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Soil pollution a risk to our health and food security

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On the occasion of the World Soil Day on 5 December, we are reminded of the Soil pollution a risk to our health and food security is no more a subject for specialists only but one that should be a concern for us all.

Photo by UNEP / 04 Dec 2020

Each year, the world marks World Soil Day on 5 December to raise awareness about the growing challenges in soil management and soil biodiversity loss, and encourage governments, communities and individuals around the world to commit to improving soil health.

“We depend, and will continue to depend, on the ecosystem services provided by soils,” explains United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) soil expert Abdelkader Bensada.

While soil pollution traditionally has not received the same attention as issues like tree-planting, global momentum picked up in 2018, when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published a ground-breaking study: Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality.  

The report found that the main anthropogenic sources of soil pollution are the chemicals used in or produced as byproducts of industrial activities; domestic, livestock and municipal wastes (including wastewater); agrochemicals; and petroleum-derived products.

These chemicals are released to the environment accidentally, for example from oil spills or leaching from landfills, or intentionally, through use of fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation with untreated wastewater, or land application of sewage sludge.RELATED

The report found that soil pollution has an adverse impact on food security in two ways –it can reduce crop yields due to toxic levels of contaminants, and crops grown in polluted soils are unsafe for consumption by animals and humans. It urged governments to help reverse the damage and encouraged better soil management practices to limit agricultural pollution.

In follow up to the 2018 study, UNEP, the Global Soils Partnership, the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, the World Health Organization and the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions Secretariat are working on another report on the extent and future trends of soil pollution, including risks and impacts on health, the environment and food security. Scheduled to be released in February 2021, it builds on another UNEP report – Towards a pollution-free planet.

“Soil pollution can lead to the emergence of new pests and diseases by changing the balance of ecosystems and causing the disappearance of predators or competing species that regulate their biomass. It also contributes to the spreading of antimicrobial resistant bacteria and genes, limiting humanity’s ability to cope with pathogens,” says Bensada.

Pollution can also cause the quality of soil to dwindle over time, making it harder to grow crops. Currently, the degradation of land and soils is affecting at least 3.2 billion people – 40 per cent of the world’s population.

FAO’s Revised World Soil Charter recommends that national governments implement regulations on soil pollution and limit the accumulation of contaminants beyond established levels in order to guarantee human health and wellbeing, a healthy environment and safe food.

Contaminated soil is also a major cause of land degradation – an issue that is at the heart of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. Led by UNEP, FAO and partners, the initiative is a global call to action to scale up restoration of terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems over the next 10 years. This includes promoting sustainable practices to improve soil management.

“Soil has a key role to play in the UN Decade through its ecosystem functions as it affects water regulation, nutrient recycling, food production, climate change and the biodiversity of terrestrial ecosystems,” says Bensada. “Transitioning from soil degradation to practices that restore soil is critical to ensure the food security and wellbeing of generations to come.”

For more information, please contact Abdelkader Bensada: abdelkader.bensada@un.org

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Jordanian women trained on modern agricultural technology

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HortiDaily‘s story on Jordanian women trained on modern agricultural technology published on 29 October 2020 is about empowering young women with leadership skillsets in the agricultural sector. This should not come as a surprise whereas elsewhere in the MENA region, Arab women are thriving in science and math education.

Sahara Forest Project and Al Hussein Technical University (HTU) completed the first phase of the Technical Training Program in Agricultural Technology, where 15 female trainees from seven different universities took part in a field tour of the Sahara Forest Project site in Aqaba.

This program comes to support and empower young women to obtain employment opportunities and the skills required to take leadership positions in the agricultural sector and support the applications of modern agricultural technology in Jordan.

Director of Sahara Forest Project in Jordan, Frank Utsola, expressed his pride in participating in bettering the opportunities of a group of young Jordanian women and widen their horizons to change the future of the agricultural sector in Jordan. “The young women were excited. During the tour, they asked about everything, every tiny detail, which gave me confidence in this group and their ability to find new ideas and applications in the agricultural sector and supports their visions for the future of agriculture in Jordan.”

Ms. Zein Habjoka, Program Manager at HTU was also positive, saying: “Today we launch a new path for the active female workforce in the agricultural sector. Today we offer students the opportunities, skills, and knowledge required to enable them to assume leadership positions and highly skilled jobs in the agricultural sector.”

Yasmine, one of the participants in the program, added: “Participating in this program and interacting with the project managers helped me a lot to understand what I want and how I can achieve it. Here I learned that there are many applications of agricultural technology that may help Jordan make use of its resources better and overcome the food security challenges that it faces.”

