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Organic pesticides to provide natural protection for endangered crops

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Some vitally important European crops like vines and olives are being devastated by disease. Scientists are searching for biological replacements for chemical pesticides to improve crop and human health.

The threat to agriculture from invasive species is huge. The United Nations (UN) estimates that plant disease costs the world’s economy over €200 billion per year, with 20-40% of crop production lost to pests.

‘The economic loss from invasive species is immense, and if we took no action, there would be a huge amount of food insecurity, not only across the EU but across the globe,’ said Dr. Hikmate Abriouel, professor of microbiology at Universidad de Jaén in Spain’s Andalucía.

With the stakes so high, it’s easy to understand why the agricultural sector is one of the largest users of chemicals worldwide.

The question of food security is uppermost these days. But, as Dr. Abriouel goes on to explain, our growing reluctance to use chemicals in agriculture adds a layer of complication to farming.

‘There was a time when it was normal to rely on powerful pesticides to treat agricultural land,’ she said. ‘But now we know that a chemical designed to kill a living organism is likely to have negative impacts on other biological systems too.’

Spraying crops with synthetic compounds has adverse impacts on people, farm animals, wildlife, pollinators like bees and other living things that play an essential role in the ecosystem. The chemical runoff also damages the land and water.

Pollution risk

Pesticide pollution causes risk to farmland from the chemical residues that leach into water supplies.

Some synthetic pesticides have been linked to human diseases like cancer, diseases of the immune system and respiratory illnesses.

Farmers who work with pesticides are particularly vulnerable to side-effects, with an estimated 44% of farm workers worldwide experiencing at least one incident of acute pesticide poisoning every year.

The EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy for sustainable food production targets significant reductions in the use of chemical pesticides, fertilisers and antimicrobials and supports an increase in organic farming. Sustainability goals mean biopesticides or biological alternatives to pesticides are required.

‘There is a lot of evidence that replacing chemicals with biopesticides works with nature rather than against it,’ said Dr. Abriouel. Biological solutions benefit soil health and biodiversity too.

Dying vines

In France alone, around 12% of vineyards were unproductive between 2012 and 2017 due to Grape Trunk Disease (GTD) which has been spreading across Europe over the past two decades. A chemical pesticide used to treat vines was banned because it is harmful to human and environmental health.

The disease results in 50% less productive plants, a decrease in the quality of the wine and the premature death of healthy vines. Worldwide, estimates for the replacement cost of grapevines exceed €1.4 billion per year.

As a response to this blight, the EU is funding the multinational BIOBESTicide project which aims to find a biological solution to GTD. 

‘Our aim is to produce a really effective, totally natural preventive solution to this very serious and very expensive problem,’ said Dr. Assia Dreux-Zigha who works for the French biotechnology company Greencell and is coordinating the BIOBESTicide research.

The team’s research is focused on a specific strain of Pythium oligandrum – a ‘friendly’ fungus that is naturally present in the rhizosphere of many crop plants, including vines. The rhizosphere is the microorganism-rich region of soil directly around a plant’s roots.

P. oligandrum works both by destroying parasites directly and by inducing plant resistance against further attack. After isolating P. oligandrum in the lab, Greencell and its partners found that under certain conditions, the biopesticide colonised the roots of vines and stimulated the plant’s natural defences against GTD.

In the near future, following trials and safety approval, the BIOBESTicide researchers aim to scale up and field-test their biopesticide in vineyards across different geographical areas.

‘This is a very challenging project but, when we finish in late-2023, we hope to have a solution that will make it possible for vine plants to survive for their entire natural lifecycles,’ said Dr. Dreux-Zigha.

Undoubtedly, winemakers will raise a glass to this prospect.

Olive preserver

A second iconic European crop urgently in need of a biopesticide solution is the olive. First detected in European olives in 2013, Olive Quick Decline Syndrome (OQDS) is the disease caused by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa.

In Puglia, southern Italy, where Xylella first surfaced on the continent, olive production shrank by 65-80% in the years up to 2020 with the loss of an estimated 100 000 jobs and the destruction of 400-year-old heritage olive trees.

Xylella has surfaced in France, Spain and Portugal, spread by an insect called the spittlebug. Affected plants are infected from the roots upwards, causing the leaves to turn brown and eventually killing the plant. It is considered one of the most dangerous plant pathogenic bacteria in the world.

