the ability to cope. At least 30% of the people must face acute malnutrition and the death rate must be at least 2 people per 10,000 on a daily basis. The world witnessed the worst case in Somalia in 2010 – 2011. The famine was declared in July 2011 when 258,000 people were dead, but 50% of those people had already died even before the famine was officially declared. The world therefore needs to closely watch food insecurity situation before more tragedies happen and do not just wait for famine to be declared.

What MUST BE DONE to mitigate or better yet end this crisis?

To mitigate the crisis, urgent attention is needed from all stakeholders at different levels to acknowledge that food insecurity is real and dangerously taking away people’s lives and livelihoods. First, stronger commitment is needed from national governments and local communities to create food supply in sustainable manner. Second, sufficient financial support is needed from national and international sources to pool together sufficient resources to buy food and produce food.

From a financial standpoint, a lot of work is needed to generate global resources for food. The total humanitarian requirement in 2005 was USD 3.8 billion to support 26 million people whereas the needs in 2017 is USD 22.6 billion to support 95.3 million people. An exponential growth can be seen over the decade which needs to be addressed most urgently. Even today, only 50% of the required humanitarian needs are met. So either some people are left out from getting support or many affected people are getting reduced support. More aid is only one side of the solution. Better partnership, including with the private sector is also equally important to collaborate and coordinate food production and distribution. Most importantly, I strongly believe that there is a critical need for the national governments and the international community to put more focus on local capacity building, creating an enabling environment for local production and distribution, local employment generation and strengthening local safety nets. There is a need for poor countries to help themselves and this is possible when the national governments and international community work and invest together.

In light of global food insecurity, is the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1 and 2 that aim to end global hunger and poverty possible?

I always look at the glass as half full and strongly believe that if we all work together achieving SDGs 1 and 2 (i.e., ending poverty and achieving zero hunger respectively) is not a distant dream. The work of my organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is articulated around 5 strategic priorities, which largely aim to contribute to achieving these SDGs in sustainable way. Similarly, other organizations as well as the member countries are committed to achieving the same. However, the changing global context is putting up a lot of challenges on the way at the same time and therefore the member countries, the international community, the civil society and the private sector need to work together, realize each other’s comparative advantages, complement each other’s work and facilitate pro-poor investments for the benefits of the poor, marginalized and small farmers. This understanding and collaboration will definitely pave us the way forward to achieve this beautiful number ‘zero’.

Rattana Lao holds a doctorate in Comparative and International Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and writes on education and development. She is based in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Green Planet

How Islam can represent a model for environmental stewardship

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The world, not just the UN, is waking up to the power of faith-based organizations (FBOs). How can Islam, and other faiths, contribute to solutions to sustainability and mitigate climate change risks?

Odeh Al-Jayyousi, Professor and head of innovation at Arabian Gulf University in Bahrain, scholar in sustainable innovation and a member of UN Global Scientific Advisory Panel, for UN Environment’s Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6), argues that Islamic worldview represents a unique model for a transition to sustainable development by focusing on justice, degrowth and harmony between human and nature.

He commented that Islam views the environmental challenges as an indicator for a moral and ethical crisis. Looking at the creation of human, Earth, and cosmos as signs of the Creator (Kitab Manthoor) is a key in Islamic values.

Prof. Al-Jayyousi elaborated that Islamic worldview defines a good life (Hayat Tayebah) living lightly on Earth (Zohd) and caring for both people and nature. Islamic discourse offers a sense of hope and optimism about the possibility of attaining harmony between human and nature. Earth will find a balance if humans rethink their lifestyles and mindsets as stated in the Quran:

Corruption has appeared in both land and sea
Because of what people’s own hands have brought
So that they may taste something of what they have done
So that hopefully they will turn back
Qur’an 30: 41

Professor Al-Jayyousi calls to revive the holistic view of Islam which is founded on the notion of harmony and “natural state” (fitra) and in respecting balance (mizan) and proportion (mikdar) in the systems of the universe. These notions provide an ethical dimension and a mandate for all humans to respect nature and all forms of life.

Hence, the overcoming environmental crisis and mitigating the impact of climate change, from an Islamic perspective is underpinned by defining the role of humans as trustees and stewards (khalifah). This balance has been disturbed because to human choices which result in overconsumption, overexploitation and overuse of resources.

Islamic values call to save integrity and to protect the diversity of all forms of life. Professor Al-Jayyousi commented that the ecological crisis is linked to human ethics and values. Human actions are responsible for the global ecological crisis. “Reflecting on the main environmental problems, such as the destruction of natural habitats, loss of biodiversity, climate change, and erosion of soil, we see that all are triggered by human greed and ignorance. Human responsibility is to save and protect livelihood and ecosystem services to ensure a sustainable civilization learning from and reflecting on the fate of past civilizations”, said Professor Al-Jayyousi.

