Best of our wild blogs: 14 Aug 15

The Northern Expedition: what we found
Mega Marine Survey of Singapore

Little Egret Defaecation Videos
Bird Ecology Study Group

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Living treasure trove under the sea

17 species of invertebrates found in northern coast, and researchers expect to find more
Audrey Tan Straits Times 14 Aug 15;

Coral reefs hugging Singapore's southern coast are home to a great diversity of marine life, but they are not the only undersea palaces here.

New research has uncovered a living treasure trove in lesser-known marine habitats.

Seventeen species of invertebrates (animals without backbones) new to science have been discovered in Singapore's northern shores - and researchers are expecting to find more.

"Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world, yet we are still able to find new species, and a diversity of new species, in our waters," said Dr Lena Chan, director of the National Parks Board (NParks) National Biodiversity Centre.

"The great species diversity can be attributed to the varied ecosystems existing in Singapore, which are inter-linked, since some animals inhabit different ecosystems at their various life stages."

The new finds include a sea cucumber less than 2cm long, a 4cm polychaete (worm), and a 2mm gastropod (snail).

The discoveries are part of Singapore's first Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey led by NParks. It roped in researchers from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI) and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and aimed, for the first time, to get a clear picture of sea life here.

As part of the survey, NParks and NUS organised a three-week workshop on Pulau Ubin in late 2012 to study the marine life of the Johor Strait. There, the shores are characterised by mangroves, mudflats and sandy shores, largely due to sheltered conditions and the influx of sediment-laden freshwater from rivers into the Johor Strait.

Thirty-one sites were surveyed, and some 12,000 specimens were collected. These are being kept at TMSI and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and many are still being processed.

TMSI senior research fellow Tan Koh Siang said that new nematodes (roundworms) were among the more exciting finds as there has been little research on Singapore's marine meiofauna - complex multi-cellular animals generally less than 1mm in size.

"Because meiofauna have high turnover rates, they may act as good sentinels of environmental change, and we are keen to pursue this further," he said.

Unlike the more open waters of the Singapore Strait in the south, the marine environment up north is comparatively sheltered. The 50km-long Johor Strait separates Singapore from Malaysia, and is only 2km wide at its broadest. Down south, Singapore is separated from Batam by 15km of water, and experiences significant water exchanges.

Another difference between the two marine environments is salinity. The Johor Strait receives freshwater from rivers in Johor, whereas the Singapore Strait is saltier.

"Some organisms, such as kinds of sponges, snails and fish, have flexible physiologies and there are certainly species that can be found in both the Johor and Singapore straits," he noted. "But it is clear that the composition of species, taken in total, is different in the Johor and Singapore strait."

For example, while coral reefs thrive in southern waters, they do not seem to do as well in the north due to the fluctuating salinities and heavier sedimentation there. Corals need sunlight to thrive but sediment suspended in the water column blocks the light.

The sedimentation has also led to deposits on Singapore's coast, forming the mudflats and sandflats characteristic of the northern shores.

Researchers found many different types of polychaetes in the mudflats, and a variety of gastropods and molluscs in mangroves, said Ms Linda Goh, NParks' deputy director of the biodiversity information and policy division at the National Biodiversity Centre.

"The mudflats and mangroves are important habitats for birds, which feed on these organisms," she said.

But species recognition is only the first step in understanding more about our marine habitats, Dr Tan added. Delving into the ecology, diet, reproduction, interactions with other species, larval dispersal and settlement is the next step, he explained.

"Despite being small and constantly disturbed by coastal development, Singapore still has numerous small pockets of different marine habitats that are used by different species," he said. "It is important that we recognise and define these habitats in detail, so we can manage and conserve them properly."

Marine worms wriggle their way into teacher's heart
Straits Times 14 Aug 15;

Teacher Heng Pei Yan, 29, sorting through samples collected during an expedition to survey Singapore’s shores.

Many may squirm at being knee-deep in mud and handling worms, but teacher Heng Pei Yan, 29, could not have been happier doing so.

