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Soil pollution poses a serious threat to food safety and human health
by UN Food and Agriculture Organization
May 2018
Soil pollution poses a serious threat to agricultural productivity, food safety, and human health, but far too little is known about the scale and severity of that threat, warns a new FAO report released this week at the start of a global symposium.
Industrialization, war, mining and the intensification of agriculture have all left a legacy of soil contamination across the planet, while the growth of cities has seen soil used as a sink for ever greater amounts of municipal waste, says Soil Pollution: A Hidden Reality.
"Soil pollution affects the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the health of our ecosystems," said FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo at the start of the symposium. "The potential of soils to cope with pollution is limited; the prevention of soil pollution should be a top priority worldwide," she added.
But even though agricultural intensification, industrial output, and urbanization continue at a rapid pace, no systematic assessment of the status of soil pollution at global level has ever been undertaken, FAO''s new report notes.
Studies conducted so far have largely been limited to developed economies, so there are massive information gaps regarding the full nature and extent of the problem, according to FAO''s survey of existing scientific literature.
What little we do know is cause for concern, the report adds.
For example, China has categorized 16 percent of all its soils — and 19 percent of its agricultural soils — as polluted. There are approximately 3 million potentially polluted sites in the European Economic Area and the West Balkans. In the United States, 1,300 sites appear on that country''s Superfund National Priorities list of pollution hot spots. In Australia, some 80,000 sites are now estimated to suffer from soil contamination.
Numbers like these help us understand the types of dangers pollution poses to soils, but "do not reflect the complete extent of soil pollution around the world, and highlight the inadequacy of available information and the differences in registering polluted sites across geographic regions," says Hidden Reality.
Danger to food and health
Soil pollution often cannot be visually perceived or directly assessed, making it a hidden danger — with serious consequences.
It impacts food security both by impairing plant metabolism and thus reducing crop yields, as well as by making crops unsafe for consumption. Pollutants also directly harm organisms that live in soil and make it more fertile.
And of course soil contaminated with dangerous elements (for example, arsenic, lead, and cadmium), organic chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) or pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics or endocrine disruptors pose serious risks to human health.
By far, most soil pollution is due to human activities. Industrial activities including mining, smelting and manufacturing; domestic, livestock and municipal wastes; pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers used in agriculture; petroleum-derived products that are released into or break-down in the environment; fumes generated by transportation — all contribute to the problem.
So-called "emerging pollutants" are also a growing concern. These include pharmaceuticals, endocrine disruptors, hormones and biological pollutants; "e-waste" from old electronics; and the plastics that are nowadays used in almost every human endeavour.
(Almost no science on the fate of plastics in soils exists, observes Hidden Reality, while most e-waste continues to be disposed of in landfills rather than recycled.)
* A few noteworthy facts and figures from that research include:
Production of chemicals grown rapidly in recent decades and is projected to increase annually by 3.4 percent until 2030. Non-OECD countries will be much greater contributors in the future.
In 2015, the European chemical industry produced 319 million tonnes of chemicals. Of these, 117 million tonnes (MT) were deemed hazardous to the environment.
Global production of municipal solid waste was around 1.3 billion tonnes per year in 2012; it is expected to rise to 2.2 billion tonnes annually by 2025.
In many world regions, levels of persistent organic pollutants in human milk are significantly above those considered safe, with a higher incidence in India and in some European and African countries.
A number of low and middle-income countries have notably increased their use of pesticides over the last decade. Bangladesh, for example, did so by four times, Rwanda and Ethiopia by over six times, and the Sudan by ten times.
Global manure production increased 66 percent between 1961 and 2016. Manure can contain high amounts of heavy metals, pathogen organisms and antibiotics.
Soils near roads have high levels of heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and other pollutants, posing a threat when food production occurs in adjacent areas or grazing on roadside soils takes place.
Approximately 110 million mines or other unexploded pieces of ordnance are scattered across 64 countries on all continents, remnants of wars that can have deadly consequences for farmers and which can release heavy metals through weathering.
Almost all soil in the northern hemisphere contains radionuclides in higher concentrations than the background level — even in remote areas, as a result of fallout from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and radiological events like the Chernobyl accident.

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Time to get serious about Peace & Development
by Jan Eliasson
IPS, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, agencies
May 2018
Four months ago UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a “red alert”, noting that instead of progressing towards greater peace, the world had moved in reverse towards deepening conflicts and new dangers: “Global anxieties about nuclear weapons are the highest since the Cold War.
Climate change is moving faster than we are. Inequalities are growing. We see horrific violations of human rights. Nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise.”
Levels of violent conflict have increased sharply since 2010, and conflicts have become increasingly protracted and internationalized, making them longer and deadlier. Due to violence, persecution, disaster, and instability 65.6 million people have been displaced from their homes, the highest level on record.
These figures are troubling and should elicit urgent action – but they also highlight the difficulties of working on truly “sustainable development”. We know that conflict sets back development by decades, and disproportionately and increasingly affects poor people; studies suggest that unless we dramatically change course, by 2030 fully 67 percent of the extreme poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected settings.
