News Article | February 22, 2017
New and existing funds provided by the EU and the UK government will be made available to South Sudan following the declaration of famine in the country. The UN has warned that about 40% of South Sudan’s population are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and that people are already dying from hunger caused by famine in parts of the country. An emergency package of €82m (£69m) has been announced by the European commission to tackle what the UN described as a “man-made” famine in the oil-rich country, which has been ravaged by three years of civil war. This money will supplement funding provided by Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID), which is making £100m available to South Sudan this year, in addition to a similar amount pledged last year as part of a package aimed at preventing migration from east Africa. The UK has also announced £100m to Somalia, which is under threat of famine. The EU’s commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, Christos Stylianides, who recently visited South Sudan, has called on government and opposition forces to stop blocking humanitarian organisations from accessing some of the worst hit areas. His exhortation was echoed by Pope Francis, who stressed the need for urgent action and said millions could be “condemned to death” by the famine. “Now more than ever there should be a commitment by everyone to not just talk but contribute food aid and allow it to reach suffering populations,” said Francis. The US remains the single largest donor of humanitarian assistance to South Sudan, having provided more than $2.1bn (£1.7bn) since 2014. The declaration of famine – and the threat of similar crises in Somalia, Yemen and parts of Nigeria – came as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that the world’s ability to feed itself is endangered by increasing pressure on natural resources, climate change and mounting inequality. In a report released on Wednesday (pdf) the FAO said that, while progress has been made in reducing global hunger over the past 30 years, a “business-as-usual” approach to food production is not an option in the face of population growth that is likely to expand the global population to almost 10 billion people by 2050. More than 650 million people, or 8% of the world’s people, would be undernourished in 2030 under this scenario, even if rates of hunger fell. The report warned that the the expansion of food production and economic growth has exacted a heavy toll on the environment. It also highlighted major trends, such as the “feminisation” of agriculture as young men migrate to work in cities, leaving women to work the fields. This phenomenon is especially prominent in north Africa and western Asia. The share of women in agriculture in Chad, for example, had increased from 30% to as much as 57% over the past 20 years. “The expanding role of women in agriculture can be empowering if women have a greater say in decision-making and the control of household resources,” said the report, The Future of Food and Agriculture: Trends and Challenges. “However, it may also exacerbate women’s workloads, as infrastructure and institutions in low-income countries are rarely adapted to supporting working women.” The report’s authors predict that changes in what people eat will pile further pressure on resources and drive deforestation as more people – outside the poorest countries, at least – eat fewer cereals and larger amounts of meat, fruits, vegetables and processed foods. In addition, it is predicted that climate change will affect every aspect of food production. The report’s authors concluded that it is possible to feed the planet in a sustainable way, but that doing so will require significant changes to our food production systems. Without this, far too many people will be hungry by the 2030 deadline for the sustainable development goals, which have targeted the eradication of chronic food insecurity and malnutrition. “Major transformations in agricultural systems, rural economies and natural resource management will be needed if we are to realise the full potential of food and agriculture to ensure a secure and healthy future for all people and the entire planet,” said the study. “High-input, resource-intensive farming systems, which have caused massive deforestation, water scarcities, soil depletion and high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, cannot deliver sustainable food and agricultural production.” The report called for “holistic” approaches, such as agroecology – which takes into account natural ecosystems and uses local knowledge to plant a diversity of crops – as well as “climate-smart” agriculture. Technological improvements, along with drastic cuts in economy-wide and agricultural fossil fuel use, would also help address climate change and the intensification of natural hazards, added the authors. Olivier De Schutter, the former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, and co-chair of the international panel of experts on sustainable food systems, said he found the report refreshing in comparison with what he described as the “overly simplistic” approach adopted by the FAO in the past, based on “the urgent need to increase production”. De Schutter said the organisation was correct to acknowledge that there had been a broad misconception about industrial agriculture, which has been seen by many as the only way to meet the challenge of population growth. “It is also extremely important that, rather than emphasising the need for productivity increases alone, the report recognises the need to address waste and losses in food systems,” said De Schutter.
News Article | February 16, 2017
Armyworms are attacking maize plants at alarming speed on farms in South Africa (AFP Photo/GULSHAN KHAN) Onderstepoort (South Africa) (AFP) - Peeling back the maize plant's leaves reveals a small brown caterpillar -- an armyworm that writhes as it burrows into the heart of the crop, producing a sticky dark paste. Eighty percent of the Prinsloo family's maize plants are under attack, as are those of other farmers in Haakdoringboom, a farming community 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of South Africa's capital Pretoria. "These worms are eating everything that they touch," said farmer Jacques Prinsloo, who held up a damaged leaf to demonstrate the alarming speed at which the fall armyworms devour the crop. Leaves are shredded and residue speckles the inside of the plants -- a tell-tale sign of trouble. The recently-arrived pests, which are proving immune to existing pesticides, are devastating crops and threatening southern Africa's fragile food supply having spread through Zambia and Zimbabwe as well as South Africa. Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia are also reported to be affected by the worms. They originate from South America and are thought to have arrived in Africa in shipments of plants or on commercial airliners, with the first fall armyworms in Africa seen in Nigeria and Togo last year. "I tried everything on the market. I spent 45,000 rand ($3,400) on pesticides alone," said Jacques, 24, who has been battling the pests for six weeks. "Last year the drought, this year the worms, what next year? Everyone thinks it's easy to farm. It seems easy until you start doing it." Jacques estimates that as many as four in five of his maize plants are affected. If the crop fails entirely, he estimates it will cost his family up to 700,000 rand ($53,000) this year alone. Crops in neighbouring farmers' fields are also being ravaged by the pests, according to Adele who, along with her son Jacques, employs six staff on their roughly 100 hectare farm. "We're fighting. The farm next door to us is fighting," said Adele. Across southern Africa, fall armyworms are wreaking havoc with staple crops for the first time. Key food sources like maize, wheat, millet and rice have all come under attack, raising fears of imminent mass food shortages. Nearly 40 million people in southern Africa have been affected a two-year-long drought caused by the El Nino climate phenomenon reducing food availability by 15 percent, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). David Phiri, the FAO's coordinator for southern Africa, warned experts at a crisis summit in Harare this week that the armyworm poses "a huge threat to food security". Despite their proximity to South Africa's seat of power, the Prinsloos feel that their plight, and that of hundreds of other farmers, is being ignored by the government. "I'm feeling hopeless, angry, heartbroken -- it feels like I could go and sit and cry myself to death," said 50-year-old Adele who has been involved in farming for nearly half her life. "All the money and effort that's been put in there and I'm getting no help. "We were promised a visit by the farming minister on Sunday but they cancelled. Nobody is doing anything. They said they would import a poison from abroad but we've heard nothing." The region around the Prinsloo farm had only just begun to recover from one of the worst dry spells in recent history when the armyworms struck. "A year ago we had the drought but then we had good rains. Now the worms are destroying the crop," said Adele. In one badly affected field, nearly every plant is showing signs of damage. Looking out over his family's fields, bordered by tracks of rich red earth and criss-crossed with mechanical irrigation systems, Jacques is doubtful there will be a quick solution to the crisis. "(The plants) are not going to make corn because of the damage," he said of this year's crop. "The larvae is making new worms and you must fight them again. Burning it might be the only option."