The female training program is supported by the Norwegian government and Costa Crociere Foundation. The importance of the program stems from the fact that food and water security is one of the most important objectives on the national agenda in Jordan, as it has become imperative to empower the younger generation to support small and large projects that work on the principle of sustainability in energy, water and food.

The training program was designed to utilize partnerships between the academic and industrial sectors, whereby expert Ruba Al-Zoubi and Zeina Fakhreddin guided the trainees throughout the course of the training, in addition to cooperating with the Mira Association to develop irrigation and agricultural methods.

The project harnesses renewable resources such as seawater and solar energy (panels seen on the roof of the building in the picture above) to produce desalinated water and cool greenhouses, which allows the cultivation of all types of crops throughout the year and makes the use of arid lands possible.

Sahara Forest Project was inaugurated in Jordan in 2017 under the patronage of His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan and His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway.

The current demonstration facility is located 12 kilometres outside the city centre of Aqaba. It uses saltwater, sunlight and desert areas to produce vegetables, freshwater, biomass and clean energy. The ambition of the project is to rapidly scale up- It is the understanding of the parties that the new land will have an area of 200,000 SQM allocated to develop the project, and another 300,000 SQM for further roll-out.

Source: Sahara Forest Project (photos: Asmahan Bkerat)

Barely Scratched the Surface in the MENA AgTech

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HortiDaily.com Publication dated Fri 23 October 2020, of this author, Jan Jacob Mekes‘ article titled “We have barely scratched the surface in the MENA AgTech sector” could well be a fair description of yet another operation of ‘greening the desert‘.

“Badia Farms is the first commercial vertical farm to launch in the GCC. We officially started operations in the heart of Dubai in 2016, but the seeds were planted further back. My background is in engineering and banking. I first took the entrepreneurial leap in Saudi Arabia in the hospitality sector by opening multiple unique restaurant concepts.” That’s how Omar Al Jundi, Founder & CEO of Badia Farms, one of the speakers at the upcoming Agritecture Xchange, introduces himself.

Mesmerized by hydroponics

When he decided to enter his next venture, he says “I knew it had to be both challenging and able to add value and make a difference to our society and communities. When I was introduced to the concept of hydroponics, I was mesmerized with this new technique of growing where we don’t require any soil, we can recycle 90% of the water, and it can be grown in a fully closed environment, without even sunlight!  Years before we launched I learned as much from experts, conferences, courses, and by working in a high-tech greenhouse facility in Holland.”

Sustainability

Food security is one of the main issues in the MENA region, and the development of sustainable farming is crucial. “We have seen this first hand during the early days of the Covid pandemic,” Omar says. “Produce supply chains were halted, and many countries (especially in MENA) had to reassess their long-term plans and fast-track their commitment to AgTech models such as vertical farming.”

The choice to go vertical

Vertical farming and AgTech is needed in the GCC. Why? Omar explains: “Over-dependence on imported produce and the simple fact that traditional framing does not work in our arid desert climate. I want to tackle an issue that will make a difference to society while preserving our natural resources such as water. Badia products are pesticide and herbicide-free. Since our crops are grown naturally in sterile, soil-free mediums, along with the controlled environment, it removes the need for harmful additives. We can also harvest fresh produce all year round. Our harvest yields 4-8 times the amount of crops in the same space compared to conventional soil farming. As a former restaurateur, it has been amazing to be able to work with the top chefs and restaurants in the UAE and be able to supply them with fresh, better than organic flavourful products that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise. The journey from food to table is much shorter.”

Optimal growth conditions

In this vertical farming environment, Badia Farms is able to control every aspect of the ecosystem to ensure optimal growth conditions are provided for each crop. “For example, our facilities utilize LEDs, artificial lighting to replace the sunlight, we control and monitor all environmental inputs (humidity, temperature, CO2), and we use computer linked dosing units to schedule the irrigation and feed formulas,” Omar points out. “Lastly, our hydroponic growing methods use 90% less water compared to open field growing, and since we recirculate our water there’s no wastage.”

Support needed

There were also some challenges along the way to achieving this, as AgTech and modern farming are still very new to the region. “The biggest challenge is there aren’t off the shelf solutions that we can purchase and implement immediately,” Omar says. “In the case of vertical farming, which is still at an infancy stage globally, we had to design our own grow system to form our IP and ensure we have a commercial operation that will yield high-quality products and profits to ensure we stay in business. We surely need a lot more support from the government and private sectors for this industry to see the light. For example, the government can support the industry by introducing cost-effective initiatives that reduce the operational cost that will ensure the viability of the projects. Educating the public and consumers on the benefits of modern farming and vertical farming is very important to ensure the continuity of this new industry. We are seeing more regional and global VC’s and investment funds interested in the AgTech sector in our region, but they haven’t made the big investments yet!”

