‘Turn the tide on plastic’ urges UN, as microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy
23 February 2017 Launching an unprecedented global campaign, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is urging everyone to eliminate the use of microplastics and stop the excessive, wasteful use of single-use plastic, to save the world’s seas and oceans from irreversible damage before it’s too late.
“Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables,” Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of UNEP, said in a news release announcing the campaign.
“We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop,” he added.
Through its Clean Seas campaign, the agency has urged countries and businesses to take ambitious measures to eliminate microplastics from personal-care products, ban or tax single-use plastic bags, and dramatically reduce other disposable plastic items by 2022.
Ten countries have already joined the initiative with far-reaching pledges: Indonesia has committed to slash its marine litter by 70 per cent by 2025; Uruguay will tax single-use plastic bags later this year; and Costa Rica will take measures to dramatically reduce single-use plastic through better waste management and education, according to UNEP.
These initiatives could not come sooner as up to 80 per cent of all litter in the oceans are made of plastic.
According to estimates, by 2050, 99 per cent of earth’s seabirds will have ingested plastic
An illustration of the sheer magnitude of the problem is that as much as 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy – litter the seas.
Each year, more than eight million metric tonnes of plastic end up in oceans, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism, and cost at least $8 billion in damage to marine ecosystems. According to estimates, by 2050, oceans will have more plastic than fish if present trends are not arrested.
According to UNEP actions to stem the growing tide of maritime litter could include reducing the use of single-use plastics at the individual level such as by using reusable shopping bags and water bottles, choosing products without microbeads and plastic packaging, and not using straws to drink.
“Whether we choose to use plastic bags at the grocery store or sip through a plastic straw, our seemingly small daily decisions to use plastics are having a dramatic effect on our oceans,” said film actor and founder of the Lonely Whale Foundation, Adrian Grenier.
Plastic bottles and garbage waste from a village in Timor-Leste wash on the shores of a river and then spill into the sea. UN Photo/Martine Perret
Similarly, on larger and commercial scale, supply chains can be modified.
One such example is the technology company DELL Computers: which has announced that it will use recovered ocean plastic in its product packaging.
“DELL is committed to putting technology and expertise to work for a plastic-free ocean,” said its Vice President for Global Operations, Piyush Bhargava. “Our new supply chain brings us one step closer to UNEP’s vision of Clean Seas by proving that recycled ocean plastic can be commercially reused.”
According to UNEP, major announcements are also expected at the upcoming conference on The Ocean at the UN Headquarters in New York (5-9 June), and UN the Environment Assembly to be held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in December.
“The ocean is the lifeblood of our planet, yet we are poisoning it with millions of tonnes of plastic every year,” expressed Peter Thomson, the President of the UN General Assembly, highlighting the upcoming conference and urging for ambitious pledges to reduce single-use plastic.
“Be it a tax on plastic bags or a ban on microbeads in cosmetics, each country [can] do their bit to maintain the integrity of life in the Ocean.”
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Global heat melts Arctic and Antarctic sea ice to record lows – UN agency
17 February 2017 It should be winter on the Arctic pole – the northern most point in the world – but the equivalent of heatwaves have passed over the region this season melting the sea ice volume to a record low in January, the United Nations meteorological agency said.
“Temperatures in the Arctic are quite remarkable and very alarming,” said David Carlson, Director of the World Climate Research Programme which is co-sponsored by the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council for Science.
Sea ice extent was the lowest on the 38-year-old satellite record for the month of January, both at the Arctic and Antarctic, according to data cited WMO from both the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) and Germany’s Sea ice Portal operated by the Alfred-Wegener-Institut.
The Arctic sea ice extent averaged 13.38 million square kilometres in January, according to NSIDC. This is 260,000 square kilometers below the level in January 2016 – an area bigger than the size of the United Kingdom.
“The recovery period for Arctic sea ice is normally in the winter, when it gains both in volume and extent. The recovery this winter has been fragile, at best, and there were some days in January when temperatures were actually above melting point,” said Mr. Carlson.
“This will have serious implications for Arctic sea ice extent in summer as well as for the global climate system. What happens at the Poles does not stay at the Poles.”