News Article | February 22, 2017
Yamzho Yumco (Sacred Swan) Lake is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and is highly crenellated with many bays and inlets. The lake is home to the Samding monastery which is headed by a female reincarnation, Samding Dorje Phagmo. The image covers an area of 49.8km by 60km. Aster images map and monitor the changing surface of our planet, such as glacial advances and retreats; potentially active volcanoes; crop stress; cloud morphology and physical properties; wetlands evaluation; thermal pollution monitoring; coral reef degradation; surface temperature mapping of soils and geology; and measuring surface heat balance. This distinctive checkerboard pattern lies alongside the Priest river in northern Idaho. The photograph was taken just before sunset, so some mountainsides glow while others are covered in long shadows because of the low sun angle. The squares appear to be the result of forest management. The land here is now managed for wildlife and for timber harvesting. The white patches reflect areas with younger, smaller trees, where winter snow cover shows up brightly to the astronauts. Dark green-brown squares are parcels of denser, intact forest. The checkerboard is used as a method of maintaining the sustainability of forested tracts while still enabling a harvest of trees. The Priest river, winding through the scene, is bordered on both sides by a forest buffer that can serve as a natural filtration system to protect water quality. For nearly a century, the river was used to transport logs. Its function changed in 1968 when the river’s main stem was added to a list of “wild and scenic rivers” in order to preserve its “outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations”. According to weather forecasts, Denmark was in line to be hit with strong winds, sub-zero temperatures, and precipitation from 4-7 January. Heavy flooding was expected in parts of the west coast, while Jutland and Bornholm were in line for sleet and snow. In this image, a layer of white lies over northern Jutland in the north-west, and additional streaks of snow can be seen as far south as Germany. A bank of cloud, likely part of the storm system, hangs over the blue waters of Skagerrak – a strait that lies between the south-east coast of Norway, the south-west coast of Sweden, and Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. How do you deliver supplies to one of the most remote research stations on Earth? Put the equipment and food on skis and pull them by tractor across the ice and snow in a long caravan. The convoy of supplies can be seen on the 1,000km trek from Dumont d’Urville on the Antarctic coast to Concordia research station. The traverse across Antarctica takes 10 days, climbing more than 3,000 metres to reach Concordia’s plateau. Pulled by heavy-duty tractors, the caravans carry up to 300 tonnes of fuel, food and heavy equipment in 300 metre-long convoys organised by France’s IPEV polar institute. Once at Concordia, three days are spent unpacking and preparing for the return trip to the coast, which generally takes two days less because it is downhill most of the way. Concordia sits on a plateau 3,200 metres above sea level. Temperatures can drop to –80C in winter when the sun does not rise above the horizon, forcing the crew to live in isolation without sunlight for four months of the year. For ESA, the isolation and extreme weather offer interesting parallels with spaceflight. Each year an ESA-sponsored medical doctor joins the crew of the Italian–French station to monitor and run experiments. Snow-covered St Petersburg on the Neva bay may appear to be in black and white, but it is in fact in true colour – the snow and lack of vegetation during winter lend very little colour to the scene. One of the most prominent features is the large area of ice and snow covering the water. Looking closer to the lower-central part of the image, we can see where icebreakers have created a straight route to and from St Petersburg’s port. The boats leaving the port continue west following a channel through the St Petersburg dam south of Kotlin Island and into the Gulf of Finland. There are five other breaks along the northern stretch of the dam without ice because the flowing water prevented freezing. The 25km-long dam complex protects the city from storm surges and also acts as a bridge from the mainland to Kotlin Island. On the right, the Neva flows through the centre of St Petersburg – Russia’s second largest city. Sometimes dubbed the Venice of the North for its numerous canals and more than 400 bridges, the city dates back to 1703 and was built by Tsar Peter the Great. Today, St Petersburg is a Unesco world heritage site. Milky, grey smog shrouds many of the valleys and lowlands of eastern China. The brightest, whiter areas (left, top, and bottom edges) are likely clouds or fog. Outbreaks of smog and haze, like this, tend to occur during the winter because of temperature inversions. Air naturally cools as it rises in altitude; but during an inversion, warm air masses settle over a layer of cool air near the surface. The warm air acts like a lid and traps gases and pollutants near the surface, especially in basins and valleys. Many of the particles in the haze are sulphate aerosols produced by burning coal. Coal supplies a majority of China’s energy, and the northern half of the country uses coal widely to heat buildings in the winter. In addition to emitting carbon dioxide, coal fires release sulphur dioxide, a gas that combines with water vapour to make small droplets and crystals of sulphuric acid and other sulphates, which can be detrimental to health. Several days of heavy rainfall swamped much of southern Thailand in January. While monsoon-related floods are common in the region, the wet season usually ends in November. Much of the tan and yellow colour on the landscape is sediment-laden flood water near the Pra river. For comparison, the second image shows the same area on 2 February 2014, when waters were lower. The rainfall was some of the most severe to hit Thailand in three decades, according to Thai authorities. More than 300,000 homes were affected, and damage to infrastructure was widespread. At least 36 people died. A photograph of a variety of agricultural patterns near an oasis in eastern Libya, one of the most remote places in Africa, more than 900km (560 miles) from the nearest major city. The cluster of buildings, roads, and small farming operations near the top of the photo is the town of Al Jawf. Each farming pattern in the image is related to different irrigation methods. The honeycombs in the centre are what remain of the first planned farming method in the Libyan desert, implemented about 1970. The large circles (about 1km wide) of centre-pivot irrigation systems (lower left) replaced the honeycombs in order to conserve water. The grid system (upper left) is perhaps one of the oldest known to planned agriculture, but it is still used alongside the more modern patterns. Near Al Jawf, the oasis is covered in lush green gardens and palm trees that survive due to pumping from the largest known fossil water aquifer in the world: the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer. More than 20,000 years ago, the Saharan landscape was wet and heavy rainfall continuously refilled the aquifer. Today the region receives less than 0.1in of rain a year, making this aquifer a non-renewable resource. An agreement was recently hashed out between Libya and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to improve food security in the region by developing the country’s agriculture industry. This means the use of fossil water will continue, and the agricultural patterns we see today are likely to survive for years to come. The winter landscape in Brussels complements the red clay roofs of the historic Quartier des Squares (centre) and the white tops of the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces (centre