‘The problem with this pathogen is getting worse,’ said Dr. Abriouel, who supervises the EU-backed SMART-AGRI-SPORE project, which aims to develop a biopesticide based on bacterial spores.

‘Preventing further spread of this pest is a priority in the EU,’ she said. A 2020 study estimated that as a worst-case scenario, Italy alone stands to lose between €1.9 billion and €5.2 billion over a 50-year period as a result of OQDS.

A number of projects are developing biopesticides to attack Xylella. Principal researcher Dr. Julia Manetsberger under the supervision of Dr. Abriouel is focused on modifying a strain of another bacteria to render it deadly to Xylella.

The researchers are hopeful that by 2024, a viable biopesticide will emerge from this research.

‘We can’t use something against Xylella that changes the biodiversity or destroys or increases the resistance of microorganisms present in other plants and soil,’ said Dr. Abriouel. ‘In other words, we can’t solve one problem and create another.’

 ‘We are working hard to reach this objective,’ said Dr. Manetsberger, ‘These plants are so important for our economy and we need to defend them.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

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World Bank Group Launches First Country Climate and Development Report

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The World Bank Group has launched the first in a series of new core diagnostic reports that integrate climate change and development considerations and help countries prioritize the most impactful actions that can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and boost adaptation.

The Country Climate and Development Reports (CCDRs) build on rigorous data and research and identify main sources of GHG emissions and climate vulnerabilities. They discuss development paths that reduce GHG emissions and boost climate adaptation, including the costs and challenges as well as benefits and opportunities. The reports also suggest concrete, priority actions that can support the transition towards climate resilience and lower emissions.

As public documents, CCDRs are aimed at informing governments, citizens, and development partners to engage with the development and climate agenda. CCDRs will feed into other core Bank Group diagnostics and help attract funding and direct financing for high-impact climate action.

As the largest multilateral funder of climate action in developing countries, we recognize the importance of good data and diagnostics that identify and prioritize actions that meaningfully reduce GHG emissions and build resilience,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “These reports offer concrete ideas of high-impact climate actions that support development and also explore opportunities and reforms to enable private sector engagement in the transition.”

The Türkiye CCDR released this week identifies key priorities for climate action to help Türkiye  reduce GHG emissions and boost resilience, including:

  • Reducing the carbon intensity of the energy sector and transitioning away from coal in a just and inclusive manner, while supporting well-designed power markets and a well-functioning grid;
  • Enabling public investments and mobilizing private investments through a tax reform that combines subsidy reform with a carbon tax, along with other structural interventions that better align incentives to increase productivity and growth and reduce carbon intensity;
  • Reducing energy inefficiency and supporting modal shift in transport;
  • Sustainable forest management and landscape restoration;
  • Mainstreaming resilience considerations in public and private sector decisions; and
  • Enabling a people-centered approach to the green transition, providing well-targeted support to communities impacted by physical and transition risks.

Over the next few months, the World Bank Group expects to publish more than 20 CCDRs. An overview document summarizing the key emerging priorities arising from these diagnostics will be published ahead of COP27 to foster action-oriented discussion in the global community.

The World Bank Group delivered over $26 billion of climate finance in fiscal year 2021 alone. That number is set to rise further this year. The Bank Group remains committed to aligning its financing flows with the Paris Agreement.

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Stretching sands as desertification spreads to Europe

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by Emanuela Barbiroglio

Drought and desertification threatens to degrade land in Europe and around the world. We take a look at some new studies into how drought spreads and deserts develop.

The scale of the issue is sometimes under-appreciated, but drylands cover over 41% of the Earth’s terrestrial land surface. They are now home to over 38% of the world’s population. The UN sponsors the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought on 17 June 2022 to highlight the issue. 

Droughts lead to the loss of arable land through desertification, the death of vegetation and a scarcity of drinking water. 

Europe is not immune to the intensifying aridity, quite apart from heatwaves. Water stress and aridity affect 168 000 square kilometres in Italy and 365 000 square kilometres in Spain, according to data compiled by the Joint Research Centre (JRC). (See box below).

Scientists in the DRY-2-DRY project, using climate models, satellite data and meteorological measurements, are researching the capacity of drought and heatwaves to intensify and propagate by themselves.

