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Venezuela, State Oil Firm Default on Billions Worth of Bonds

The Venezuelan government and its state-owned oil company PDVSA have officially defaulted on billions of dollars’ worth of bonds, the latest chapter of the country’s deep financial collapse.

 The International Swaps and Derivatives Association, a group of banks and brokers that determines whether an entity like Venezuela has failed to make on-time payments on its debts, voted Thursday to say that Venezuela had defaulted.


The vote will trigger what is known as a “credit event” on securities like credit default swaps, which investors buy as a type of insurance against a potential default. The 15-member group must now decide how it will settle the swaps.

Two rating agencies — Fitch and Standard & Poor’s — already determined this week that Venezuela’s government was in default.

PDVSA bonds were trading at 26.5 cents on the dollar, compared with roughly 30 cents back in September, according to FactSet.  


Venezuela’s debt skyrocketed to over $120 billion under the late President Hugo Chavez as the government spent heavily on social programs while oil prices were high. About half its debt is in the form of dollar-denominated bonds.


A drop in oil prices and mismanagement crushed the economy, leading to widespread shortages of food and other basics amid triple-digit inflation.

At a meeting with investors Monday, Vice President Tareck El Aissami tried to assure creditors that the country’s debts will continue to be paid. But those in attendance said they learned of no concrete plans for reorganizing the debt.


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Schools Are Best Means of Ending Child Labor, Experts Say

Access to education is key to ending child labor, but many countries are not investing enough to rescue 150 million children globally from often hazardous work, experts said.

When schools offer meals, transport and occupational training, children can often stop working, experts said Thursday at the fourth annual Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labor.

“We need to work hand in hand with the government so the facilities are there when we get a child out of work and back into education,” said Hillary Yuba of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe.

Ending child labor by 2025 is one of 17 ambitious global goals that the United Nations adopted in 2015, aimed at ending poverty and inequality.

Nearly one in 10 children around the world works, the leading U.N. anti-slavery group said. Half of them do hazardous work, and more than a third do not go to school.

“The future is going to be a world free of forced labor and child labor,” said Guy Ryder, director-general of the U.N. labor agency, the International Labor Organization. “There’s no excuse. … We know what those choices are.”

‘Challenge of our century’

Many countries are failing to meet commitments made in international treaties against child labor, experts said.

“This is the challenge of our century,” said Mohamed Ben Omar, minister of labor in Niger, where a population boom means the number of school-age children is growing. “The investment just isn’t there.”

An injection of $39 billion could provide quality pre-primary, primary and secondary education to all children by 2030, said children’s activist Kailash Satyarthi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Many countries have abolished fees that keep poor children out of school, but there are often hidden costs like uniforms and transportation, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He has been campaigning to encourage legislators to return to their schools and engage with children.

“The youth are my hope,” he said.

Paraguay has invested heavily in education, providing transportation and occupational training, in an effort to eliminate child labor, said Labor Minister Guillermo Sosa Flores.

“We also introduced lunch and afternoon tea,” he said, adding that schools in Paraguay also seek to promote self-esteem and positive attitudes toward learning and work.

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Tesla to Enter Trucking Business With New Electric Semi

After more than a decade of making cars and SUVs — and, more recently, solar panels — Tesla Inc. wants to electrify a new type of vehicle: big trucks.

The company was set to unveil its new electric semitractor-trailer Thursday night near its design center in Hawthorne, California.

The move fits with Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s stated goal for the company of accelerating the shift to sustainable transportation. Trucks account for nearly a quarter of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to government statistics.

Tesla also could equip its trucks with the semiautonomous driving features found in its cars, like automatic braking and lane changing.

But the semi also piles on the chaos at Palo Alto, California-based company. It’s way behind on production of the Model 3, a new lower-cost sedan. It’s also ramping up production of solar panels after buying Solar City Corp. last year. Musk has said Tesla is also working on a pickup truck and a lower-cost SUV and negotiating a new factory in China.