right). An area over the western end of the state of Texas is rather devoid of colour owing to the landscape’s sparse vegetation cover. Some colour appears along the rivers and streams where plants thrive more easily. In the upper left, large circles of agriculture from central-pivot irrigation systems appear green. Centre left, one area appears orange where the land may have a different mineral content. On the upper-right side, we can see a cluster of hills of the Sierra Madera crater, formed less than 100m years ago when a meteorite hit Earth. In the lower-right corner, we can see a network of oil wells connected via a spiderweb-like structure of supply roads. Underground oil reservoirs usually stretch across large areas, and multiple wells are positioned over the reservoirs to best exploit the natural resource. Texas is the top crude oil-producing state in the US, accounting for about a third of the country’s output. A crack in the Larsen-C ice shelf on the Antarctic peninsula first appeared several years ago, but recently it has been lengthening faster than before. The satellites show that the fissure has opened about 60km since January last year. And, since the beginning of this January, it has split a further 20km so that the 350 metre-thick shelf is held only by a thread. The crack now extends around 175km. When the ice shelf calves, this iceberg will be one of the largest ever recorded. Exactly how long this will take is difficult to predict. The neighbouring Larsen-A and Larsen-B ice shelves suffered a similar fate with dramatic calving events in 1995 and 2002, respectively. These ice shelves are important because they act as buttresses, holding back the ice that flows towards the sea. This panorama shows nearly the full length of Lake Powell, the reservoir on the Colorado river in southern Utah and northern Arizona. At full capacity, the reservoir impounds 24,322,000 acre-feet of water, a vast amount that is used to generate and supply water to several western states, while also aiding in flood control for the region. It is the second largest reservoir by maximum water capacity in the US (behind Lake Mead). Green forests indicate two high places in the image that are cooler and receive more rain than the dry, low country surrounding the lake. The isolated Navajo mountain is a sacred mountain of the Native American Navajo tribe and rises to 3,154 metres (10,348ft). The long, narrow Kaiparowits Plateau rises nearly 1,200 metres from Lake Powell to an elevation of more than 2,300 metres. More than 80km (50 miles) long, the plateau gives a sense of horizontal scale. The region draws nearly 2 million people every year, even though it is remote and has few roads. Most of the area in view is protected as part of the Glen Canyon national recreation area and the Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument – the largest area of protected land in a US national monument. The Moroccan city of Nador is sheltered from the Mediterranean by Mar Chica, a sandy saltwater lagoon. Mar Chica has a shallow maximum depth – only 8 metres – allowing us to see the ebb and flow of tides clearly from space. In Africa’s Danakil depression (or Afar triangle) three tectonic plates are tearing themselves apart in spectacular fashion. As the plates separate, several active volcanoes have emerged along the seams. One of the most active is Erta Ale, a shield volcano near the Ethiopian and Eritrean border. It is known as the “smoking mountain” and the “gateway to hell” in the Afar language. Erta Ale has a long-lived lava lake that has gurgled and spattered in its caldera for decades, but the most recent bout of activity involves the south-east flank of the gently sloping mountain. According to reports posted by Volcano Discovery, new fissures opened up on 21 January, about 7km (4 miles) from the summit caldera, spilling large amounts of lava. Meanwhile, at least one of the lava lakes has experienced large changes in the level of its lava that have led to overflows and intense spattering. Infrared hotspots representing two distinct lava flows are visible. Plumes of volcanic gases and steam drift from the lava lakes. Oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico gather oil and natural gas from beneath the seafloor of the Bahía de Campeche, located along the southern margin of the gulf, just west of the Yucatán Peninsula. In the early 1970s, oil exploration turned up vast reservoirs of oil and gas in the region and offshore oil drilling continues today, with signs of the activity visible from space. Crude oil often contains natural gas. When buried deep underground, the natural gas stays dissolved in the oil due to high pressure. But as the oil nears the surface and pressure decreases, flammable gas (mostly methane) bubbles out. Many oil rig operators try to preserve the gas for use by customers, but depending on the situation, some operators may instead choose to burn it. Sometimes the gas is burned because it is contaminated with mud or other substances. In other cases, there may be no other way to dispose of it quickly and safely. Wildfires ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres in southern and central Chile during the first month of 2017. According to a CNN report, President Michelle Bachelet said: “We have never seen anything on this scale, never in the history of Chile.” The wildfires killed at least 11 people, destroyed thousands of homes and consumed an area about three times the size of New York City, according to several media accounts. The flames destroyed a town called Santa Olga, displacing about 6,000 people, burning about 1,000 homes and destroying the town’s kindergarten. The red hotspots, accompanied by thick and billowing smoke, show the heat from actively burning fires. The town of Santa Olga was near the southern end of the chain of fires. Cambodia has one of the fastest rates of forest loss in the world. In broad swaths of the country, densely forested landscapes – even those in protected areas – have been clear-cut over the past decade, mostly for rubber plantations and timber. Scientists from the University of Maryland and the World Resources Institute’s global forest watch have been using Landsat satellite data to track the rate of forest loss on a global scale. Though other countries have lost more acres in recent years, Cambodia stands out for how rapidly its forests are being cleared. Between 2001 and 2014, the annual forest loss rate in Cambodia increased by 14.4%. Put another way, the country lost a total of 5,560 square miles of forest. Other countries with accelerating rates of forest loss include Sierra Leone (12.6%), Madagascar (8.3%), Uruguay (8.1%), and Paraguay (7.7%). The transformation of Cambodia’s landscape has been profound. The first image, taken on 31 December 2000, shows intact forest near the border of the Kampong Thom and Kampong Cham provinces. On 30 October 2015, the second image shows much of the forest has been replaced by a grid-like pattern of roads and fields and by large-scale rubber plantations. Clear-cutting has also chewed away at the edges of densely forested areas (dark green) and replaced them with exposed soil, croplands, and mixed forests (brown and light green). Researchers working with Landsat data have demonstrated that changes in global rubber prices and a surge of land-concession deals have played key roles in accelerating Cambodia’s rate of deforestation. Concession lands are leased by the Cambodian government to domestic and foreign investors for agriculture, timber production, and other uses. Researchers found that the rate of forest loss within concession lands was anywhere from 29% to 105% higher than in comparable lands outside the concessions. If you ever fly over the High Atlas range in Morocco, look down. You will be treated to a visual spectacle of massive layers of colourful rock crumpled up like pieces of paper. Sharp ridges bobbing and weaving their way across the desert. The High Atlas