In addition, the ice levels at the Antarctic are also at record lows, even thinner than expected for the summer season there.
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UN kicks off preparations for upcoming summit on oceans, launches voluntary commitment website
15 February 2017 The world dumps the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute, the United Nations heard today at the start of a two-day meeting to prepare for this June’s Ocean Conference that will aim to help safeguard the planet’s oceans and help them recover from human-induced problems.
“When leaders from across Governments, international organizations, civil society, the private sector, and the scientific and academic communities, gather together in New York, from 5-9 June for The Ocean Conference, we will be witness to a turning point,” the President of the UN General Assembly, Peter Thomson, told the participants, who also included the Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden and the Minister for Fisheries of Fiji, the countries co-hosting the conference.
“We will witness the point in history when humanity truly began the process of reversing the cycle of decline that accumulated human activity has brought upon the Ocean,” Mr. Thomson added.
The high-level Oceans Conference aims to get everyone involved in conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically Goal 14.
The UN has called for voluntary commitments to implement Goal 14 and today launched an online commitment registry which has its first three commitments – the Swedish Government, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and Peaceboat, a non-governmental organization. The site will be up through the end of the Conference, which starts on World Environment Day, marked annually on 5 June, and includes 8 June, celebrated as World Oceans Day.
The voluntary commitments “underscore the urgency for action and for solutions,” said Under-Secretary-General Wu Hongbo, who heads the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs and serves as the Secretary-General of the Conference.
Addressing participants today, Mr. Wu said preparations for the Conference are “on track.”
“The health of our oceans and seas, and the future wellbeing of our planet and our society, demand no less,” he said.
In addition to pollution, The Oceans Conference and SDG 14 address overfishing, as well as acidification and increasing global water temperatures linked to climate change.
Discussing the problems ahead of today’s preparatory meeting, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, Isabella Lovin said in a video log on Twitter that the Conference could be a “chance of a lifetime” to save the oceans under enormous stress.
“We don’t need to invent or negotiate something new, we just need to have action to implement what we already agreed upon,” she said in reference to the expected ‘Call to Action’ that will result from the Conference in connection with stopping illegal fishing, stopping marine pollution and addressing the special circumstances of small island developing States.
Representing one of the many small island nations struggling with these issues, the Minister for Fisheries of Fiji, Semi Koroilavesau, urged Conference participants to make voluntary contributions, saying the oceans are of “utmost importance” to his country.
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Make food systems climate resilient now or future production will be compromised – UN warns
13 February 2017 Failure to act now to make food systems more resilient to climate change will seriously compromise food production in many regions, which in turn could fail international efforts to end hunger and extreme poverty by 2030, the United Nations agricultural agency warned today.
“Agriculture holds the key to solving two of the greatest problems now facing humanity: eradicating poverty and hunger, and contributing to maintaining the stable climatic conditions in which civilization can thrive,” Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General José Graziano da Silva told a roundtable on climate change during the in Dubai.
The FAO Director-General stressed in particular the need to support small farmers in the developing world adapt to climate change.
Innovative approaches exist that can help them improve yields and build their resilience, he said, noting ‘green manuring,’ greater use of nitrogen-fixing cover crops, improving sustainable soil management, agroforestry techniques, and integrating animal production into cropping systems.
“But farmers face major barriers, such as the lack of access to credit and markets, lack of knowledge and information, insecurity about land tenure, and high transaction costs of moving away from existing practices,” the Director-General said.
For example, he said, 70 countries do not have established meteorological services. FAO is working with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to develop low-cost, farmer friendly services to address this need.
Ultimately, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ he argued.
One critical front for action is water management, said Mr. Graziano da Silva. Millions of the world’s small-scale farmers are already wrestling with water scarcity, which will likely intensify as a result of climate change, he said.
This is why at the last UN climate change conference FAO and partners launched a global framework on water scarcity in agriculture that aims to support developing countries in bringing stronger policies and programmes for the sustainable use of water in agriculture online, he explained.
