The top 5 food and agriculture stories in 2015

Is there enough food to go around, and is it safe? And has it been produced at the expense of deforestation and loss of biodiversity? These were some questions the global community grappled with this year.

This year’s Southeast Asia haze crisis, fresh controversies about the use of pesticides in agriculture and a looming food crisis due to an unusually long El Nino phenomenon underscored the challenges of meeting global demand for food while addressing the environmental impact of agriculture. 

But efforts to reduce food waste - a key element of global food security - gained momentum worldwide, and more initiatives were launched to help farmers adapt to a changing climate.

Here are the top 5 food and agriculture stories of 2015.  

1. Southeast Asia’s haze crisis

Thick, acrid smoke from forest and peatland fires in Indonesia plagued Southeast Asia for about three months this year, drawing the world’s attention to the link between the agriculture sector and forest destruction. Pulp and paper firms, as well as palm oil companies, were blamed for the burning, which is a widely-practiced cheap and efficient way of clearing land for plantations. 

This year’s haze, which began in September, was the worst on record, and took a huge toll not only on forest ecosystems, but also the region’s economies and citizens. Indonesia estimated that as of October, 20 people had died from haze-related illnesses, and the fires have cost the government more than US$30 billion.

The haze also affected the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore; in these countries, flights were grounded, schools closed, and some outdoor events cancelled due to the pollution. 

The burning, which has been dubbed “a crime against humanity” by Indonesian officials and recurs with disturbing regularity in the region, raised troubling questions about how palm oil - an edible oil that is ubiquitous in food products, cosmetics, toiletries, and increasingly, biofuels - is produced.

While some consumers suggested boycotting palm oil products as a solution, the truth is that there isn’t a more land or resource-efficient vegetable oil around, said experts. The solution lies in sustainable palm oil. 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the industry association for sustainable palm oil, revealed that out of all the fires that had been recorded on palm oil plantations in Indonesia during the haze, only a fraction of them had been on concessions certified sustainable by RSPO.

This proves that RSPO certification is the way to break the link between palm oil cultivation and illegal burning, said the association. 

In an bid to help efforts to monitor the actions of palm oil companies and hold them accountable, RSPO in November published the maps of all its members’ concessions, except those in Malaysia, where doing so is not legal.

The Indonesian government, demonstrating more determination to end the fires than in previous years, announced in October that it plans to take back concessions in peatlands - which are especially vulnerable to burning - that have not been cultivated.

In December, it also released the initials of 16 plantation companies found to be responsible for the illegal fires - most of them pulpwood firms. The country has said it is investigating more than 100 companies over the fires, and promised that the haze will not return next year

2. Global food security under threat 

As El Nino, the climate phenomenon associated with hot and dry weather swept through many parts of the world, it caused widespread damage to crops, giving a glimpse of things to come if global temperature rise continues unchecked.

International charity Oxfam in October warned that at least ten million of the poorest people face food insecurity in 2015 and 2016 due to extreme weather conditions and the onset of El Niño; countries such as Ethiopia and Malawi are already experiencing a food emergency due to failing harvests. 

In Asia, a prolonged drought shrivelled crops across broad swathes of India, Thailand, Laos, and the Philippines, and other Southeast Asian countries. And even when the rains came, torrential floods destroyed farms across India and Myanmar, causing further disruption to regional food supply chains.

Ocean stocks were also not spared the impacts of climate change. Research by the University of British Columbia showed that warming seas and increased carbon dioxide is harming salmon, mussels, oysters. Another study by Australian researchers found that climate change will disrupt oceanic food chains and cause entire ecosystems and fisheries to collapse. 

These developments have in turn spurred new efforts to find ways of adapting to it. A team of scientists from the Mexico-headquartered International Wheat and Maize Improvement Centre in January embarked on a project to help farmers in India and Nepal protect their rice harvests by improving productivity and resource management. 