Mountains extend in a north-easterly direction from Morocco’s Atlantic coast (near Agadir) for hundreds of miles inland toward the Algerian border. The western portion of the range is home to its tallest mountains, with peaks that stand above 4,000 metres. The Atlas Mountains were shaped by geological processes at work over hundreds of millions of years. One key step occurred in the early Jurassic period (201m to 174m years ago), when many of the world’s continents were still bunched closely together after the breakup of the supercontinent Pangea. This part of Morocco fell within the African plate, near a boundary with the Eurasian and North American plates. As the three plates separated, the crust thinned so much that a tear opened up and formed a rift valley that eventually filled with ocean water. As the crust thinned and the rift opened up, large blocks of Earth’s crust dropped downward, creating broad valleys known as grabens. Grabens have elevated blocks at their edges called horsts that became fault-block mountains. These mountains were pushed up even higher during a later phase of intense mountain building in the Cenozoic (66m years to present), spurred by the collision of African and Eurasian tectonic plates. A display of hole-punch clouds over eastern China. This strange phenomenon results from a combination of cold temperatures, air traffic, and atmospheric instability. If you were to look from below, it would appear as if part of the cloud were falling out of the sky, which is actually what’s happening. The mid-level clouds are initially composed of liquid drops at a super-cooled temperature below 0C. As an airplane passes through the cloud, it creates a disturbance that triggers freezing. Ice particles then quickly grow in the place of the water droplets. Eventually the ice crystals in these patches of clouds grow large enough that they literally fall out of the sky – earning hole-punch clouds their alternate name: fallstreak holes. Falling crystals are often visible in the centre of the voids. The formations in this image are less like holes and more linear, like long canals. Whether the void takes on a circular or linear shape depends on differences such as cloud thickness, wind shear, and air temperature. Hole-punch and canal clouds often occur in the vicinity of an airport. In the Nevada desert, the pioneering artist Michael Heizer completes his colossal life’s work.
News Article | February 14, 2017
It’s enough to make you cry over your moules frites. Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year. We absorb fewer than 1%, but they will still accumulate in the body over time. The findings affect all Europeans, but, as the most voracious consumers of mussels, the Belgians were deemed to be most exposed. Britons should sympathise – last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University caused a stir when it was reported that plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Now, UK supermarkets are being lobbied to create plastic-free aisles by the campaign group Plastic Oceans Foundation, whose feature-length documentary, A Plastic Ocean, was released in Britain this week. We are finally paying attention to the pollution that has plagued our seas for years – the government is considering a refundable deposit on plastic bottles, and pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson recently switched from plastic to paper stems on its cotton buds. Evidently, there’s nothing like serving plastic up on a dinner plate to focus the mind. Whether your national obsession is moules frites or fish and chips, this problem goes way beyond Britain and Belgium. Contaminated fish and shellfish have been found everywhere from Europe, Canada and Brazil to the coast of mainland China – and plastic-eating fish are now showing up in supermarkets. The question is no longer: are we eating plastic in our seafood? What scientists are urgently trying to establish is just how bad for us that is. Another question we might ask: how did we get here? More than a century ago, in 1907, another Belgian, Leo Baekeland, a graduate of Ghent University, invented bakelite. It was, he later admitted, something of an accident, but this welcome development ushered in a colourful new age of plastics. Until then, we had, at great cost and effort, been manipulating products out of natural materials such as shellac, derived from beetle shells. (Charles Mackintosh’s first “mac” – which used derivatives of tar and rubber – must have been pretty pungent in a downpour.) Baekeland, who had moved to the US, saw commercial potential in an entirely synthetic replacement for shellac that would be suitable for mass production. Bakelite was lightweight, affordable, malleable and safe, but perhaps the greatest thing about the plastic Baekeland created, and those that followed, was its durability. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, innovations came thick (and thin) and fast – polystyrene, polyester, PVC, nylon. Soon, they were an inextricable part of everyday life. And then, in 1950, that scourge of the sea arrived: the throwaway polythene bag. In that decade, annual global plastic production reached 5m tonnes; by 2014, it stood at 311m tonnes – shockingly, over 40% of it for single-use packing. Now, plastic’s durability looks less of a boon than it once did. A study in Science Magazine in 2015 estimated that around 8m tonnes of plastic go into the sea each year. And, last year, a report for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (launched in 2010 by the former round-the-world sailor to promote a more circular economy) estimated that, by 2050, the volume of accumulated plastics in the oceans will be greater than that of fish. Evidently a keen sailor, Baekeland retired in 1939, to spend time on his 70ft yacht, the Ion. Ninety years after his plastics breakthrough, in 1997, another sailor (since turned oceanographer and campaigner), Charles Moore, was traversing the ocean between Hawaii and California when he came across the now infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the five main subtropical gyres (circulating systems of ocean currents that draw floating debris into a kind of massive junk vortex). Ever since its discovery, there has been vigorous debate over the size of the patch, with descriptions ranging from the size of Texas to twice that of France. It is, in fact, impossible to definitively measure, because its size – and litter visible on the surface – changes with currents and winds, but its heart is thought to be around 1m sq km, with the periphery spanning a further 3.5m sq km, stretching roughly from the west coast of North America to Japan. An aerial survey last year by Dutch foundation The Ocean Cleanup found it is far bigger than previously estimated, while the UN’s environmental programme warns it is growing so fast that it is now visible from space. In 1997, Moore saw bottles, bags and bits of polystyrene. But what really worried him, and has occupied campaigners and scientists ever since, was the vast soup of tiny plastic particles swirling around below the junk. Moore returned in 1999 to measure the weight of these “microplastics”. “We found six times more plastic than plankton,” he said, sparking a flurry of worldwide research that has not let up since. Researchers from around the world pooled data over six years to 2013, and reached the conclusion that there are already more than five trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, most of them microplastics. Microplastics – which range in size from 5mm to 10 nanometres – come from a number of sources. One culprit is “nurdles”, the raw plastic pellets shipped around the world for manufacturing, easily lost during transportation (in 2012 a typhoon spilled millions from a ship in Hong Kong). Recently, the spotlight has been on so-called microbeads, tiny plastic balls found in some cosmetic facial scrubs and toothpaste (many governments, including the UK’s, have moved