He cited a verse from the Holy Book, Quran, “Every living thing is in a state of worship”. He commented that when one hurts a bird or a plant, he/she is silencing a community of worshippers. To celebrate the symphony of life, all humans need to celebrate and protect biological and cultural diversity.

Islamic worldview calls to make a transition to a sustainable society and economy by adopting responsible development and respecting sustainability principles. This change requires a shift in norms and practices. Religion can become a powerful part of the solution if humans embody a holistic spiritual view towards mankind, earth and cosmos.

In 2015 in Istanbul, the Muslim world in its Islamic declaration for climate change set the framework for an ethical code of conduct to build a low-emission climate resilient future.

Al-Jayyousi aspires to see a new Islamic discourse that emphasizes and links faith, reason and empathy to ensure an ecological insight (Baseera). He calls to rethink educational systems that neglected the beauty and majesty of nature and the cosmos.

“The extinction of species around us which are simply communities like us (Ummam Amthalokom) may extend to humankind unless we change our worldviews and development models”, warns Prof. Al-Jayyousi.  He calls to revive the concept of Green Endowment Fund (Waqf) to support a transition to sustainable economy by promoting innovation (ijtihad)  inspired by nature and culture.

He proposed a conceptual model with three domains to address climate change and sustainability:

  • Green activism (Jihad)
  • Green innovation (Ijtihad)
  • Green lifestyle (Zohd).

He refers to this as a Green JIZ model, which represents an Islamic response to climate change embodying the concept of de-growth.

“Conflict and poor governance are putting the Middle East and North Africa at jeopardy” points out Prof. Al-Jayyousi. He calls for a sustainable region that is founded on human and environmental justice. An optimist, Prof. Al-Jayyousi is inspired by prophet Mohammed saying “If it is the Last day of life and you have a small plant, make sure you plant it”.

First published in UN Environment

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Green Planet

Greening Vietnam’s tea industry

MD Staff

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“We’ve stopped using herbicides completely”: Thanh is one of thousands of Vietnamese tea farmers who have embraced sustainable farming. Photo by UN Environment / Lisa Murray

How sustainable farming is turning the tables for Vietnamese tea growers

The act of drinking tea is a key part of many of Vietnam’s social rituals and interactions. As a commodity, tea is also one of the country’s most important exports. But in recent years, unpredictable, heavy downpours and overuse of agrochemicals have led to poor quality crops, low yields and a decline in the reputation of Vietnamese tea within the global export market.

But now, with the help of UN Environment and partners, Vietnamese tea growers have begun to turn the situation around, resulting in an impressive adoption of sustainable farming techniques and a 30 percent increase in average income in only two years.

Thanh has been growing tea since 1983. Her two children grew up among the tea bushes. Tea has always been Thanh’s primary income source and the six cyclical harvests she reaps throughout the year have become integral to the rhythms of family life. Standing amidst the perfectly straight rows of tea plants covering her two-hectare plantation, she explains the devastating effects of heavy rainfall on her smallholding in past years.

Climate change has led to increased heavy rainfall and flooding in this region of northern Vietnam; those farmers who are unlucky enough to grow on steep gradients without sufficient tree cover have had to cope with frequent landslides and severe crop damage due to soil erosion. Like most other tea farmers in her commune, Thanh’s previous reliance on herbicides and pesticides meant her crops fell short of international trading standards.Her heavy chemical use was also damaging the  soil  she and her family depend on – killing off beneficial organisms along with pests, resulting in reduced organic matter and poor soil drainage capacity. These poor natural resource management techniques contributed to the widespread water contamination threatening livelihoods throughout Vietnam’s Central and Northern Highlands.

The scale of this land degradation challenge and its impact on tea farmers around Asia prompted UN Environment to collaborate with The Rainforest Alliance to establish the Sustainable Tea Production Landscapes project. Since 2014, the Global Environment Facility-funded initiative has been working across five of Asia’s best-known tea-producing regions – Darjeeling and Assam (India), Yunnan (China), lowland Sri Lanka and Vietnam – educating smallholder farmers and large estate tea growers on the dangers of land degradation and training them in sustainable farming and land management techniques.

While the project’s environmental aims are to protect and restore soil fertility, enhance carbon sequestration and conserve the biodiversity found in tea production landscapes, it also aims to secure farmers’ livelihoods by reducing their vulnerability to climate-related crop failure – an aim that is already bearing fruit.

Since she began implementing sustainable farming techniques after receiving training from the project, Thanh’s family income has doubled, and the nearby tea factory is willing to pay more for her crops due to their improved quality.

“We’ve stopped using herbicides completely,” she says, explaining how she now uses organic methods to control pests and boost the soil’s nutrients. “I’ve learnt to apply mulch and grow hedges, so that natural ecosystems can work against pests; we also intercrop tea with legumes, which replenish and fix the nitrogen into the soil.”