‘This is a process that hasn’t been studied before,’ said Prof Diego Miralles, Professor of Hydrology and Climate at Ghent University, Belgium.

Drought evolution

‘By understanding it better, we can get better forecasts of how droughts may evolve and set early warnings for adaptation early enough,’ he said.

The availability of water is determined by two factors – ‘how much it rains and how much the atmosphere demands from the land during the process of evaporation,’ said Mirralles.

‘This balance of moisture has been changing due to global warming. While precipitation is changing differently in different regions, evaporation is mostly increasing due to the increase in temperature. Therefore, there is a tendency for most regions in the world to become increasingly arid,’ said Miralles. 

Whatever the cause of drought, it affects general ecosystem dynamics, including availability of drinking water for the population. It also has serious implications for biodiversity, as plants must be able to photosynthesise with less water in the soil as well as cope with an atmosphere that evaporates more water thanks to higher temperatures.

Drought often leads to desertification, where the land is so arid it becomes infertile and loses biological productivity. This has catastrophic consequences on societies and ecosystems.

A vicious circle

In the case of a drought, the evaporation cycle becomes a vicious circle. Since evaporation is lower, there’s less likelihood of condensing water in the atmosphere and triggering rainfall. With a dry atmosphere, there is less water to moisturise the soil. Furthermore, the soil tends to dry out in spring because it’s already warmer than before.

Then, plants start to grow and consume the water earlier in the year. The summer commences with drier soil and there is no way to buffer the temperature by evaporating water.

‘This is known to happen locally,’ said Miralles, ‘But we are looking at how the wind moving that mass of dry air to another location can trigger a new drought. It becomes a bit like a wildfire.’

The impact of rising global temperatures means, not only are there heat waves and more droughts but they tend to occur at the same time.

There are two ways to improve the situation – to adapt and to mitigate. ‘Land cover change (with vegetation for example) as an adaptation measure can help us resist heat waves, but we must make sure that this is not our plan A,’ said Miralles. ‘Plan A should be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.’

To learn more about Prof. Miralles’ analysis of drought ,follow the link to the Dry2Dry homepage.

Deserts’ guy

Prof. Fernando Maestre, professor of Ecology at the University of Alicante, began his research in Spain in 2005. The project BIODESERT carried out the first global field survey to evaluate how changes in climate and land use, such as grazing pressure, affect drylands ecosystems.

In order to survey such a vast phenomenon, collaborative work is key. The BIODESERT project is now global and includes scientists and ecosystems from 21 countries on all continents, with the exception of Antarctica.

‘I asked all the research teams to do everything exactly as we had already done it in Spain, because using different methods would have meant we wouldn’t have been able to compare the results from the various areas surveyed across the world,’ said Maestre. ‘Our approach in Spain had proved its worth, now we had to test if it could function in a different environment. And it did!’

With the shifting sands of time, the problem of land degradation in arid areas and drylands has spread since the first UN Plan of Action to Combat Desertification was adopted in 1977. There are serious threats to food security, biodiversity and the world economy as more and more territory succumbs to desertification.

The researchers observed that plant and microbial diversity plays a key role in maintaining the capacity of drylands to provide essential ecosystem services linked to soil fertility and the production of plant biomass. These ecosystem services are fundamental for supporting the livelihood of more than one billion people globally.

They also reported that increases in aridity promote abrupt changes on the structure and functioning of drylands. This culminates with a shift to low-cover (sparse vegetation) ecosystems that are nutrient- and species-poor at high aridity values.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030 call for sustainable land management and increased co-operation “on desertification, dust storms, land degradation and drought” to promote resilience and avoid disaster.

‘Until a few years ago, nobody could imagine the important role of biodiversity in global drylands, nor the presence of multiple ecosystem thresholds in response to increases in aridity.’ These discoveries improve the understanding of how drylands are changing in response to climate change, now and in the future.

Early warnings

Eventually, these insights may be used to help design effective action to stem desertification across drylands worldwide. The JRC’s new edition of the World Atlas of Desertification specifically states that “land degradation is considered to be a global problem of human dominance”.

BIODESERT is now testing the suitability of multiple early warning indicators. Results suggest that the characteristics of dryland vegetation may be used to flag ecosystem degradation across global drylands. They also plan to expand the research programme to start exploring long-term changes in the structure and functioning of drylands, by again surveying the original field sites they surveyed over 15 years ago.