Meanwhile, the company posted a record quarterly loss of $619 million in its most recent quarter.


Musk, too, is being pulled in many different directions. He leads rocket maker SpaceX and is dabbling in other projects, including high-speed transit, artificial intelligence research and a new company that’s digging tunnels beneath Los Angeles to alleviate traffic congestion.

“He’s got so much on his plate right now. This could present another distraction from really just making sure that the Model 3 is moved along effectively,” said Bruce Clark, a senior vice president and automotive analyst at Moody’s.

Tesla hasn’t released any details about the semi. Some analysts expect it to get around 200 miles per charge and be used for daily tasks like transporting freight from a port to a distribution center. Musk has said it should take about two years for the semi to go on sale.

Projected sales growth

Tesla is venturing into an uncertain market. Demand for electric trucks is expected to grow over the next decade as the U.S., Europe and China all tighten their emissions regulations. Electric truck sales totaled 4,100 in 2016, but are expected to grow to more than 70,000 in 2026, Navigant Research said.

But most of that growth is expected to be for smaller, medium-duty haulers like garbage trucks or delivery vans. Those trucks can have a more limited range of 100 miles or less, which requires fewer expensive batteries. They can also be charged overnight.

Long-haul semis, on the other hand, would be expected to go greater distances, and that would be challenging. Right now, there’s little charging infrastructure on global highways. And charging even a mid-sized truck would likely require a two-hour stop, cutting into companies’ efficiency and profits, said Brian Irwin, managing director of the North American industrial group for the consulting firm Accenture.

Irwin says truck companies will have to watch the market carefully, because tougher regulations on diesels or an improvement in charging infrastructure could make electric trucks more viable very quickly. Falling battery costs also will help make electric trucks more appealing compared with diesels.

But even lower costs won’t make trucking a sure bet for Tesla. It faces stiff competition from long-trusted brands like Daimler AG, which unveiled its own semi prototype last month. Fleet operators want reliable trucks, and Tesla will have to prove it can make them, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst with the car shopping site Autotrader.

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Big Businesses From Apple to Walmart Say Train Suppliers to Stamp Out Slavery

Businesses striving to stamp out slavery from their supply chains should not dismiss struggling suppliers but train them to improve the lives of workers, and technology can play a part, leading companies including Apple and Walmart said on Wednesday.

In recent years modern-day slavery has increasingly come under the global spotlight, putting ever greater regulatory and consumer pressure on firms to ensure their supply chains are free of forced labor, child labor and other forms of slavery.

From cosmetics and clothes to shrimp and smartphones, supply chains are often complex with multiple layers across various countries – whether in sourcing the raw materials or creating the final product – making it hard to identify exploitation.

As companies delve deeper into their supply chains to examine workers’ conditions, they should not punish suppliers who violate human rights but help them raise standards and work more efficiently, said Paula Pyers of U.S. tech giant Apple.

“We are loathe to terminate a business relationship in cases of violations,” Pyers, Apple’s head of supplier responsibility, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference, which focuses on slavery and women’s empowerment.

“We want to teach and train suppliers to make them better,” said Pyers, adding that Apple has helped more than 11.5 million workers to learn their rights, and returned at least $28 million to 35,000 employees forced to pay fees to obtain their jobs.

Turning to tech

About 25 million people globally were estimated to be trapped in forced labor in 2016, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and rights group Walk Free Foundation.

With consumers increasingly conscious of slave labor and willing to pay more for ethically sourced goods, big brands should lead by example to inspire their suppliers to get into line, and also to boost profits, said Jan Saumweber of Walmart.

“Responsible sourcing is key towards our goal of being the most trusted retailer,” said Saumweber, senior vice president of responsible sourcing at Walmart, the world’s largest retailer.

She said Walmart has turned to technology to improve workers’ rights worldwide – from hotlines to a smartphone app in the style of TripAdvisor that allows Burmese migrants working in Thailand’s fishing industry to review their employers.