Thanh’s enthusiasm has also made her an excellent peer educator, and she has trained around 70 other tea growers in sustainable farming techniques to date. According to Rikolto, the project’s implementing partner in Vietnam, over 3,000 stakeholders from tea-producing communities, grower cooperatives and local government in Yen Bai, Lai Chau and Thai Nguyen provinces have been trained in alternatives to agrochemicals and effective soil management. Rikolto have used the Farmer Field School methodology, which focuses on learning through experience, capitalising on local knowledge and empowering growers to take ownership of land and soil issues. The curriculum also emphasises the importance of using compost and green manure, and of planting shade trees to keep temperature and moisture levels constant.

Today, Thanh’s fields are a lush, rich green. But it wasn’t always this way.

“Before I joined the project. The tea plants were small and red in colour due to malnutrition. Now, they look healthy because they are under the shade and getting what they need,” she says with a grin. “My yield has doubled!”

UN Environment

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Green Planet

The Plight of Birds and Human Responsibility in the Sixth Mass Extinction

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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As birds become fewer, wildflowers vanish, butterflies disappear, and animals in the wild are threatened, extinction and a grim future haunts.  How often does Rumi write about birdsong … there is a reason.  Nature revives the spirit.

World Environment Day has come and gone.  It was June 5th.  A UN outreach program hosted by a different country each year, it is designed to draw attention to the country’s environmental challenges and to offer it support.  This year the host is India and the theme is beating plastic pollution.  But plastics are not just a blight on the landscape, they are in the seas destroying coral and the species it shelters, painfully killing whales and other creatures … including birds.

Yet, it is far from the only cause of bird distress and their sharply declining numbers.  One example comes from the Arctic, where receding ice has taken with it the nutritious cod, which favor cold waters, and has endangered the black guillemot now forced to feed chicks on the bony and difficult-to-digest fourhorn sculpin.

When the EU commissioned a State of Nature report, they expected bad news but not quite as dire a result.  Prepared by the European Environment Agency and sourced from EU-wide data, it found one in three bird species threatened and only a little over half secure.  It also drew a bleak picture of European habitats finding over half of those studied to be unfavorable.  Habitat loss, pesticides particularly neonicotinoids, even excessive hunting, notably in southern Europe, are all to blame.

Earlier, a comprehensive study conducted by University of Exeter (UK) professor Richard Inger and colleagues had analyzed avian biomass across 25 countries over 30 years.  Using data from Birdlife International and the Pan-European Common Bird Monitoring Scheme, they discovered a surprisingly large and troubling loss:  from 1980 to 2009 the estimated total avian population had declined by 421 million birds.

Meanwhile, new research in the US with far-reaching consequences places blame squarely on human action.  It examines avian consequences of noise pollution.  If certain constant noises irritate us — think of road repair and a pneumatic drill — then birds are no exception.  Noise from oil and gas operations is stressing out birds and harming reproduction.  They exhibit signs of chronic stress, lay fewer eggs or fewer eggs hatch, and nestling growth is stunted.

So reports a study by Nathan Kleist and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (unfortunately not available to the general public without a fee).  The authors study three species of cavity nesting birds (the ash-throated flycatcher, the mountain bluebird and the western bluebird) breeding near oil and gas operations — located on Bureau of Land Management property in New Mexico’s San Juan Basin .

The researchers placed 240 nest boxes on 12 pairs of sites, close to and at varying distances from the drilling pads where loud compressors operated non-stop.  The team took blood samples of adult females and nestlings from all the nest boxes for three years.  They examined nestling body size and feather length and found them to be less well developed in both noisy and lower noise areas, suggesting any level of irritating noise is disruptive.

Baseline levels of a key stress hormone, corticosterone, showed high stress in birds nesting closest to the noise.  In addition, when subjected to a test of being held for 10 minutes, nestlings in noisy areas produced significantly greater stress hormones than those in quiet areas.

It also turned out that the western bluebird was the only species willing to nest in the sites closest to the compressors.  Such behavior had cultivated a belief it was immune to noise.  Not so, the study results revealed.

That environmental stress is increased by noise pollution, and that it degrades avian reproductive success is thus the conclusive message of this study.  With background noise constantly increasing in the US, even protected areas are no longer immune.  On the face of it, there is also the distinct possibility other species could also be affected.

If the anthropocene is our age, it is also our look in the mirror to see what the human footprint has wrought, even if unwittingly.  Global warming, extreme weather events becoming more severe, plastic pollution and stressed wildlife, record extinctions, insect declines … all appear to be portents of an impaired future warning humans repeatedly of urgency.  The sixth mass extinction is underway but it will take centuries if not thousands of years, and man can help by alleviating global warming and increasing preservation efforts.  Clearly related to CO2 levels, global warming has been the culprit in the previous five.  CO2 levels are already in excess of 0.04 percent perilously close to the 0.05 percent calculated to melt icecaps through temperature rise causing serious flooding of coastal areas.

Are leaders and decision-makers listening?

Authors note:  This article appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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