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UN health agency working on strategies to gradually lift COVID-19 restrictions

A wide view of Grand Central Terminal with an unusually sparse crowd during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in New York City. UN Photo/Evan Schneider
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The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with countries on strategies to “gradually and safely” ease stay-at-home restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the new coronavirus, agency chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists on Friday, though he cautioned against any sudden action.

WHO wants to see restrictions lifted as much as anyone”, he said.

“At the same time, lifting restrictions too quickly could lead to a deadly resurgence. The way down can be as dangerous as the way up if not managed properly”.

Tedros laid out six factors for consideration, which include that transmission is controlled and sufficient public health and medical services are available.

Outbreak risks in settings such as long-term care facilities also need to be minimized, while workplaces, schools and other essential locations should have preventive measures in place.

“Fifth, that importation risks can be managed,” he continued, “and sixth – and I cannot over-emphasize this point – that communities are fully aware and engaged in the transition. Every single person has a role to play in ending this pandemic”.

Health worker infections an ‘alarming trend’

Meanwhile, some countries are reporting that more than 10 per cent of their health workers have been infected by the new coronavirus, indicative of what Tedros described as “an alarming trend”.

Evidence from China, Italy, Singapore, Spain and the United States shows that some infections are occurring outside health facilities, so at home or in communities.

Factors for infection in health settings include late recognition of COVID-19 and lack of training or experience in dealing with respiratory pathogens. Many health workers are also being exposed to large numbers of patients during long shifts with inadequate rest periods.

“However, the evidence also shows that when health workers wear personal protective equipment the right way, infections can be prevented”, said Tedros.

“That makes it even more important that health workers are able to access the masks, gloves, gowns and other PPE they need to do their jobs safely and effectively”.

WHO continues to support countries in securing supplies and equipment, and in scaling up procurement and distribution of these items.

He estimated that each month, the recently launched UN Supply Chain Task Force will need to ship 100 million medical masks and gloves; up to 25 million respirators, gowns and face shields, and 2.5 million diagnostic tests, among other supplies.

Coronavirus spreading in rural areas in Africa

While there has been a “welcome slowing” of COVID-19 cases in European countries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as Spain and Italy, Tedros said the virus is spreading to rural areas in Africa.

With clusters of cases and community spread now appearing in more than 16 countries, he expects “severe hardship” for local health systems, which are already overstretched.

“The recent meeting of the G20 countries expressed strong support for Africa, which must be expedited even though the numbers in Africa are still relatively small but accelerating’, he said.

Ebola resurfaces in DR Congo

Tedros also updated journalists on the fight against Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where a new case of the disease was confirmed in the city of Beni, North Kivu province, following 52 days without any incidence.

“Unfortunately, this means the government of DRC will not be able to declare an end to the outbreak on Monday, as hoped”, he said.

The outbreak in the east of the country began in August 2018 and has killed more than 2,200 people.  The last person who was confirmed to have Ebola tested negative twice and was discharged from a treatment centre in early March.

WHO and partners will continue to work with the Congolese Government, affected communities and partners, Tedros added.

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European farms mix things up to guard against food-supply shocks

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By ETHAN BILBY

‘Items in this section have limited availability due to supplier production issues,’ ‘Sorry, temporarily out of stock’ and ‘Sold out’ are all signs that became familiar as recent global upheavals exposed how precarious our food supply is.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to bare shelves in supermarkets as shipping routes were cut off. The war in Ukraine has affected the supply of essential grains.

But increased climate change stands to cause even greater disruption. Researchers say part of the solution to mitigating that risk is for farms to become more mixed through some combination of crop cultivation, livestock production and forestry, a move that would also make agriculture more sustainable. 

For Dr Sara Burbi, assistant professor at Coventry University in the UK until December 2022 and now an independent researcher, COVID-19 was a wake-up call.