Speaking on a panel about best business practices to tackle modern slavery, several experts said cleaning up supply chains would only be sustainable if this resulted in greater profits.

“Investors can direct trillions of dollars to companies with strong human rights policies and clean supply chains,” said Jean Baderschneider, head of Global Fund to End Slavery, a public-private partnership seeking $1.5 billion to combat the crime.

“But it can’t be a case of charity or philanthropy – they need to see better returns through having clean supply chains.”

But firms’ efforts to tackle slavery, from codes of conducts to audits, are often lip service and deflect attention from a need for tougher measures, said Bobby Banerjee, professor of management at the University of London’s Cass Business School.

“The problem with CSR (corporate social responsibility) is that there is too much C, and not enough S or R,” he said.

“Forced labor is not an aberration, but a viable management practice … an outcome of the economic system we live in.”

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Mexico Rejects Special Benefit in NAFTA for AT&T

Mexico shot down a proposal by the United States to include provisions in the North America Free Trade Agreement that would benefit AT&T, Mexico’s Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo said Wednesday.

“AT&T, which is North American, asked its government to reflect its interests in the negotiation,” Guajardo said in an interview on local radio without specifying the details of the U.S. proposal. “You cannot have an agreement … that gives a tailor’s cut, a perfect handiwork, to a specific company.”

AT&T and the U.S. Trade Representative office declined to comment.

During the last round of talks in Virginia, the United States proposed incorporating Mexico’s landmark telecommunications reform into a NAFTA provision that would apply only to Mexico, four sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Mexico’s 2013-14 telecommunications reform aimed to break up the dominance of America Movil, the telecommunications firm owned by billionaire Carlos Slim, which emerged from a state monopoly in the 1990s.

Negotiators are still working to make sure the reform is included in the agreement, Guajardo said.

“What we said is that we cannot accept a specific annex,” he said. “We can reflect conceptually the commitments that are reflected in the law, which for us is very important to consolidate.”

Mexico reform weakened

Beckoned by the reform, AT&T entered the Mexican market in 2014, spending $4.4 billion to buy Mexico’s No. 3 and No. 4 carriers.

But the market was plunged into uncertainty in August when the Mexico Supreme Court ruled America Movil should not be barred by law from charging its rivals for calls to its network, weakening a key pillar of the reform.

The turmoil has spilled over into NAFTA negotiations, Guajardo said.

“What has kept us from closing (the telecoms chapter) is that it was contaminated a little bit by this debate over the zero-rate,” he said.

The telecommunications reform, which sharply lowered prices for consumers, is one of Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto’s signature accomplishments. But throughout the negotiations, Mexico has consistently rejected proposals that isolate the nation, trade experts say.

Negotiating as three, not two

“What’s surprising (about the telecommunications proposal) is that there is the principle that we are negotiating as three countries,” said Mexico Senator Gerardo Flores, who was briefed on the proposal.

“And suddenly the United States puts on the table a proposal that demands commitments specifically from Mexico, which converts the negotiation into a bilateral negotiation.”

Mexico has been enthusiastic about enshrining a 2014 energy reform in NAFTA, but also with the condition that the language applies to all three countries in the pact, said Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

“Mexico doesn’t want to be singled out in any way,” he said. “You set a precedent where side deals with individual countries can be made.”

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Border Jam Threatens Mongolia’s Coal Lifeline

In Mongolia’s Gobi desert, thousands of heavy-duty trucks laden with coal inch along a cluttered highway toward the Chinese border in a journey that can take more than a week.

Truckers cook, eat and sleep in vehicles covered in coal dust, many subsisting on the same meat soup that fueled Genghis Khan’s Mongol Horde more than eight centuries ago.

Alongside the trucks a bustling microeconomy has sprung up of traders peddling cigarettes, water and diesel as drivers wait to clear Chinese customs in a queue that can stretch for 130 kilometers (80 miles).