As one of the 270 volunteers involved in a three-week workshop on Pulau Ubin to study the marine plants and animals in the Johor Strait in 2012, the passionate marine enthusiast had to process marine worms. This involved removing the tubes which the worms lived in and preserving them in chemicals so scientists could study them later.

"The removal of worm tubes was the most challenging task as some worms are very small and have small tubes," she said. "It required patience, steady hands and staring through a microscope."

Ms Heng, who has been involved in marine conservation work since 2009, also helped scientists from the National Parks Board (NParks) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) sort through specimens collected from dredging surveys.

Dr Tan Koh Siang, senior research fellow from the NUS Tropical Marine Science Institute, said the volunteers played a crucial role.

"Not only did they help to collect material from various sites by going out with the scientists, but they also helped wash and sort the specimens - a time-consuming but necessary task - so scientists could immediately see what was collected."

Before the workshop, Ms Heng was already volunteering actively with nature group Naked Hermit Crabs, leading groups on walks to the Chek Jawa wetlands.

But when she read about various animals found during earlier parts of the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey, she wanted to do more.

"What wowed me was that despite most of our coastline being reclaimed, the marine animals somehow managed to find their way back to settle.

"The diversity may not be as large as what Singapore used to have, but it is the resilience of the animals, their reappearance and their choice of location that make me curious to know more about them," said Ms Heng.

"I felt that this was a great opportunity for someone like me, without a biology background, to experience fieldwork and learn more about our marine life."

Dr Lena Chan, director of NParks National Biodiversity Centre, said such citizen science efforts could help raise awareness about Singapore's marine life.

"If people don't know the ecosystems and the species within them, they wouldn't know why they need to be conserved," she said.

Audrey Tan

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Singaporeans should take a stand in responsible travelling

GENEVIEVE SARAH LOH Today Online 14 Aug 15;

SINGAPORE — The recent controversial killing of Cecil the Lion, who was a popular tourist attraction at Hwange national park in Zimbabwe, has brought the perennial question of responsible tourism to the forefront, reigniting the ethics surrounding trophy hunting and the poaching of wild animals in Africa.

Rhinos, for example, may become extinct within the next two decades.

“The African rhino is under serious threat from poachers who have intensified their search of rhino for their horns since 2007, driven by growing market demand in Asia,” said Dr Joseph Okori, head of WWF’s (World Wildlife Fund) African Rhino Programme.

More than 1,000 rhinos are slaughtered each year, said Dereck Joubert, a wildlife film-maker, conservationist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, mostly so their horns can be hacked off and sold in China and Vietnam on the black market. In Asian traditional medicine, the highly prized rhino horn is believed to be the treatment for a variety of illnesses.

“There are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 black rhinos and 20,000 southern white rhinos left in Africa, with another one killed by poachers every seven-and-a-half hours,” said Joubert in a National Geographic article.

This startling rate of rhino poaching and inevitable extinction is the main reason Quotient TravelPlanner, a customised travel agency in Singapore, has chosen to support Rhinos Without Borders, a non-profit campaign initiated by Joubert’s Great Plains Conservation and safari company andBeyond, to move 100 rhinos from the highest poaching zones in South Africa to the lowest poaching zone in Botswana. The homegrown company aims to raise US$50,000 (S$70,000, the cost of moving one rhino between the two countries) by the end of next year to help with the expensive translocation. It has also pledged to commit a portion of the proceeds from all its safari holidays to Rhinos Without Borders during the campaign period.

Quotient TravelPlanner co-founder and director Lim Hui-Juan said responsible travel has always been a fundamental value held by the homegrown company, which offers vacations that combine authentic native experiences and luxury without sacrificing culture or environment. With its latest corporate social responsibility initiative centring on wildlife conservation, the eight-year-old travel agency hopes to spread the ethos of conscious tourism.

Although the wildlife crisis may seem very far from our local shores, Lim said Asia cannot claim not to be a part of that problem. “A number of species face extinction because of demand in Asia. Many animals’ body parts are valued by Asians and deemed status symbols or to have medicinal properties,” she said. “To solve the problem, we need to go to the root. For wildlife to stay alive, we need to take the issue back to Asia.”