Opportunities in the Middle East

Asked what advice Omar would give to people looking into breaking into the UAE food/ag market, he says: “What’s great right now is that we have barely scratched the surface in the MENA AgTech sector, so there are so many opportunities, which has been propelled by the pandemic. The UAE is an open economy, I suggest whoever is interested to enter the market to come and meet with the different governmental entities, to meet with distributors, understand the market dynamics, pricing, etc. Come and do the work themselves vs hiring a consultant to do the job. The journey won’t be easy. But even with the advent of technology farming is still what it was hundreds of years ago: to grow something needs constant attention, passion, and patience.”

E-commerce platform

Badia Farms has a lot in store for the future, like increasing their product offering, expanding their facility in the UAE, and growing their team. “We are also excited about the launch of our own e-commerce platform! The crop will be harvested only once a customer places an order and will reach them within a couple of hours. We are also raising our next round of funding. So a lot is going on”, Omar concludes.

Omar Al Jundi will be one of the speakers during the upcoming Agritecture Xchange. When registering, you can use the code ‘HDaily10’ to get 10% off tickets.

For more information:
Badia Farms www.badiafarms.com

Most Important Source of Sulfur to the Environment

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Fossil Fuels Replaced by Agriculture As Largest Human Source of Sulfur to the Environment

By SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY, AUGUST 25, 2020

Historically, coal-fired power plants were the largest source of reactive sulfur, a component of acid rain, to the biosphere. A new study recently publishing Aug. 10 in the journal Nature Geoscience shows that fertilizer and pesticide applications to croplands are now the most important source of sulfur to the environment.

There are multiple forms of sulfur inputs used in agricultural systems, including elemental sulfur and sulfate, among others. Credit: Illustration by K. M. Driscoll

Acid rain gained attention in the 1960s and 1970s when scientists linked degradation of forest and aquatic ecosystems across the northeastern US and Europe to fossil fuel emissions from industrial centers often hundreds of kilometers away. This research prompted the Clean Air Act and its Amendments, which regulated air pollution, driving sulfur levels in atmospheric deposition down to low levels today.

“It seemed like the sulfur story was over,” said Eve-Lyn Hinckley, assistant professor of environmental studies at University of Colorado, Boulder, and lead author of the study. “But our analysis shows that sulfur applications to croplands in the US and elsewhere are often ten times higher than the peak sulfur load in acid rain. No one has looked comprehensively at the environmental and human health consequences of these additions.”

Sulfur is a naturally occurring element that exists primarily in stable, geologic forms and is an important plant nutrient. Through mining activities, including fossil fuel extraction as well as synthesis of fertilizers and pesticides, sulfur is brought into air, land, and water systems. It can react quickly, and, as decades of research on acid rain showed, affect ecosystem health and the cycling of toxic metals that pose a danger to wildlife and people.

“Although sulfur is applied to agricultural lands to improve the production and health of crops, it can have detrimental effects to agricultural soils and downstream waters, similar to what occurred in remote forest landscapes under acid rain,” indicates Charles Driscoll, a professor at Syracuse University and co-author of the study.

The researchers examined trends in sulfur applications across multiple important crops in the US, including corn in the Midwest, sugarcane in Florida, and wine grapes in California. Their models of surface water sulfate export demonstrate that while areas like New England show declining trends in response to recovery from historic atmospheric deposition, sulfate export from agricultural areas is increasing.

Driscoll says an example of the impacts of agricultural applications of sulfur is the enhanced formation of methylmercury in waters draining agricultural lands, such as the Everglades Agricultural Area in Florida. Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in food chains leading to high concentrations in fish and increasing exposure of mercury to humans and wildlife that consume these fish.

The researchers predict that increasing trends will continue in many croplands around the world, including places like China and India that are still working to regulate fossil fuel emissions.

To date, much research has focused on understanding and regulating nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, which can cause eutrophication, fish kills, and harmful algal blooms downstream of agricultural areas.

Hinckley and Driscoll believe it is time for the research community to apply lessons learned while investigating the effects of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers to studying the implications of high sulfur use in agriculture. This research must seek not only to document its environmental and human health effects, but also to collaborate with farmers to investigate how to optimize sulfur use.

“Sulfur in agriculture is not going away,” said Hinckley, “Yet there is an opportunity to bring science and practice together to create viable solutions that protect long-term environmental, economic, and human health goals.”

