Ghana’s Organic Farming Growing in Popularity During Pandemic

In Ghana and West Africa, organic food is growing in popularity as people try to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. But organic produce is not easily regulated, and some consumers are paying extra for unverified claims. Farmers across the region are creating their own system, with support from international bodies, to certify organic produce. Stacey Knott reports from Accra.Camera: Stacey Knott  Produced by: Stacey Knott 
 

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UN: COVID-19 Worsening World Hunger   

The United Nations said Monday that 690 million people across the planet were undernourished last year, and an additional 83- to 132 million are at risk this year due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.  “World hunger is still increasing — up by 10 million people in one year and 60 million in five years,” said Maximo Torero Cullen, chief economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which is one of five U.N. agencies that compiled the report on world hunger.  “Over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food,” he added. Of that figure, about 746 million are severely food insecure and 1.25 billion are moderately food insecure.  With nearly 13 million confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, infections are rising as food stocks in some parts of the world are already low.  David Beasley, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) executive director, speaks during a press conference in Seoul on May 15, 2018 after his recent visit to North Korea.“This is a critical time,” said David Beasley, the head of the World Food Program. “Nations must step up and reach deep in their pockets or we are going to have mass starvation and other significant issues.”  The U.N. says the number of undernourished people rose by 10 million between 2018 and 2019.  The report found that conflict, climate-related shocks and economic slowdowns are largely responsible for the deterioration in food production and accessibility.  In Africa, some 250 million people are undernourished — the highest rate in the world at 19.1% — more than double the world average of 8.9%.  While more than half the undernourished people in the world live in Asia — some 381 million — the percentage of the population is below the world average at 8.3%. The U.N. says that Asia has shown progress in reducing the number of hungry people, down by 8 million since 2015.   Latin America and the Caribbean have seen a rise in hunger in the past few years, with the number of undernourished people increasing by 9 million between 2015 and 2019. While their rate of undernourishment is below the world average at 7.4%, there are still nearly 48 million people who are undernourished in the region. The report found that there has been some progress in tackling child stunting and low birth weight, but more needs to be done. If current trends continue, the U.N. says the world will not meet the goal of zero hunger by 2030, and could see the number of undernourished people surpass 840 million in the next decade.  “The world is not on track to defeat malnutrition,” Torero Cullen said. “While there is some progress in child stunting and breastfeeding, children who are overweight is not improving and adult obesity is rising.”  The report also found that 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet — which costs five times as much on average as a basic diet. “We must make healthy diets affordable and accessible for everyone,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement.   Guterres said he plans to convene a Food Systems Summit next year.  The U.N. says urgent action is needed to support a shift that makes healthy diets affordable to all and that is also sustainable for the planet. 
 

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US, China, UAE Sending Spacecraft to Mars This Week

In a fresh attempt to scout out signs of previous life on Mars, the United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates are sending out spacecraft to Mars, starting this week.The unmanned spacecraft are also analyzing the area to prepare for future astronauts.The U.S. is sending a rover named Perseverance to gather rock samples, and it will likely not return for ten years.Each spacecraft must go over 482 million kilometers to reach Mars, after which they must leave Earth’s orbit and enter Mars’. The process of arriving alone takes at least six or seven months.The countries’ goal is to find out if Mars had any signs of previous microscopic life. As has been previously determined, Mars used to have bodies of water, so it’s possible the planet was also host to some type of life.In this illustration on June 16, 2020, NASA’s Perseverance rover uses its Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry (PIXL) instrument to analyze a rock on the surface of Mars. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)“Robot missions over the past decade or so have shown that Mars is not a dead, alien place as we had concluded in the late 20th century. In fact it is a world peppered with old lake beds, dried out river channels and organic material,“ said Professor Ray Arvidson, of Washington University, St Louis. All three countries are sending out spacecraft in the same week because there is a period of only one month in every 26 months in which Mars and Earth are on the same side of the sun. When they’re on the same side of the sun, the time for travel can be reduced as much as possible. Only the U.S. has placed a spacecraft on Mars before. 