to ban them). Like microfibres – the threads from synthetic clothes lost during laundry, and rubber debris from vehicle tyres – these tiny pieces of plastic are too small to be filtered out of our wastewater systems, and huge quantities end up in the sea. But it’s the single-use plastics for packaging, more than a third of everything we produce, that present the greatest problem. While many plastics don’t biodegrade, they do photodegrade – UV exposure eventually breaks all those plastic bottles and bags down into tiny pieces, which, in common with microbeads and fibres, potentially leach toxic chemical additives – PCBs, pesticides, flame retardants – put there by manufacturers. These tiny particles look like food to some species, and, last November, new research showed that common plastics attract a thin layer of marine algae, making them smell like nutritious food. In July 2015, a team at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory released film they had captured under a microscope showing zooplankton eating microplastic. Given that these tiny organisms form a crucial part of the food chain, the implications were immediately shocking. But a huge variety of the fish and shellfish we eat are consuming plastics directly too. Research published last year in the journal Science found that juvenile perch actively preferred polystyrene particles to the plankton they would normally eat. While most plastic has been found in the guts of fish, and would therefore be removed before eating, some studies have warned that microplastics, particularly at the nanoscale, could transfer from the guts to the meat (and, of course, we eat some species of small fish and shellfish whole). There is growing concern about toxins leaching – laboratory tests have shown that chemicals associated with microplastics can concentrate in the tissues of marine animals. Some commercially important species have seen the majority of their population affected. In 2011 in the Clyde in Scotland, 83% of Dublin Bay prawns, the tails of which are used in scampi, had ingested microplastics; so had 63% of brown shrimp tested across the Channel and southern part of the North Sea. A fortnight ago, Gesamp, a joint group of experts on the scientific aspects of marine environmental protection, published the second part of its global assessment on microplastics. It confirmed that contamination has been recorded in tens of thousands of organisms and more than 100 species. Last year, the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research, citing increasing concern for human health and food safety “given the potential for microplastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”. In the face of such widespread contamination, the outlook seems bleak. Yet Professor Richard Thompson, a leading international expert on microplastics and marine debris, is upbeat. He has been working in this field for 20 years. In 2004, his team at Plymouth University released the first research on marine microplastics, were the first to show microplastics were retained by organisms such as mussels, and it was their research that found plastic in a third of UK-caught fish. He is reassuringly unfazed about the recent headlines. “You would have to eat well over 10,000 mussels a year to reach the quantities of plastics the Belgian studies suggest,” he says. Even for Belgians, that seems excessive. And, crucially, there is no evidence of harm to humans from those quantities. He agrees contamination is widespread – and concerning – but it is “not yet a cause for alarm. Quantities are low, and at current levels human exposure is likely to be greater in the home or office than via food or drink.” But, he adds: “It’s only going to increase. If we carry on with business as usual, it will be a different story down the line, in 10, 20 years.” It’s important not to overstate the risks before they’re fully understood. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation pointed out in 2014 (pdf) just how reliant we have become on seafood as a source of protein – an estimated 10-12% of the global population relies on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihood. Per capita fish consumption has risen from 10kg in the 1960s to more than 19kg in 2012, and seafood production is annually increasing at a rate of 3.2%, twice the world population growth rate. In other words, demand for seafood is increasing, just as its future viability is at risk. Something has to give – and it is increasingly clear that has to be our reliance on throwaway plastics. When you’re alone in the middle of the Southern Ocean, the nearest land is Antarctica and the closest people are manning the space station above, there’s time to think. If you’re Dame Ellen MacArthur, it sets you to thinking about the flaws of our global economy. As she tells it: “Your boat is your entire world and what you take with you when you leave is all you have, to the last drop of diesel and last package of food. There is no more.” Our economy, she realised, is no different: “It’s entirely dependent on finite materials we have only once in the history of humanity.” To MacArthur, the solution is simple – instead of using these resources up, we should design the waste element out of products in the first place. MacArthur, through her foundation, is working with industry leaders and others to approach design with end of life in mind. She has found one particularly strong ally in the Prince of Wales, whose International Sustainability Unit (ISU) is also working on how innovation and design can reduce the impact of plastic production on the environment. Two weeks ago, the ISU organised a working group, which included MacArthur, to look at plastic waste in the oceans. This is how Professor Thompson found himself on the banks of Rainham Marshes in Essex, collecting plastic debris with senior executives from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Adidas, Dell and Marks & Spencer. Of what they picked up, about 80% was plastic bottles – those executives probably saw their own products spat back at them from the Thames. They were shocked, apparently, at the scale of it, which Thompson pointed out “was not inconsistent with beaches worldwide”. Then they all went to the recycling plant. Only a third of the UK’s annual 1.5m tonnes of recyclable plastic waste is recycled. While many drinks bottles are made of easily recyclable PET, some brands add plastic sleeves or colour the bottles, reducing their recyclability. The execs watched those bottles picked out, simply due to a lack of thought at the design stage. The idea of the circular economy is taking hold; there is now broad agreement that industry needs to move towards products that maximise recycling and re-use. As the Prince of Wales put it: “We do need to consider, from the very beginning, the second, third and, indeed, fourth life of the products we use in everyday life.” Thompson is heartened. “This growing recognition,” he says, “was not the case 10 years ago when industry pointed at consumers saying they were responsible … now it’s much clearer there’s responsibility on both sides.” And in what he describes as an exciting step forward, we might see the formation of a stewardship council for plastics, which will connect industries from manufacture through to recycling, and, as the Marine Stewardship Council does for fishing, accredit responsible practice. After all, plastic is not the enemy, it’s incredibly useful, not least in reducing food waste. What’s so positive about recent progress, Thompson points out, is that “unlike other environmental problems, this isn’t a case of us having to do without, we just have to do it differently”. Perhaps the shock of finding plastics returning to us on our dinner plates will help to bring that message home. “We’re on the edge of a major ecological disaster,” Thompson says. “Microplastics in seafood is an illustration of that. There are things we can do, but we need to do them now.”