Reference: “A shift in sulfur-cycle manipulation from atmospheric emissions to agricultural additions” by Eve-Lyn S. Hinckley, John T. Crawford, Habibollah Fakhraei and Charles T. Driscoll, 10 August 2020, Nature Geoscience.
DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-0620-3

Researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale, and Syracuse University participated in this study.

Shortages and transboundary water conflicts

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Water shortages and transboundary water conflicts are fuelling conflicts across Africa and the Middle East. Add to that rapid urbanisation, and it’s a potentially explosive mix.

Water wars will increasingly fuel African and Middle East conflicts

By Clive Lipchin and Hussein Solomon• 21 August 2020

Through dialogue and creative thinking the myriad challenges brought on by water scarcity can be resolved, say the writers. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma)

The planet is heating up fast. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East and Africa where the impacts on water security and food security can exacerbate the conflict dynamics already extant in both regions.

Between 80 and 100 million of the MENA’s (Middle East and North Africa) citizens will suffer from water stress by 2025. According to researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute who had assembled data from 1986 to 2005 and compiled over two dozen models, even under the best-case scenarios, temperatures are set to rise by 4°C across the MENA region by 2050. In 2016, the MENA region recorded its highest temperature of 54°C at Mitribah in Kuwait and Basra in Iraq saw temperatures soar to 53.9°C.

As in the Middle East, temperature increases in Africa are expected to far exceed the global norms. Hotter nights and recurrent heatwaves are expected to be the norm for those residing within 15 degrees of the Equator. In West Africa, little precipitation combined with increased evaporation has resulted in lower crop yields. In southern Africa, too, a similar phenomenon is at play with Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa looking into the abyss of an arid future. Drought and desertification in the Sahel has resulted in the United Nations labelling it as one of the most environmentally degraded regions on the planet.

This looming environmental catastrophe is made worse by massive population growth and urbanisation. In the MENA region there was a 400% growth in urbanisation between 1970 and 2010 and the pace of urbanisation between 2010 and 2050 is expected to be 200%. To put it into perspective, while 56% of the total population of 357 million MENA citizens lived in cities in 2010, by 2050, 68% of the region’s 646 million residents will live in cities.

A similar dynamic is occurring on the African continent which is expected to double its 1.1 billion population by 2050. Urbanisation is at play here too. By 2025, there will be 100 African cities with a population of more than one million inhabitants.

Given the myriad failures of governments across Africa and the Middle East to appropriately plan for this new normal, tensions have intensified within states and across regions around access to scarce water resources.

Many analysts have noted how the Syrian civil war has its roots in the environment – specifically the severe 2006-2010 drought. This compelled 1.5 million farmers to leave their land and migrate to the city. In the process, not only was food insecurity increased, but also greater political friction and social instability. In a similar fashion, the various insurgencies and recruitment into terrorist organisations in the Sahel has its roots in access to water resources and arable land.

At a regional level, it is access to water, where one starkly witnesses the political and geo-strategic dimension of environmental challenges. This is specifically true under transboundary conditions where water resources cross political borders. The transboundary nature of water makes its management inherently a political one. As the climate crisis exacerbates both Africa’s and the MENA’s water insecurity political dialogue on water is essential.

Israel and South Africa are both arid countries that are challenged by water scarcity in the face of growing demand. Most of the water for both countries is transboundary as well. South Africa’s water vulnerability is best known internationally during the 2018 water crisis in Cape Town, but the country has always been in one way or another water insecure.

Israel too faces many water challenges, specifically in the transboundary arena in terms of the continuing Israel-Palestinian conflict. The two countries can nevertheless learn from one another to improve their resilience to water vulnerability under climate change and political uncertainty.

Israel can learn from South Africa on how to innovatively solve for what many believe are intractable political complexities and South Africa can gain from Israel’s adoption of non-conventional water supplies such as desalination and wastewater reuse.

Now more than ever, there is a need for far-sighted leadership who could provide the necessary strategic thinking to mitigate the impact of climate change on scarce water resources. Inclusive and effective water governance at a domestic level is imperative while international protocols for shared river basins need to be completed at a regional level. Leveraging technology to ensure maximum use of existing water resources is also imperative.

Water is a fundamental human right and the most basic of natural resources. Through dialogue and creative thinking the myriad challenges brought on by water scarcity can be resolved. DM

Hussein Solomon is a Senior Professor: Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State. Clive Lipchin is the Director, Centre for Transboundary Water at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. On 3 September 2020 they will be hosting a joint webinar on Transboundary Water management in Southern Africa and the Middle East with experts in both regions.  To register for the seminar, click here