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Look Out, Mars: Here We Come with a Fleet of Spacecraft

Mars is about to be invaded by planet Earth — big time. Three countries — the United States, China and the United Arab Emirates — are sending unmanned spacecraft to the red planet in quick succession beginning this week, in the most sweeping effort yet to seek signs of ancient microscopic life while scouting out the place for future astronauts.The U.S., for its part, is dispatching a six-wheeled rover the size of a car, named Perseverance, to collect rock samples that will be brought back to Earth for analysis in about a decade. “Right now, more than ever, that name is so important,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said as preparations went on amid the coronavirus outbreak, which will keep the launch guest list to a minimum. Each spacecraft will travel more than 300 million miles (483 million kilometers) before reaching Mars next February. It takes six to seven months, at the minimum, for a spacecraft to loop out beyond Earth’s orbit and sync up with Mars’ more distant orbit around the sun. Scientists want to know what Mars was like billions of years ago when it had rivers, lakes and oceans that may have allowed simple, tiny organisms to flourish before the planet morphed into the barren, wintry desert world it is today. “Trying to confirm that life existed on another planet, it’s a tall order. It has a very high burden of proof,” said Perseverance’s project scientist, Ken Farley of Caltech in Pasadena, California.In a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers observed the first driving test for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover Perseveranceo, Dec. 17, 2019. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)The three nearly simultaneous launches are no coincidence: The timing is dictated by the opening of a one-month window in which Mars and Earth are in ideal alignment on the same side of the sun, which minimizes travel time and fuel use. Such a window opens only once every 26 months. Mars has long exerted a powerful hold on the imagination but has proved to be the graveyard for numerous missions. Spacecraft have blown up, burned up or crash-landed, with the casualty rate over the decades exceeding 50%. China’s last attempt, in collaboration with Russia in 2011, ended in failure. Only the U.S. has successfully put a spacecraft on Mars, doing it eight times, beginning with the twin Vikings in 1976. Two NASA landers are now operating there, InSight and Curiosity. Six other spacecraft are exploring the planet from orbit: three U.S., two European and one from India. The United Arab Emirates and China are looking to join the elite club. The UAE spacecraft, named Amal, which is Arabic for Hope, is an orbiter scheduled to rocket away from Japan on Wednesday, local time, on what will be the Arab world’s first interplanetary mission. The spacecraft, built in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder, will arrive at Mars in the year the UAE marks the 50th anniversary of its founding. “The UAE wanted to send a very strong message to the Arab youth,” project manager Omran Sharaf said. “The message here is that if the UAE can reach Mars in less than 50 years, then you can do much more. … The nice thing about space, it sets the standards really high.” Controlled from Dubai, the celestial weather station will strive for an exceptionally high Martian orbit of 13,670 miles by 27,340 miles (22,000 kilometers by 44,000 kilometers) to study the upper atmosphere and monitor climate change. China will be up next, with the flight of a rover and an orbiter sometime around July 23; Chinese officials aren’t divulging much. The mission is named Tianwen, or Questions for Heaven. NASA, meanwhile, is shooting for a launch on July 30 from Cape Canaveral.  Perseverance is set to touch down in an ancient river delta and lake known as Jezero Crater, not quite as big as Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. China’s much smaller rover will aim for an easier, flatter target. To reach the surface, both spacecraft will have to plunge through Mars’ hazy red skies in what has been dubbed “seven minutes of terror” — the most difficult and riskiest part of putting spacecraft on the planet. Jezero Crater is full of boulders, cliffs, sand dunes and depressions, any one of which could end Perseverance’s mission. Brand-new guidance and parachute-triggering technology will help steer the craft away from hazards. Ground controllers will be helpless, given the 10 minutes it takes radio transmissions to travel one-way between Earth and Mars. Jezero Crater is worth the risks, according to scientists who chose it over 60 other potential sites.  Where there was water — and Jezero was apparently flush with it 3.5 billion years ago — there may have been life, though it was probably only simple microbial life, existing perhaps in a slimy film at the bottom of the crater. But those microbes may have left telltale marks in the sediment layers. Perseverance will hunt for rocks containing such biological signatures, if they exist.  It will drill into the most promising rocks and store a half-kilogram (about 1 pound) of samples in dozens of titanium tubes that will eventually be fetched by another rover. To prevent Earth microbes from contaminating the samples, the tubes are super-sterilized, guaranteed germ-free by Adam Stelzner, chief engineer for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “Yep, I’m staking my reputation on it,” he said. While prowling the surface, Perseverance as well as China’s rover will peek below, using radar to locate any underground pools of water that might exist. Perseverance will also release a spindly, 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) helicopter that will be the first rotorcraft ever to fly on another planet.  Perseverance’s cameras will shoot color video of the rover’s descent, providing humanity’s first look at a parachute billowing open at Mars, while microphones capture the sounds.  The rover will also attempt to produce oxygen from the carbon dioxide in the thin Martian atmosphere. Extracted oxygen could someday be used by astronauts on Mars for breathing as well as for making rocket propellant. NASA wants to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and send them from there to Mars in the 2030s. To that end, the space agency is sending samples of spacesuit material with Perseverance to see how they stand up against the harsh Martian environment. The tab for Perseverance’s mission, including the flight and a minimum two years of Mars operations, is close to $3 billion. The UAE’s project costs $200 million, including the launch but not mission operations. China has not disclosed its costs. Europe and Russia dropped plans to send a life-seeking rover to Mars this summer after falling behind in testing and then getting slammed by COVID-19.  Perseverance’s mission is seen by NASA as a comparatively low-risk way of testing out some of the technology that will be needed to send humans to the red planet and bring them home safely. “Sort of crazy for me to call it low risk because there’s a lot of hard work in it and there are billions of dollars in it,” Farley said. “But compared to humans, if something goes wrong, you will be very glad you tested it out on a half-kilogram of rock instead of on the astronauts.”  