But we also know that the only way to prevent the violence of tomorrow is to work on development today or risk leaving more and more people behind.
And the challenges of today are compounding to complicate tomorrow. Demographic trends in Africa, including a decline in child mortality rates combined with relatively high fertility rates, result in a doubling of Africa’s population to 2.5 billion by 2050. While 10-12 million youth enter the workforce each year across Africa, only 3 million formal jobs are created annually.
According to a World Bank survey, 40% of those who join rebel groups do so because of a lack of economic opportunities. Further, it is generally not religious ideology but poverty and marginalization (lack of employment, healthcare, education, security and housing, as well as distrust and lack of respect for government, and its perceived lack of legitimacy) that motivate youth towards violent extremism.
Educating youth, creating employment opportunities, reducing poverty, reforming and improving government systems, rebuilding trust and the state-society relationship takes time. This is the reason that the Sustainable Development Goals, a universal set of 17 goals and 169 targets agreed to guide the agendas of the UN’s member states, are a generational endeavor with a 15-year window.
But because of the time it takes to plan and execute the real reform needed to make progress in achieving peaceful, just and inclusive societies, we cannot wait until 2029 to deliver. If achieved, the goals of the 2030 Development Agenda will transform our world: now is the time for us to direct financing and plan programming for delivery (and course correction) over the next decade.
To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we must somehow address the Secretary General’s Red Alert today and avoid twelve more years of red alerts to make sufficient progress in an increasingly complex world. But we must remember, despite the current alarming trends, the world has never been simple.
We have developed tools that enable us to understand how to manage our complex reality. We have accumulated and refined our knowledge about trends and drivers of conflict and peace, developed mechanisms for mediation and diplomacy, peacekeeping where necessary, and, increasingly, the tools to understand complex development environments in fragile and conflict-affected state.
We now know that development is critical to conflict prevention and sustaining peace, and this realization is increasingly reflected in the frameworks we apply to guide our efforts. The overarching framework of “sustaining peace” was introduced in April 2016 through twin resolutions of the UNGA and the Secretary-General, and redefines the approach of the UN, placing new emphasis on the long-term prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes.
The 2030 agenda and sustaining peace together underscore that sustainable and inclusive development, grounded in respect for all human rights, is the world’s best preventive tool against violent conflict and instability.
Thus, as noted recently by Secretary-General Guterres, “investing in sustained peace means investing in basic services, bringing humanitarian and development agencies together, building effective and accountable institutions, protecting human rights, promoting social cohesion and diversity and moving to sustainable energy.”
It isn’t just good practice to plan ahead and invest in development — it is also efficient and economical. Aside from saving and improving human lives, studies suggest that investing USD $2 billion in prevention can generate net savings of $33 billion per year from averted conflict.
Yet delivering peace, justice and inclusion are not as simple as infrastructure projects – in addition to technical expertise, they also require political acumen and flexibility necessary to navigate planning, reform and delivery.
That is why the Stockholm Forum on Peace and Development, 7-9 May in Stockholm, will convene leading experts, policy-makers, and civil society actors to discuss the core challenges and issues on “the politics of peace”. We want to know what are the real obstacles between us and achieving the SDGs — and how can these be overcome now to achieve our goals by 2030?
Events like the Stockholm Forum on Peace & Development are ways for serious people to take a moment to think today about how to achieve the peace of tomorrow. While humanitarian response, peacekeeping and diplomacy are important parts of our “firefighting” toolkit, we must also be thinking about how we get ahead of this world of perpetually responding to crisis, and of playing the long game of building resilience to shocks, preventing conflict and delivering on the development agenda.
The Forum brings together a dynamic international group of thinkers and doers in peacebuilding and development to discuss how to so deliver at a time of great uncertainty, but also of opportunity which sees important initiatives to improve our collective response.
As just one example of an effort to better enable the UN to deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and sustaining peace, the Secretary-General has launched an initiative to develop a more tailored, integrated and coherent UN development system that responds to national priorities.
A key element is to reinvigorate the UN’s system of Resident Coordinators, who play a critical role in coordinating the UN’s work on the ground. Independent, impartial and empowered Resident Coordinators will henceforth be the driving force behind the UN’s SDG response and conflict prevention in country, driving system-wide support and holding entities accountable.
It is time for us all to get serious about prevention and Sustaining Peace if we are to achieve the peace envisioned in the SDGs by 2030. Policymakers must focus efforts on prevention, committing additional resources and attention to the highest risk environments. Leaders need to be honest about the risks they face and the needs they have to avoid conflict.
Peace researchers need build the evidence base now to set a baseline of the “peace we have” and give us the tools to assess when we’re making progress by 2023 and 2027 on our way to achieving significantly more peace by 2030.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”; if we want to bend the arc of history toward peace by 2030, we need to get serious now about sustainable development and prevention. The Stockholm Forum is one small part of the global effort to bend that arc.
* Jan Eliasson was Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations from July 2012 to December 2016, President of the UN General Assembly 2005–06; the first UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and a former Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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