‘Suddenly, we experienced first-hand what happens when value chains are not resilient to shocks and what happens when globalisation, with all its intricacies, does not work anymore,’ she said. ‘We saw highly specialised farming systems fail when they over-relied on external inputs that they had no access to.’

Climate change, according to Burbi, could provide even bigger global shocks ranging from widespread crop failures to lower yields or damage from flooding. More sustainable agriculture is essential to ensure food supplies can withstand the impact of climate change and unexpected local, national and even global crises.

Beneficial combos

During her tenure at Coventry University, Burbi coordinated the EU-funded AGROMIX project, which runs until end-October 2024.

As part of the project, pilot farms across Europe are experimenting with combining crop and livestock production in one farm (mixed farming) and with pairing farming and forestry activities (agroforestry). Poultry grazing in orchards is an example of a mixed-farming approach. The results reveal interesting synergies and promising effects, including improvements in soil health.

‘For a long time, forestry and agricultural activities have been considered at odds, as we have pushed for more and more specialised land uses,’ Burbi said. ‘This has led to loss of soil fertility and a sharp decline in biodiversity, coupled with an increased dependence on external inputs to compensate.’ 

A combined system can increase the cycling of nutrients needed in the soil for crops to grow. It can also help to regulate air and water quality, prevent land degradation and even provide biomass and food on-site for livestock.

One site in Switzerland, for instance, found that mixed farming helped keep soil quality high, while more specialised farming tended to deplete it.

AGROMIX will use 12 pilot sites and nine experimental ones, spread across three climatic zones (Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean), to develop recommendations for farmers on combining productivity with greater sustainability and climate resilience.

Although mixed farming has been practiced for a long time, it is only recently that scientists have begun to measure biophysical data on such sites and provide real evidence to support approaches that work.

The project has found that the presence of trees on pasture has measurable benefits to animal health and welfare, especially in extreme heat when they provide a canopy of much-needed shade.

Trees and hedgerows can also offset greenhouse-gas emissions from livestock, increase the carbon sequestration capacity of the land, provide a haven for biodiversity and help prevent flooding.

The project wants to work closely with farmers, taking into account their needs and priorities.

‘Knowledge integration can empower key actors, in this case farmers, to embrace the transition to sustainable farming,’ Burbi said.

The next step will be designing agriculture systems that are totally energy independent and, as a result, even more sustainable.

Forest focus

The EU-funded MIXED project at Aarhus University in Denmark is also focused on combining mixed farming systems with agroforestry to make agriculture more efficient and resilient.

‘It’s not only about economic efficiency, but also environmental and climate efficiency,’ said Professor Tommy Dalgaard, the project coordinator. ‘Agriculture needs to be resilient to change, all kinds of change.’

Working with around 100 farmers across Europe, MIXED has created networks to study the different ways in which mixed farming and agroforestry can be used.

One focus is on the take-aways that can be gleaned from the traditional agroforestry techniques used in the Tagus Valley of Portugal, in an area known as the Montado.

‘They have these big cork oaks that are often more than 100 years old with grazing cattle below them,’ said Dalgaard. ‘In the winter, they can plough the soil and make small fields with cereal so they can harvest a winter crop and then in the dry season the cattle can be there.’

It is possible to have these green, vegetated areas because of the ancient oak trees, which create shade and sustain the water cycle.

The concern is that drought may threaten the oaks, so researchers from the project are trying to work out how best to preserve the system as well as how to adapt it to new areas.

Danish farms in the project have taken a different approach, looking at how farmers can use coppicing to create a carbon sink. Coppicing is a pruning technique that cuts trees to ground level, causing new shoots to grow rapidly from the base to form a bush.

These are then usually harvested every 10-20 years for biomass fuel, meanwhile also giving shelter and shadow to free-range, high-value livestock such as sows with piglets. Cutting the bushes to create mulch also helps to improve soil quality and avoids burning them, according to Dalgaard.

The project’s ultimate aim is to build up a European database demonstrating examples of mixed farming and agroforestry, highlighting the benefits and advising on best practices. Essentially, it is about inspiring more farmers to adopt mixed farming and agroforestry methods and supporting them in the process.