She continued: “With our initiative #RhinosCanFly, we hope to not only raise funds for a worthy cause, but also motivate travellers and the public at large to think and act differently when it comes to wildlife.”

Part of their 18-month-long #RhinosCanFly initiative includes a private fundraising event in conjunction with this year’s edition of National Geographic Live In Singapore event, where proceeds from wildlife-themed merchandise, fine-print photography from acclaimed National Geographic photographers such as Steve Winter and travel offers will all go towards the cause.

There is also Give A Wild A Go, an ongoing six-week-long online contest that will end on Sunday, where participants not only learn more about wildlife conservation, but also stand a chance to win a trip for two to South Africa. Quotient TravelPlanner will be donating S$1 to Rhinos Without Borders for every participant signed up.

To take part in the contest, visit

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Malaysia: Johor Strait Development Corridor Master Plan timing could be wrong: Consultant

CHUAH BEE KIM New Straits Times 14 Aug 15;

JOHOR BARU: The Johor Strait Development Corridor Master Plan is a good policy, but the timing could be wrong, said a property consultant.

KGV International Property Consultants executive director Samuel Tan, who has viewed the master plan, which is up for public viewing at six venues until Aug 19, said he understood the need for the state government to protect the interest of Malaysian property owners and to ensure sustainability of the environment.

However, he said the implementation of the master plan now could possibly deter investors from coming to Iskandar Malaysia.

Tan said the 99-year lease imposed on foreign property owners, which is one aspect of the master plan, could drive investors to areas which have no such restrictions.

“This would drive the investors to go to Medini, a premium waterfront urban development that has no restrictions on foreign ownership, no minimum price threshold for foreign property buyers, and where investors are exempted from real property gains tax until December 31, 2025.

“The price threshold of RM2 million for landed properties and RM1 million for strata-title on foreign property owners could spur developers to push up prices of properties built for Malaysians in Iskandar Malaysia,” said Tan, adding that foreigners would pay three times more for quit rent and assessment as compared with Malaysians in the growth region.

Tan was commenting on the Johor Strait Development Corridor Master Plan, which was unveiled last week and covered housing, green technology, sustainability, reclamation and setting up of international zones for foreign property owners.

The corridor for development stretches 98km from the Tanjung Piai in the west to Sungai Johor in the east, and covers areas that are expected to have a population of 1.5 million people by 2025.

State Housing and Local Government Committee chairman Datuk Abdul Latif Bandi said the state government would uphold environmental concerns including preserving the Ramsar wetlands sites in areas of the master plan.

He said that local authorities would not grant approval for the development of new coastal projects situated on environmentally sensitive areas, without a Detailed Environmental Impact Assessment report.

The viewing period for the Johor Strait Development Corridor Master Plan is until Aug 19 at six venues — Johor Baru City Council, Johor Baru Central Municipal Council, Pasir Gudang Municipal Council, Pontian District Council, Iskandar Regional Development Authority office and Dato Abdul Rahman Andak building in Nusajaya. Viewing is from 9am to 4pm.

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Indonesia: Elephant population continues to decrease in Sumatra

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post 14 Aug 15;

Illegal hunting activities and conflict with local communities have been blamed for the continuous population decrease of elephants in Sumatra.

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Indonesia reported that the current population of elephants in the island was no more than 1,000, a decrease of almost 69 percent over the last 25 years.

WCS’ species conservation specialist Wulan Pusparini said the decreasing population of elephants has led to them being listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“The population of the elephants is currently far below the population in 2007, which was 2,800,” Wulan told The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

She said areas that had been frequently used as illegal hunting grounds for Sumatran elephants include Riau, Aceh and North Sumatra.

“There are illegal hunting activities in those areas every week,” said Wulan.

She added that six out of the nine previous elephant habitats in the island no longer had a population because of the increasing illegal hunting.

Besides hunting, there have been many reports of conflict between elephants and residents, which is believed to have also contributed to their decline.

To get data about the elephant population, Wulan said that WCS Indonesia Program’s researchers, together with the Eijkman Institute, had recently used DNA techniques.