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How the Discovery of Fresh Water Will Bolster Chinese Claims in a Disputed Sea

Discovery of a rare freshwater reserve under one of its land holdings in a widely disputed sea gives China a boost in occupying the islet and offers it a new defense for its sovereignty claims if they land in international court.A freshwater lens is forming under Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea, Chinese researchers said in the peer-reviewed publication Hydrology Journal. The lens created by tidal activity will take 20 years to become “stable” at 15 meters thick, the South China Sea Institute of Oceanology researchers in Guangzhou said in the May 2020 study.“Having this freshwater access evidently will change the quality of life and change their ability to station people on the artificial island,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center research organization in Washington.Most among the hundreds of islets in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea are semi-submerged or too small to support freshwater supplies. China used reclaimed land to build up Fiery Cross Reef to its current 274 hectares and now operates an airbase there with several hundred personnel.The presence of water could mildly help China in any international court case to argue that Fiery Cross deserves a 370-kilometer-wide ocean exclusive economic zone, analysts say. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest all or parts of China’s claims to the sea. They prize the waterway for its fisheries plus undersea reserves of oil and gas.The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea considers an islet’s ability to sustain life or economic activity when deciding whether a country can draw up an exclusive economic zone, but in 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected that right for Taiping Island, a Taiwanese-controlled Spratly feature with its own water supply.China leads the other claimants in firepower, technology and scientific research. It may have explored other South China Sea holdings for freshwater as well but found some only on Fiery Cross Reef, Sun said. Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines claim sovereignty over the same reef.Finding water will at least boost Chinese morale, said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.“These are somewhat psychological building blocks,” Huang said. They imply, he said, that the Chinese “are making progress, they are moving on, but I don’t think in real terms they can actually use the limited freshwater to do anything so strategically.”A local freshwater source will cut the costs of shipping water to Fiery Cross Reef or desalinating it, analysts note. That advantage would make it easier to station troops there. Woody Island, a Chinese-held South China Sea feature with about 1,000 long-term residents, collects rainwater and gets additional water shipped in.But the freshwater lens won’t give China enough water to support a “sizable” fighting force on the ground, Huang said.“It doesn’t change the balance of power in the region,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It doesn’t give China a stronger leg up in any aspect. You could catch rainwater and store it and treat it and drink it, if you have the space.” 