Nepali NGO Centre for Environmental and Agricultural Policy Research in October also developed clusters of “climate-smart” villages through the country, helping farmers adopt new growing techniques, cut down chemical fertiliser use, and use mobile phones to get the latest information on weather patterns and crop diseases. 

Meanwhile, an international team of scientists from China, US, and Sweden in August also made a breakthrough in climate resilient crop development when they found a way to make rice more productive, more nutritious and less of a greenhouse gas producer – simply by adding just one gene from the cereal, barley.

3. Unprecedented government action on food waste

While efforts to reduce food waste are not new, governments this year introduced bold policies to reduce the amount of food waste generated globally - a statistic which today stands at 1.3 billion tonnes annually or one-third of all food produced.  

In a world first, France passed a law in May that banned large supermarkets from throwing away unsold food - goods that were still safe to eat had to be donated to charity, and the remainder had to be given to farmers as animal feed or compost. Failure to do so can result in fines of up to 75,000 euros or two years in jail

This unprecedented law was initially scrapped in August because of a technicality, but the French parliament reintroduced the bill in December and unanimously voted for it, hailing it as “a crucial measure for the planet“.  The law will now go before the senate, where observers expect it to easily pass. 

In the United States, the US Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency in September announced a national goal for a 50 per cent reduction of food waste in the US by 2030, with the slogan: ”Let’s feed people, not landfills“. Each year, about 40 per cent of food in the country ends up as waste. 

The newly-minted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the international community in September, also aim to cut food waste per capita by half by 2030, reinforcing the importance of reducing food waste to achieving climate and poverty eradication goals.

4. Changing diets 

This year, global development organisations, research institutes and even celebrities issued a renewed call to acknowledge the link between climate change and diets, and urged people to consider reducing the amount of animal products they consume.

The UN noted in a February report on sustainable consumption and production said that reducing the environmental impact of agriculture “would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products”.

According to UK-based think tank Chatham House, greenhouse gas emissions from livestock account for 15 per cent of total global emissions. In a report released in November, the organisation pointed out that meat and dairy consumption globally has risen beyond healthy levels, and growing meat demand will make it harder to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

Researchers from the Colombia-based  International Centre for Tropical Agriculture also warned that reducing hunger and emissions would be impossible without a move towards a mostly plant-based diet; a notion that has also garnered support from former actor and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Technology might also be helping to create plant-based alternatives to meat that look and taste like it. In January, a US-based company called Beyond Meat claimed to have perfected a plant-based protein replica of meat that passed muster with an acclaimed food critic. This, and similar products, could be an important step for allowing meat lovers to enjoy their meals without the environmental and climate impact.

5. Food vs pesticides

As the use of pesticides continues to increase worldwide and controversy grows about the harmful effects of these chemicals on human health and the environment, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation in November called on governments to review their pesticide regulations and ensure they were not having negative impacts on people or the environment. 

For example, it is essential that pesticide labels explain how to use the chemicals correctly and outline how to deal with spills or poisoning. FAO said it will help governments, especially in developing countries, better enforce pesticide legislation, and review the list of chemicals allowed in their countries. 

One development they may need to factor in is an announcement by the World Health Organization in March that glyphosate - the world’s most widely used weed-killer, first introduced commercially in the 1970s by agrotechnology giant Monsanto under the brand name Roundup, is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. While this was refuted by industry groups, it sparked concerns among citizens. 

Three Chinese citizens in April sued the government, demanding to see the toxicology report which had allowed Monsanto’s Roundup into the country almost three decades ago. In Europe, 1.4 million people also signed a petition calling on the European Union to suspend glyphosate approval pending further assessment.

Despite these findings, others, such as the European Food Safety Authority, said that the chemical was not likely to be carcinogenic, and called for higher safety limits on the use of the chemical in agriculture, highlight the conflict and uncertainties around food security, safety, and sustainable farming. 

This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 11 categories.

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