The method, according to Wulan, had been applied at a number of sites including in Way Kambas National Park in Lampung and Bukit Tiga Puluh and Tesso Nilo National Parks, both in Riau.

“We are now using DNA research methods in South Bukit Barisan National Park,” Wulan said.

She added that the method involved grinding elephant dung and then putting it in a tube containing a special liquid called Queen’s Buffer to preserve the DNA in the dung.

A test was then conducted to extract the DNA sample to estimate the elephant population, she said.

According to Wulan, with this process — called the mark-recapture statistic approach, the dung could also be used to predict the distribution of ages and sexes of a population.

WCS’ Sumatran elephant researcher Simon Hedges said that they had recently succeeded in calculating the population of Sumatran elephants in Way Kambas National Park using the DNA technique.

Simon said that of the 310 samples of elephant dung collected, they predicted that the elephant population in the park was 247.

Simon added that apart from identifying the elephant population, the DNA technique was also used to discover that the ratio between male and female elephants in Way Kambas was one in seven.

While the spread of their ages, was described as comprising 34 percent matured elephants, 43.7 percent young elephants and 22.3 percent of baby elephants, Simon said.

Through the DNA technique, scientists and conservation experts could design the right protection mechanism to save Sumatran elephants from extinction, he added.

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El Nino more likely to last into Northern Hemisphere spring: U.S. forecaster

Luc Cohen PlanetArk 14 Aug 15;

A U.S. government weather forecaster on Thursday raised the likelihood that El Nino conditions would last into the Northern Hemisphere's early spring to 85 percent, boosting the probability that drought-stricken California could see increased rains.

The Climate Prediction Center, a National Weather Service agency, last month forecast an 80 percent chance that conditions would last through early spring. The CPC still says there is a more than 90 percent chance that El Nino conditions would last through the Northern Hemisphere winter.

The new forecast marginally raises the risk that the El Nino phenomenon, the warming of Pacific sea-surface temperatures, will unleash a period of extreme and potentially damaging weather across the globe.

Past instances have caused heavy rains and floods, hitting grain crops in South America, and scorching weather as far as Asia and East Africa.

But one potential El Nino beneficiary could be California, where record-low rainfall has prompted water usage restrictions and contributed to the spread of devastating wildfires.

"It definitely would increase the likelihood of heavy rains in the winter there, which would certainly improve their situation tremendously," said Donald Keeney, senior agricultural meteorologist with Maryland-based MDA Weather Services.

California could begin to get increased rainfall as early as October and definitely by November or December, Keeney said.

Rainfall will probably not increase in the Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington, which are also suffering from droughts, although they could experience higher temperatures like much of the northern United States, Keeney said.

The CPC said the effects of El Nino were likely to remain minimal across the contiguous United States for the rest of the summer but would increase into the late fall and winter.

El Nino would probably contribute to a below-normal Atlantic hurricane season, the CPC said. That would reduce the likelihood of storms disrupting energy operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, the agency said El Nino was likely to lead to above-normal hurricane seasons in both the central and Eastern Pacific hurricane basins.

(Editing by W Simon and Lisa Von Ahn)

Federal experts: This El Nino may be historically strong
SETH BORENSTEIN Associated Press Yahoo News 14 Aug 15;

WASHINGTON (AP) — The current El Nino, nicknamed Bruce Lee, is already the second strongest on record for this time of year and could be one of the most potent weather changers of the past 65 years, federal meteorologists say.

But California and other drought struck areas better not count on El Nino rescuing them like in a Bruce Lee action movie, experts say.

"A big El Nino guarantees nothing," said Mike Halper, deputy director of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. "At this point there's no cause for rejoicing that El Nino is here to save the day."

Every few years, the winds shift and the water in the Pacific Ocean gets warmer than usual. The resulting El Nino (ehl NEEN'-yoh) changes weather worldwide, mostly affecting the United States in winter.

In addition to California, El Nino often brings heavy winter rain to much of the southern and eastern U.S.

It's also likely to make the northern winters warmer and southeastern U.S. winters a bit cooler, but not much, Halpert said. The middle of the U.S. usually doesn't get too much of an El Nino effect, he said.