To learn more, about World Day to Combat Drought and Desertification on 17 June 2022, follow the link to the UN World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought homepage.

The EU Mission ‘A Soil Deal for Europe’ is leading the transition towards healthy soils by 2030 by establishing 100 living labs and lighthouses. Fighting desertification and restoring soils is one of its main aims. Follow the link to learn more about A Soil Deal for Europe

The 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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New oil blocks overlap Protected Areas, maps reveal: Congo’s Oil Ministry greenwashing exposed

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Nine of the 16 oil blocks to be auctioned in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) next month overlap Protected Areas, according to a review of official government maps by Greenpeace Africa. Minister Didier Budimbu, who had previously insisted that “none” of the blocks overlaps Protected Areas, confirmed Greenpeace’s findings in a statement yesterday.

Plans to auction rainforest for oil were reactivated in April, five months after the signature of a $500 million forest deal signed with the Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) at COP26. 

Greenpeace Africa and others have expressed alarm that three of the blocks overlap with the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, a biodiversity hotspot containing about 30 gigatons of carbon, equivalent to three years of global emissions. Oil drilling could release the immense stocks of carbon they store, warned Professor Simon Lewis of University College London. 

That Protected Areas are also at risk became apparent last month when the Hydrocarbons Ministry itself published a video featuring a map of six of the 16 blocks : five of them are clearly shown to overlap Protected Areas. The voice-over praises the “meticulousness” with which blocks had been “selected,” mindful of environmental “sensibilities,” and claiming input from unnamed environmentalists. Another official online source, the Environment Ministry Forest Atlas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, shows nine of the blocks overlapping Protected Areas, including a national park, nature reserves, and a mangroves marine park. 

The Ministry’s statement to Greenpeace Africa asserts: “It’s been decided that Protected Areas containing mineral natural resources of high economic value will be degazetted.” While it describes the overlaps as “very negligible,” a simple review of the map shows significant overlap in at least three cases, including that of Upemba National Park, part of which occupies about a third of the Upemba block.

Irene Wabiwa Betoko, International Project Leader for the Congo Basin forest at Greenpeace Africa: “The auction of new oil blocks anywhere during a climate crisis that disproportionately affects African people is mad. Greenwashing the auction of blocks overlapping peatlands and Protected Areas is the height of cynicism. Doing so with such amateurism is particularly disturbing.”

In its statement to Greenpeace Africa, the Ministry emphasizes that no areas inside UNESCO World Heritage sites are up for auction and that overlaps are restricted to other Protected Areas. Congolese law, however, makes no distinction, in terms of oil exploration, among Protected Areas. 

Block 18, one of the few that doesn’t encroach on a Protected Area, is only about twenty kilometers from Salonga National Park, a UNESCO site. In July 2021, the DRC government succeeded in removing Salonga from the List of World Heritage in Danger after it promised to update UNESCO, no later than 1 February 2022, on “the progress made towards the definitive cancellation of the oil concessions” there. Over two months after the deadline, the government reported that the park’s steering committee decided on 14 December 2021 to “initiate actions for the[ir] definitive cancellation.” Instead of finally acting, the government continues planning to act. 

“The mouth that says all the right things about the climate and biodiversity crises works separately from the hand that signs the contracts that make them worse. This disconnect also characterizes DRC’s donors: their COP26 speeches in praise of the Congo rainforest have resulted in an agreement that is an open invitation to oil companies,” added Irene Wabiwa.

The agreement signed at COP26 does nothing to protect peatlands of the Cuvette Centrale from the oil and gas industry, and is hardly more demanding with regard to the integrity of Protected Areas. Instead of banning extractive industries in them, the 2 November letter of intent seeks only damage control. It calls for a study “to determine to what extent the titles […] of hydrocarbons overlap with and/or have an impact on protected areas, […] with a view to adopting appropriate prevention or mitigation measures […]”. 

Greenpeace Africa calls on the DRC government to cancel the auction of new oil blocks: “Instead of auto-pilot steering Congo into a climate catastrophe, the government and the international community must invest in ending energy poverty by accelerating investments in clean and accessible renewable energies,” concluded Irene Wabiwa.  

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