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Coronavirus Pandemic Stifles Dengue Prevention Efforts

To slow the spread of the coronavirus, governments issued lockdowns to keep people at home. They curtailed activities that affected services like trash collection. They tried to shield hospitals from a surge of patients.But the cascading effects of these restrictions also are hampering efforts to cope with seasonal outbreaks of dengue, an incurable, mosquito-borne disease that is also known as “breakbone fever” for its severely painful symptoms.Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Indonesia have dealt with concurrent outbreaks of dengue and coronavirus this year. In Brazil, where there are more than 1.8 million COVID-19 infections, at least 1.1 million cases of dengue have been reported, with nearly 400 deaths, according to the Pan American Health Organization.Dengue cases are likely to rise soon with the start of seasonal rains in Latin American countries like Cuba, Chile and Costa Rica, as well as the South Asian countries of India and Pakistan.Dengue typically isn’t fatal, but severe cases may require hospitalization. Prevention efforts targeted at destroying mosquito-breeding sites, like removing trash or old tires and other objects containing standing water, are still the best ways to curb the spread of the disease. But coronavirus-era lockdowns and other restrictions have meant that these efforts have been reduced or stopped altogether in many countries.In northwestern Pakistan, plans to disinfect tire shops and markets that had dengue outbreaks in 2019 were shelved due to funds being used for the coronavirus, said Dr. Rizwan Kundi, head of the Young Doctor’s Association.FILE – A laborer cleans a manhole on a sidewalk in Mumbai, India, June 10, 2020.Health workers who would destroy mosquito-breeding sites in India’s capital of New Delhi are also screening people for the virus.Having to identify thousands of virus cases has meant that dengue surveillance has suffered in many Latin American countries, added Dr. Maria Franca Tallarico, the head of health for the Americas regional office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.Experts say that disrupting such prevention efforts is ominous for the global battle against dengue.The World Health Organization says 2019 was the worst year on record for dengue cases, with every region affected, and some countries were hit for the first time.Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that spreads dengue, is most prevalent in cities, and experts warn that increased urbanization and warming temperatures due to climate change means that its range will keep increasing.Experts say that while reduced travel means fewer opportunities for mosquitoes to bite people with dengue to become carriers themselves, the coronavirus pandemic has introduced other variables.Staying home — one way to slow outbreaks of COVID-19, especially in cities — poses greater risks for spreading dengue, said Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA). That’s because the Aedes mosquito bites during the day, and with more people staying home, where mosquito populations are high, the more likely they are to be bitten.The impact is already visible. Singapore recorded a five-fold increase in the mosquito larvae detected in homes and common corridors of residential areas during the two-month coronavirus lockdown period, compared with the previous two months. By July 6, the total of dengue cases in Singapore was more than 15,500. The NEA says the number of cases this year is expected to exceed the 22,170 cases reported in 2013, which at the time was the largest dengue outbreak in Singapore’s history.FILE – A worker fumigates a neighborhood in an effort to control the spread of dengue fever, amid the new coronavirus outbreak in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 17, 2020.Oliver Brady, an associate professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said Central America and the Caribbean were at higher risk due to overlapping outbreaks.Working with communities in Latin America to stop mosquitoes from breeding had been the most successful anti-dengue strategy in recent years, Tallarico said. But with strict limitations on movement, she said they didn’t know whether these measures were still happening, and “this is the big concern for us.”A shortage of protective equipment also means limiting the number of first responders who can check on people with fever or cough, she said.“My concern is that you have (many) more cases of dengue … but the capacity of the system to notify (and) test is limited,” she said.Dengue patients need acute care, and this could lead to a “double whammy” that overwhelms health care systems, said Scott O’Neill, founder and director of the World Mosquito Program.“The health care system is already crumbling. … I am not sure how (India’s) existing health care system will be able to handle this load,” said Dr. S.P Kalantri, a public health specialist.Global research into dengue also will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, Brady said.At the WMP Tahija Foundation Research Laboratory in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, which has been studying dengue for years, “it became too difficult to enroll patients with the social-distancing measures,” O’Neill said. The facility is now being used as a COVID-19 testing site.Similarly, the National Institute of Malaria Research in New Delhi has stopped all field work after it was converted into a center for validating COVID-19 testing kits, said Dr. R.C Dhiman, who studies mosquitoes and climate change.In Bangladesh, where dengue season is just starting, the launch of a mobile app to help people report their cases was delayed by the pandemic, said Afsana Alamgir Khan, who oversees the country’s dengue program.Experts say such disruptions by the coronavirus will only increase the risks of dengue infections. 

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