California's state climatologist Michael Anderson noted that only half the time when there have been big El Ninos has there been meaningfully heavy rains. The state would need 1½ times its normal rainfall to get out of this extended drought and that's unlikely, Halpert said Thursday.

Still, this El Nino is shaping up to be up there with the record-setters, because of incredible warmth in the key part of the Pacific in the last three months, Halpert said. He said the current El Nino likely will rival ones in 1997-1998, 1982-83 and 1972-73.

NASA oceanographer Bill Patzert said satellite measurements show this El Nino to be currently more powerful than 1997-98, which often is thought of as the king. But that one started weaker and finished stronger, he said.

This El Nino is so strong a NOAA blog unofficially named it the "Bruce Lee" of El Ninos after the late movie action hero. The California-based Patzert, who points out that mudslides and other mayhem happens, compares it to Godzilla.

Economic studies favor the hero theme, showing that El Ninos tend to benefit the United States. Droughts and Atlantic hurricanes are reduced. California mudslides notwithstanding, the U.S. economy benefited by nearly $22 billion from that 1997-98 El Nino, according to a study.

El Nino does tend to cause problems elsewhere in the world. And while El Nino often puts a big damper on the Atlantic hurricane season, that means more storms in the Pacific, such as Hawaii, Halpert said. So far this year, tropical cyclone activity in the Pacific is far higher than normal.

NOAA's El Nino page:

NASA's El Nino page:

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Humans may face malnutrition if birds and bees disappear

Lisa Rapaport Reuters Yahoo News 13 Aug 15;

(Reuters Health) - If all the birds, bugs, bees and other creatures that pollinate our food crops were to disappear from the planet, humans could face a sharp increase in malnutrition, disease and death in many parts of the world, scientists estimate.

Researchers analyzed supplies of 224 types of food in 156 countries, quantified the vitamins and nutrients in foods dependent on animal pollinators, and then calculated what nutritional deficits people could face if pollinators ceased to exist.

Globally, dietary changes forced by the extinction of pollinators might increase deaths from non-communicable diseases and malnutrition-related problems by about 1.4 million, or a 2.7 percent gain in mortality, the researchers estimate.

“It is striking how important animal pollinators are for human health globally,” said senior study author Samuel Myers, an environmental health researcher at Harvard University.

While scientists can’t predict with certainty when, if at all, pollinators might become extinct, Myers and colleagues note in a paper in The Lancet that there’s ample evidence of declining populations of certain types of pollinators in many parts of the world.

Since 2006, U.S. managed honeybee colonies have seen yearly losses of 30 percent, for example, and there’s been a 15 percent annual die off in European colonies, the authors note. Over 30 years, significant declines in wild pollinator populations have been documented across North America, Asia and Europe, with several species going extinct.

The causes aren’t clearly understood but there’s a growing consensus in the scientific community that declining populations of insect pollinators in particular may be happening due to pest infestations, disease, rising pesticide use and loss of habitats, the study team writes.

At least some of these changes may be slowed or halted by changes in human activity, such as reductions in pesticide use, Myers told Reuters Health.

During pollination, pollen from the stamen, or “male” part of a flower, moves to the stigma, or “female” part, fertilizing it and resulting in the production of fruits and seeds. Some plants can reproduce using wind-blown pollen, while others need insects and animals to transport the pollen.

Insects like bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, and beetles are the most common pollinators, but other species such as birds and mammals also transport pollen. Some common non-insect pollinators include hummingbirds, fruit bats, flying foxes, possums, lemurs and geckos.

Assuming all of these pollinators disappeared, 71 million people in low-income countries could become newly deficient in vitamin A, and an additional 2.2 billion individuals already getting less than the recommended amount of this nutrient would have further declines in consumption, the researchers estimate. Vitamin A is essential for good vision, a healthy immune system and cell growth.

Under the same worst-case scenario, 173 million people would become newly deficient in folate, while an additional 1.2 billion already deficient would become more so. Folate is a type of B vitamin that’s needed for cell growth, metabolism and to help prevent the risk of some birth defects.