News Article | February 27, 2017
Forests are set to play a major role in meeting the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement - however, accurately monitoring progress toward the "below 2°C" target requires a consistent approach to measuring the impact of forests on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In a paper published in the journal, Nature Climate Change: Key role of forests in meeting climate targets but science needed for credible mitigation, scientists are calling for robust, transparent and credible data to track the real mitigation potential of forests. Dr Joanna House from the University of Bristol's Cabot Institute is a co-author of the paper: "There is no doubt forests have enormous potential to mitigate against climate change, primarily through reducing deforestation, planting new forests and managing existing forests. "Forests play a major role in in the pledges made by countries towards meeting the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement, meeting up to a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions reductions up to 2030. This is a huge contribution considering they only contribute 10 per cent of emissions, while fossil fuels contribute 90 per cent." In December 2015, 195 countries adopted the Paris Climate Agreement at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP-21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). As part of the process, 187 countries - representing more than 96% of global net emissions - submitted their Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs), which form the basis for implementing mitigation actions under the climate agreement. The INDCs pledged ahead of the Paris meeting only limit global average temperatures to around 3.5 degrees C, not "well below" 2 degrees as required in the Paris Agreement. "Most countries include the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) sector in their INDCs, with a clear focus on forests. However, countries use different ways of calculating the land sector emissions reductions it in their national targets. Consequently, evaluating the expected effect of the land sector on the INDC mitigation targets is very complex," said Dr House. The EU's Joint Research Centre and a team of international collaborators, led by Dr Giacomo Grassi and including Dr House, carried out the first and most thorough quantification and interpretation of country mitigation plans in the LULUCF sector. Using information and data reported by countries under the UNFCCC process, backed up with country data reported to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, they compared it with independent estimates in the scientific literature. "Comparing the overall mitigation contribution of the land sector to all other sectors such as energy, we found that globally it contributes to about 25% of the total INDC emissions reduction. "The INDC commitments still fall short of meeting the Paris targets, and despite the role of forests, there will need to be further drastic reductions in fossil fuel emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," says Dr House. "Climate impacts are already being felt throughout the world as 2014, 2015 and 2016 were each consecutively the warmest years on record. Forests play an important role, not least because of the co-benefits of biodiversity, rainfall recycling, and protection from flooding and erosion. However our land resource is limited, so there is no getting away from the need to also switch to low carbon energy as many countries are doing with great success while their economies continue to flourish." "Tracking the mitigation potential of forests requires more confidence in numbers, including reconciling estimates between country reports and scientific studies. However, the credibility of land-based mitigation may be hampered by large uncertainties in the way countries consider mitigation and their GHG estimates. National GHG inventories must be improved in terms of transparency, accuracy (including information on uncertainties), consistency, completeness and comparability, especially in developing countries," said lead author, Giacomo Grassi from the EU's Joint Research Centre. "There is also an urgency to reconcile the currently relevant differences between the GHG estimates provided in the country reports and those based on scientific assessments. Progress toward achieving the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement will be based on both country reports and scientific assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Without speaking a common language, conflicting numbers may undermine confidence in reaching targets, and progress toward the "below 2°C" target cannot be properly assessed," said Dr House. 'Key role of forests in meeting climate targets but science needed for credible mitigation,' by G. Grassi, J. House et al., in Nature Climate Change.
News Article | April 2, 2012
Mauritania's waters are crowded. Twenty-five miles out to sea and in great danger from turbulent seas are small, open pirogues crewed by handfuls of local fishermen, taking pitifully few fish. Also here within 50 miles of us are at least 20 of the biggest EU fishing vessels, along with Chinese, Russian and Icelandic trawlers and unidentifiable pirate ships. We are closest to the Margaris, a giant 9,499-tonne Lithuanian factory trawler able to catch, process and freeze 250 tonnes of fish a day, and a small Mauritanian vessel, the Bab El Ishajr 3. Here too, in the early mists, its radio identification signal switched off, is Spanish beam trawler the Rojamar. The Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace's 40-year-old former ice-breaker, is shadowing one of Britain's biggest factory trawlers – the 4,957-tonne Cornelis Vrolijk. Operated by the North Atlantic Fishing Company (NAFC), based in Caterham, Surrey, it is one of 34 giant freezer vessels that regularly work the west African coast as part of the Pelagic Freezer Association (PFA), which represents nine European trawler owners. The ship, which employs Mauritanian fish processing workers aboard, is five miles away, heading due south at 13 knots out of dirty weather around Cape Blanc on the western Saharan border. By following the continental ledge in search of sardines, sardinella, and mackerel, it hopes to catch 3,000 tonnes of fish in a four- to six-week voyage before it offloads them, possibly in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. But, says NAFC managing director Stewart Harper, while most of its fish will end up in Africa, none will go to Mauritania, despite the country facing a famine in parts. "Unfortunately Mauritania does not yet have the infrastructure to handle cargoes of frozen fish or vessels of our size," he says. The west African coast has some of the world's most abundant fishing grounds, but they are barely monitored or policed, and wide open to legal and illegal plunder. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, all west African fishing grounds are fully or over-exploited to the detriment of over 1.5 million local fishermen who cannot compete with them or feed their growing populations. Heavily subsidised EU-registered fleets catch 235,000 tonnes of small pelagic species from Mauritania and Moroccan waters alone a year, and tens of thousands of tonnes of other species in waters off Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea Bissau and elsewhere. A further unknown amount is caught by other countries' vessels, but the individual agreements made between west African countries and foreign companies are mostly secret. Despite possible ecological collapse, and growing evidence of declining catches in coastal waters, west African countries are now some of the EU's most-targeted fishing grounds, with 25% of all fish caught by its fleets coming from the waters of developing countries. Willie MacKenzie, a Greenpeace ocean campaigner, said: "Europe has over-exploited its own waters, and now is exporting the problem to Africa. It is using EU taxpayers' money to subsidise powerful vessels to expand into the fishing grounds of some of the world's poorest countries and undermine the communities who rely on them for work and food. The EU has committed some €477m for agreements with Mauritania over the past 10 years, essentially paying for vessels like the Cornelis Vrolijk to be able to access these waters," he adds. According to the PFA, about 50 international freezer-trawlers are active in Mauritanian waters at any one time, of which 30 originate from countries such as Russia, China, Korea or Belize. "By targeting fish species that cannot be fished by local fishermen, we avoid disrupting local competition and growth and always fish outside the 12-13 mile fishing limit for our type of vessel," says a spokesman. "Not all international operators active in Mauritanian waters meet the EU's safety and environmental standards. This threatens our efforts to foster sustainable practices in the region." Greenpeace says the over-exploitation of African fisheries by rich countries is ecologically unsustainable and also prevents Africans from developing their own fisheries. It takes 56 traditional Mauritanian boats one year to catch the volume of fish that a PFA vessel can capture and process in a single day. Since the 1990s, the once-abundant west African waters have seen a rapid decline of fish stocks. Local fishermen say their catches are shrinking and they are forced to travel further and compete with the industrial trawlers in dangerous waters unsuitable for their boats. "Our catch is down 75% on 10 years ago. When the foreign boats first arrived there was less competition for resources with local fishermen and fewer people relied on fishing for food and income. Governments have become dependent on the income received by selling fishing rights to foreign corporations and countries," says Samb Ibrahim, manager of Senegal's largest fishing port, Joal. "Senegal's only resource is the sea. One in five people work in the industry but if you put those people out of work then you can imagine what will happen. Europe is not far away and