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International collaboration on wheat rust can curb threat to global supplies – UN agency
3 February 2017 As new data shows that wheat in Africa, Asia and Europe is increasingly threatened by fresh groups of wheat rust, the United Nations agricultural agency is highlighting the need for early detection and rapid action to keep the fungus under control.
Two studies produced by scientists in collaboration with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) show the emergence of two new groups – or races – of both yellow rust and stem rust last year in various regions of the world.
“These new, aggressive rust races have emerged at the same time that we’re working with international partners to help countries combat the existing ones, so we have to be swift and thorough in the way we approach this,” said FAO Plant Pathologist Fazil Dusunceli.
Wheat rusts spread rapidly over long distances by wind. If not detected and treated on time, they can turn a healthy looking crop, only weeks away from harvest, into a tangle of yellow leaves, black stems and shriveled grains.
“It’s more important than ever that specialists from international institutions and wheat producing countries work together to stop these diseases in their tracks,” Mr. Dusunceli said.
That would involve work such as continuous surveillance, sharing data and building emergency response plans to protect their farmers and those in neighbouring countries.
Wheat is a source of food and livelihoods for over 1 billion people in developing countries, according to FAO.
Some of the most vulnerable regions are also the highest producers of wheat. Northern and Eastern Africa, the Near East, and West, Central and South Asia alone account for some 37 per cent of global wheat production.
The most recently identified race of stem rust pathogen – called TTTTF – hit the Italian island of Sicily in 2016, causing the largest stem rust outbreak in Europe in decades.
In addition, farmers in the mainland Italy, Morocco and some Scandinavian countries are battling a yet-to-be-named race of yellow rust, while Ethiopia and Uzbekistan fights outbreaks of yellow rust AF2012.
“Preliminary assessments are worrisome, but it is still unclear what the full impact of these new races will be on different wheat varieties in the affected regions,” said Mr. Dusunceli. “That’s what research institutions across these regions will need to further investigate in the coming months.”
The FAO-supported reports have been highlighted in the journal Nature following their publication by Aarhus University and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT).
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UN agency creates tool box of new technologies, good practices to help keep food safe
1 February 2017 From avian flu to locusts and E. coli bacteria, food is contaminated every day by diseases and pests, leading the United Nations agricultural agency to create a set of emergency prevention tools to save lives and improve food safety and security.
“We believe it’s important for sectors involved in food production, processing and marketing to watch out for current and potential threats and respond to them in a concerted manner,” said the Assistant Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Ren Wang.
The UN agency, in the recently published “Averting risks to the food chaIt’s important for sectors involved in food production, processing and marketing to watch out for current and potential threats and respond to themin”, show that preventing, early warning, preparedness, good food chain crisis management and good practices can help to stop the diseases and pests that ravage food chains.
One of the key messages from the report is that an integrated approach – which covers all the stages from prevention to timely response – is needed to curb food chain crises caused by transboundary animal diseases to plant pests and diseases.
Among the biggest pests that the FAO is focusing on is the desert locust, which affects more than 65 per cent of the world’s poorest countries and is considered the most dangerous of all migratory pest species in the world.
Able to consume its own weight in fresh food per day, a typical 1 km size swarm of locusts – or roughly 40 million locusts – can eat the same amount as 35,000 people, 20 camels or six elephants.
The FAO is using the eLocust3 system, which records and transmits data from crop pest monitoring in good time, to improve monitoring and prevention of locusts in 19 of the most vulnerable countries.
Meanwhile, in Mali, Uganda and Tanzania, livestock farmers are using the EMA – i app to collect animal disease information from the field on their smartphones. The data is sent in real-time to the Global Animal Disease Information System (EMPRES-i) at FAO, where it is shared at national, regional and global levels, facilitating analysis in a timely manner in order to provide a very rapid response to attack the disease at the very early stage of birth.
Another tool in the FAO report is sharing information through regional veterinary lab networks in Africa and Asia. There are 32 labs in African countries and 17 in Asian countries. By working more closely together, scientists can trace the outbreak and prevent it from infecting animals in other countries in the region.
Given that a third of global crop production is lost annually due to insects and plant diseases that can spread to multiple countries and through continents, by sharing information, experts can develop standardized protocols and train response workers regionally, as well as have international standards for any tests.
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