Total pollinator extinction could also reduce global supplies of fruit by 23 percent, vegetables by 16 percent, and nuts and seeds by 22 percent, the researchers calculate.

Wealthier populations would be relatively insulated from food loss, able to afford any price hikes that might accompany increasingly scarce commodities, the researchers predict. Poorer people, meanwhile, would have disproportionately malnourished diets.

The research was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Winslow Foundation.

The authors caution that incomplete or inaccurate data on dietary habits around the world, mainly based on government records of average food consumption, might in turn throw off the accuracy of the estimated impact of pollinators on food supplies and nutrient availability.

Even so, as the first study to fully link global declines in animal pollinators to human health, the findings lend new urgency to the issue, Gretchen Daily, an environmental scientist at Stanford University in California, argues in an editorial accompanying the study.

“More and more evidence shows the tremendous health value of fresh fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, so declines in their availability will likely have major health impacts well beyond what vitamin pills could make up for,” Daily said by email.

SOURCE: The Lancet, online July 15, 2015.

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Food production shocks 'will happen more often because of extreme weather'

Poorer countries will be hit most by falls in production for major crops but UK and and US will also be exposed to resulting instability, says taskforce
Emma Howard The Guardian 14 Aug 15;

Major “shocks” to global food production will be three times more likely within 25 years because of an increase in extreme weather brought about by global warming, warns a new report.

The likelihood of such a shock, where production of the world’s four major commodity crops – maize, soybean, wheat and rice – falls by 5-7%, is currently once-in-a-century. But such an event will occur every 30 years or more by 2040, according to the study by the UK-US Taskforce on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience.

Such a shortfall in production could leave people in developing countries in “an almost untenable position”, with the US and the UK “very much exposed” to the resulting instability and conflict, said co-author Rob Bailey, research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House.

Prof Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds and co-author of the report, said that the compound effects of climate change and rising demand from a growing population could create a “very frightening” situation.

“The food system is increasingly under pressure because demand is growing and our ability to supply it is much more constrained. On top of that we have climate change affecting where we can grow things.

“If we are coping with demand increases by sustainable intensification but then suddenly we have a catastrophic year and lose a significant chunk of the world’s calories, everybody will feel it.”

Such shocks could plausibly see the UN’s food price index – which measures the international price of major commodities – rocket by 50%, based on an analysis of how the market would likely respond.

The report, which was supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stresses that extreme weather events such as floods or droughts are just as significant as rising average temperatures and rainfall.

Increased food production volatility will mostly affect developing countries experiencing high levels of poverty and political instability, such as countries in the Gulf or Sub-Saharan Africa.

Bailey said: “The most vulnerable countries, which will be the worst affected – whether at the macroeconomic level or at the household level – the poorest households spend upwards of 50% of their income on food. If you are in a situation where food prices are increasing by 50-100%, that leaves them in an almost untenable position.”

But while larger economies would be less directly impacted and more able to absorb rising food prices, he said “countries like the UK and the US are very much exposed to the indirect consequences”. Such consequences could include the likely increased instability of countries in North Africa, where the inflation of food prices was a factor in causing the Arab Spring and which relies heavily on food imports.

As climate change causes temperatures to rise even higher in the second half of the century, even more serious food shocks – where production drops by up to 10% – are also likely to occur much more often by 2070.

Extreme weather events in North and South America and north-east Asia – where production of the four major crops is concentrated – are likely to have the biggest impact on global food production. In 1988/89, droughts in the US and South America lead to drops in the production of maize and soybean by 12% and 8.5% respectively.

The UN issued a warning last year that global food production must rise by 60% by 2050 in order to avoid social unrest and civil wars caused by serious food shortages. Rising demand is caused by increased wealth and a growing world population that is expected to reach 9.7 billion by mid-century.

The report recommends that governments need to work together on the international level, with significant investments from the public and private sectors required to make the global food system more resilient to climate change. It follows a warning last month by a UK foreign minister that climate change poses a risk equivalent to nuclear weapons, in part because of its impact on food security.

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