Senegal could become like Somalia," said Abdou Karim Sall, president of the Fishermen's Association of Joal and the Committee of Marine Reserves in West Africa. "People are getting desperate. For sure, in 10 years' time, we will carry guns. The society here destabilises as the fishing resource is over-exploited. As the situation become more difficult, so it will become more and more like Somalia," he said. There is now growing concern that illegal or "pirate" fishing is out of control in some waters. According to the UN, across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, losses to illegal fishing amount to about $1bn a year – 25% of Africa's total annual fisheries exports. Guinea is thought to lose $105m of fish to pirate fishing a year, Sierra Leone $29m, and Liberia $12m. An investigation by Greenpeace and the Environmental Justice Foundation in 2006 found that over half of the 104 vessels observed off the coast of Guinea were either engaging in or linked to illegal fishing activities. Surveillance and monitoring of overfishing is now urgently needed or fish stocks will collapse, leading to humanitarian disasters in many countries, says the UN. Increasingly, ships are transferring their catches to other vessels while at sea, rather than directly off-loading in ports. This conceals any connection between the fish and the vessel by the time the fish arrives on the market, meaning the true origin of the catch is unknown. However, the PFA says banning EU vessels from African waters would not be sensible. In a statement it said: "Less regulated, less transparent and less sustainable fishing operators would replace the European vessels. This would be a bad deal for Europe and the African countries we partner with. "They would see less strategic infrastructure investment, reduced transfer of skills and knowhow, as well as scientific research and more depleted fish stocks. And in Europe we would damage a viable part of EU's fishing economy to the benefit of countries such as China. "All of the fish caught by the PFA is destined for west-central African communities rather than consumers in developed countries. In fact, the fish caught and distributed by the PFA is often the only source of essential protein for the people in countries such as Nigeria." • John Vidal's travel costs to Senegal were paid by Greenpeace. The NGO had no say over editorial content.
News Article | February 17, 2017
BEIJING (Reuters) - Bird flu infection rates on Chinese poultry farms may be far higher than previously thought, because the strain of the deadly virus that has killed more than 100 people this winter is hard to detect in chickens and geese, animal health experts say. Poultry that have contracted the H7N9 strain of the avian flu virus show little or no sign of symptoms. That means any infection is only likely to be detected if farmers or health authorities carry out random tests on a flock, the experts said. But in humans, it can be deadly. That's different to other strains, such as the highly pathogenic H5N6 that struck South Korean farms in December, prompting the government to call in the army to help cull some 26 million birds. But that strain didn't kill any people. There have been multiple outbreaks of bird flu around the world in recent months, with at least half a dozen different strains circulating. The scale of the outbreaks and range of viral strains increases the chances of viruses mixing and mutating, with new versions that can spread more easily between people, experts say. For now, H7N9 is thought to be relatively difficult to spread between people. China's Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said the vast majority of people infected by H7N9 reported exposure to poultry, especially at live markets. "There are very few, if any, clinical signs when this (H7N9) virus infects birds, and that's the main reason we're not seeing reporting coming from poultry farms in China," said Matthew Stone, deputy director general for International Standards and Science at the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). As many as 79 people died from H7N9 bird flu in China in January alone, up to four times higher than the same month in past years. While spikes in contamination rates are normal in January - the main influenza season - the high level of human infections has prompted fears the spread of the virus among people could be the highest on record - especially as the number of bird flu cases reported by farmers has been conspicuously low. The high number of human infections points to a significant outbreak in the poultry population that is not being detected, says Guan Yi, director of the State Key Laboratory of Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Center of Influenza Research at the University of Hong Kong. "If we have so many human infections, naturally it reflects activity, an intensive outbreak in chickens. They are highly associated," he said. China has the world's largest flock of chickens, ducks and geese, and slaughtered more than 11 billion birds for meat in 2014, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The last major bird flu outbreak in China, in 2013, killed 36 people and cost the farming industry around $6.5 billion. The experts' assessment underscores the challenge for China's government and health ministry in monitoring and controlling the H7N9 outbreak in both people and poultry. While, with few visible signs of infection in birds, it's easier for farmers to flout the reporting rules and continue selling poultry at market, Stone at the OIE said China has a "very significant" surveillance program at live markets. The government promised on Thursday to tighten controls on markets and poultry transport to help battle the virus. The agriculture ministry last month collected more than 102,000 serum samples and 55,000 virological samples from birds in 26 provinces. Of the latter samples, only 26 tested positive for the virus, according to data on the ministry's website. But the rapid rise in human infections and spread to a wider geographic area is likely to increase pressure on Beijing to do more poultry testing at markets and on farms. The ministry did not respond to faxed questions on its surveillance efforts. The National Health and Family Planning Commission said on Thursday the spread of H7N9 among people was slowing. Some Chinese netizens have called for more timely reports on infections, and some experts have said China has been slow to respond to the human outbreak. The authorities have warned the public to stay alert for the virus, cautioning against panic. Others played down the threat to humans, as long as they stay away from live markets.
News Article | June 2, 2010
A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change, a UN report said today. As the global population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050, western tastes for diets rich in meat and dairy products are unsustainable, says the report from United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management. It says: “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.” Professor Edgar Hertwich, the lead author of the report, said: “Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals. Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels.” The recommendation follows advice last year that a vegetarian diet was better for the planet from Lord Nicholas Stern, former adviser to the Labour government on the economics of climate change. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has also urged people to observe one meat-free day a week to curb carbon emissions. The panel of experts ranked products, resources, economic activities and transport according to their environmental impacts. Agriculture was on a par with fossil fuel consumption because both rise rapidly with increased economic growth, they said. Ernst von Weizsaecker, an environmental scientist who co-chaired the panel, said: “Rising affluence is triggering a shift in diets towards meat and dairy products - livestock now consumes much of the world’s crops and by inference a great deal of freshwater, fertilisers and pesticides.” Both energy and agriculture need to be “decoupled” from economic growth because environmental impacts rise roughly 80% with a doubling of income, the report found. Achim Steiner, the UN under-secretary general and executive director of the UNEP, said: “Decoupling growth from environmental degradation is the number one challenge facing governments in a world of rising numbers of people, rising incomes, rising consumption demands and the persistent challenge of poverty alleviation.” The panel, which drew on numerous studies including the Millennium ecosystem assessment, cites the following pressures on the environment as priorities for governments around the world: climate change, habitat change, wasteful use of nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilisers, over-exploitation of fisheries, forests and other resources, invasive species, unsafe drinking water and sanitation, lead exposure, urban air pollution and occupational exposure to particulate matter. Agriculture, particularly meat and dairy products, accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption, 38% of the total land use and 19% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, says the report, which has been launched to coincide with UN World Environment day on Saturday. Last year the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said that food production would have to increase globally by 70% by 2050 to feed the world’s surging population. The panel says that efficiency gains in agriculture will be overwhelmed by the expected population growth. Prof Hertwich, who is also the director of the industrial ecology programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said that developing countries – where much of this population growth will take place – must not follow the western world’s pattern of increasing consumption: “Developing countries should not follow our model. But it’s up to us to develop the technologies in, say, renewable energy or irrigation methods.”