‘We need real-life examples,’ said Dalgaard. ‘We now have some concrete examples of farmers, agricultural landscapes and value chains that can report good results from having done something in a different way.’

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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Astana hosts 18th Iran-Kazakhstan Joint Economic Committee meeting

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Photo: Iranian Agriculture Minister Javad Sadati-Nejad (R) and Kazakh Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov sign MOU documents in Astana on Thursday.

The 18th meeting of Iran-Kazakhstan Joint Economic Committee meeting was held on Thursday in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana, at the end of which the two sides signed a comprehensive document to expand cooperation in numerous areas including trade, agriculture, environment, tourism, science, and technology, education and sports.

As IRIB reported, the two countries’ Joint Economic Committee meeting was co-chaired by Iranian Agriculture Minister Javad Sadati-Nejad and Prime Minister of Kazakhstan Alikhan Smailov.

Sadati-Nejad and Smailov held talks before the two countries’ joint meeting to discuss major areas that should be agreed upon in the event’s concluding document.

Speaking to the press after the joint committee meeting, Sadati-Nejad said that according to the signed memorandum of understanding (MOU), 30 percent of the trade between the two countries will be in the field of agricultural products.

According to the agriculture minister, the two countries are also going to establish a commercial-agricultural joint venture in order to develop trade in the Persian Gulf countries, Central Asia, and West Asia.

In this meeting, Amir Yousefi, the vice-chairman of the Agriculture Committee of Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture (ICCIMA) also said that Kazakhstan is a good option for extraterritorial cultivation due to the good water conditions and the quality of soil, which should be considered by Iranian investors.

Reaching $3b of annual trade on agenda

Speaking on the sidelines of the meeting, Sadati-Nejad announced that the two countries have put an annual trade of three billion dollars on the agenda, expressing hope that signing the comprehensive MOU would pave the way for achieving this target.

“The presidents of the two countries have aimed to increase the level of trade to three billion dollars; currently this number is around 500 million dollars,” the minister said.

Mentioning the developments in the two countries’ banking relations, the official said that the expansion of relations in the agriculture sector is of special importance for both sides.

He further noted that a joint committee will be formed in the next month to pursue this goal, saying: “Kazakhstan has requested Iran’s engineering services in modern irrigation and desalination areas, and we have expressed our readiness to provide them with the mentioned services.”

Iranian trade center to be opened in Almaty

During the meeting of the two countries’ expert committees which was held prior to the main event on Wednesday, Amir Abedi, the head of the Iran-Kazakhstan Joint Chamber of Commerce, announced that the business office of Iran-Kazakhstan joint chamber will soon be opened in Almaty.

Pointing to the capacities of Iran and Kazakhstan for the development of economic relations, Abedi considered Kazakhstan’s market as a strategic destination for Iranian businessmen.

The 17th Iran-Kazakhstan joint economic committee meeting was held about a year ago in Tehran.

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The importance of Iran’s membership in the SCO

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The members of Majlis (the Parliament) have approved the emergency of the plan of Iran’s commitments to achieve the position of a member state in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), – informs IRNA from Tehran.

The  emergency plan was endorsed with 161 votes in favor, two against, and three abstentions.

Ali Adyani, the deputy vice president for parliamentary affairs, said that the plan was proposed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was endorsed by the cabinet members, and sent to parliament to become law.

According to the official, Iran’s membership in the SCO is of great importance in terms of economic, social, and international affairs particularly because the opportunity would help the Islamic Republic get rid of illegal sanctions and enhance economic diplomacy.

Iran has been an observer of the SCO since 2005. Then, President Ebrahim Raisi called for full membership of the Islamic country in the organization in its last summer summit in Tajikistan.

The legislators have accepted to speed up scrutinizing the plan. Earlier, the Iranian parliament had endorsed the plan of accession of the Islamic Republic to the SCO.

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