News Article | February 21, 2017
Thinking about E numbers might stir up images of hyperactive children guzzling fluorescent soft drinks. But have you ever wondered what the E stands for? Looking at this system of food additives can help illustrate some of the tough issues facing the British government as it prepares to leave the European Union. The European Council introduced food colouring legislation in 1962 alongside a number classification system. In the 1990s the scheme was expanded to cover all additives permitted to be used in food sold in the EU and now forms a key part of UK food and drink regulation. The government wants to begin formal Brexit negotiations by the end of March, after which UK laws will be made "not in Brussels but in Westminster", according to Prime Minister Theresa May. So will the UK ditch E numbers and come up with a new system for assessing and labelling food additives? And what about the many other areas of UK regulation currently set by EU law? For a substance to be permitted for use as a food additive in the EU, it must be given an E number (the E stands for Europe). Codes like E101, E150d and E1209 are assigned to substances which change food colour, taste, shelf life or other properties. For example E160b, or annatto, gives Red Leicester cheese its distinctive glow. E numbers are often associated with processed food. Some, like E122, may have adverse effects on children prone to hyperactivity according to the NHS. But most are perfectly benign and lots are good for us, like E300, otherwise known as Vitamin C. At the moment if a food company comes up with a new additive, it must seek authorisation from an expert panel at the European Food Safety Authority. This EU body is made up of scientists from across the continent, including two from the UK. They are experts in chemistry, toxicology and other relevant fields and meet regularly to assess which additives are safe. Once agreed, these substances must be clearly labelled on food sold in the UK or elsewhere in the EU. As part of the Brexit process, the government has announced it will introduce a "Great Repeal Bill" in the next Queen's Speech. This will remove the European Communities Act 1972 from the statute book and enshrine all existing EU law into British law, before the government decides which to keep and which to jettison. This is likely to include EU regulations on food additives and labelling. However such an approach opens up a number of other questions. For example, what would happen when the EU changes its list of E numbers - will the UK adopt or ignore the new rules? If it adopts them, how does this square with the government's wish that laws be made in Westminster and if it ignores E number changes, will domestic food companies be able to trade freely with European suppliers? The government says it will push for the "freest possible trade" with the EU after Brexit. But if the UK decided to keep E numbers while not being under the jurisdiction of European courts, there would need to be a new system whereby the EU's remaining 27 states could verify that UK goods observe the rules, says Stephen Weatherill, professor of European law at Oxford University. "It is beyond complicated - and this is true of thousands and thousands of such matters," says Prof Weatherill. But not everyone agrees. "Some of the academics are making it more complicated than they need to," says Conservative MP Bill Cash, who chairs the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee and is a long-standing supporter of Brexit. He says the UK may choose to adopt standards like E numbers, but on the basis of voluntary compliance rather than by submitting to the EU's legal jurisdiction, enforced by the European Court of Justice. There are many other unresolved questions when it comes to E numbers. How will standards set by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation be incorporated, will the UK set up its own expert panel and will E numbers be renamed - "UK numbers" perhaps? Nobody is quite sure of the answers yet. These uncertainties hang over many areas of UK law which currently come from the EU, like farm subsidies, clean energy targets and fishing rules. But if non-EU Switzerland is a model, we may simply retain many existing structures. Switzerland uses E numbers and belongs to lots of similar schemes like the European Health Insurance Card. "There may not be as much change as people are trying to suggest there would be," says Mr Cash. The Brexit negotiations will involve plenty of big constitutional issues, but there are many apparently smaller things, like E numbers, which will need to be sorted out as well.
News Article | February 20, 2017
Women carry sacks of food in Nimini village, Unity State, northern South Sudan, February 8, 2017. Picture taken on February 8, 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola JUBA (Reuters) - Parts of war-ravaged South Sudan have been hit by famine, a government official said on Monday, saying nearly half the country's population would lack reliable access to affordable food by July. Oil-rich South Sudan has been mired in civil war since 2013, when President Salva Kii fired his deputy. Since then the fighting has increasingly split the country along ethnic lines, leading the United Nations to warn of a potential genocide. The fighting has prevented many farmers from harvesting their crops while hyper inflation which reached more than 800 percent last year has put the price of imported food beyond the reach of many. Parts of the country have also been hit by drought. “In greater Unity (state), some counties are classified in famine or ... risk of famine,” Isaiah Chol Aruai, chairman of South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistic, told a news conference in Juba. Aruai said the impact of the war, combined with high food prices, economic disruption and low agricultural production was expected to make 4.9 million people what is termed "food insecure" between February and April, with that number rising to 5.5 million by July. "Famine has become a tragic reality in parts of South Sudan and our worst fears have been realised," Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) South Sudan representative, Serge Tissot, said at the same news conference. According to the United Nations, famine is declared when at least 20 percent of households in an area face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent, and two or more people per 10,000 are dying per day. The fighting has uprooted more than 3 million people and a U.N. report released on Monday said continuing displacement presented "heightened risks of prolonged (food) underproduction into 2018". Many parts of the country are very hard to reach. Six years after independence from neighbouring Sudan, South Sudan only has only 200 km (120 miles) of paved roads in a nation the size of Texas. Fighting also impedes aid delivery; warehouses have been looted and aid workers have been killed. This month, in a sign the war was taking a turn for the worse, Kiir's government has been hit by high-profile defections. Two top military officials resigned their positions, citing ethnic favouritism, human rights abuses and others charges. Punishments handed out to some soldiers from the Dinka, Kiir's tribe, for crimes including rape and murder were being set aside, Colonel Khalid Ono Loki, one of officials who resigned said. The minister of labour has also defected to the rebels.