A rebound in coal prices and a surge in exports to China this year has meant a bonanza for miners in Mongolia, and a vital lifeline for the country’s tiny economy, after a currency and debt crisis forced it to seek an economic rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

​Border chokepoint

But long delays at the Gashuun Sukhait-Gants Mod crossing, the main transit point between the two countries, are undercutting those gains as fleets of trucks carrying coal from Gobi desert mines to China pile up at the border.

The long delays have been blamed on a surge in traffic driven by the thriving cross-border coal trade. However, Mongolia’s inability to stop rampant smuggling across the border has also played a role as China has imposed more stringent checks on incoming deliveries in recent months.

Customs officials in China’s Inner Mongolia declined to comment when contacted by Reuters. The General Administration of Customs in Beijing also did not respond to requests for comment.

Coal prices, exports up

The rise in coal prices this year has doubled border traffic, according to local police, putting law enforcement and customs staff under heavy pressure in both China and Mongolia.

With Gobi miners hoping to boost output further next year in a bid to take advantage of higher prices in China, the bottlenecks are expected to get worse.

An environmental crackdown in China has resulted in the closure of hundreds of mines and the restriction of coal deliveries into smaller ports, driving up prices.

Curbs on coal imports from North Korea as a result of international sanctions against Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program have also allowed Mongolia to fill the breach.

Mongolia’s coal exports to China rose more than four-fold in the first half of the year, but growth has petered out since the delays at the border crossings first arose in July.

Bataa Davaasuren, director of Mongolia’s Customs House at Gashuun Sukhait, said customs on both sides of the border were short-staffed, adding that the situation had been exacerbated by events like the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October.

Mongolia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the problem was initially caused by the Naadam summer festival, when many Mongolians take long holidays.

​Smuggling a problem

Mongolian customs officers are also taking more time to screen cargoes after their Chinese counterparts complained that raw meat and even guns had been secreted in coal heading to China, Davaasuren said.

There was even one incident when a driver tried to sneak a live wolf across the border, he said.

“Nobody wants the long queue, of course,” said Davaasuren, who said the problem would quickly disappear if Mongolian customs could raise its handling capacity to 3,000 trucks a day from 700 currently. “It’s bad for the drivers and the country, so we’re all working to resolve the issue.”

Harrowing trip

When trucks aren’t stuck in grinding traffic, just getting to the border is also a harrowing ordeal, as vehicles speed toward China and back down the one-lane road. With no street lamps to guide the way and drunken driving a constant problem, danger levels increase at night, drivers say.

“It’s very risky,” said one driver, who identified himself as Bat-Erdene. “We see flipped-over cars on the side of the road every day.”

On a recent trip down the road, a team of Reuters journalists saw numerous overturned trucks and vehicles smashed up from head-on collisions littering the side of the road.

“We see unbelievable things,” said Dunshig Baasanjav, a driver standing outside his truck amid the motionless traffic.

“Others who see it would think it’s the worst they’ve ever seen, but we see it all the time. We’re numb to it.”

​Rail link the answer

Miners say the long-term solution to the border bottleneck problem is a new rail link connecting mines with the Gashuun Sukhait crossing.

Mongolia built more than 200 kilometers of foundations for railway tracks for the link but the project was put on hold after financing ran dry.

Local authorities believe the project may have to start again from scratch because the foundation blocks have been left at the mercy of Mongolia’s harsh environment for so long.

Whatever the fate of the railroad, those plying the roads from the Gobi to China in stop-and-go traffic have little choice but to keep driving given the lack of opportunities in a country strapped by austerity measures linked to the IMF bailout.

“This job is very risky and life threatening, but we have no other choice,” said Choijiljav Ganbold, a trucker who emerged from his truck as the sun set on the motionless traffic.

“We have nothing else to do.”

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Adidas Leads Way as 4 Companies Win ‘Stop Slavery’ Award

German sportswear giant Adidas led the pack as four companies won a global award on Wednesday for shining a light on their own supply chains to eradicate modern slavery from their operations.

Adidas was revealed as the overall winner of the second Thomson Reuters Foundation Stop Slavery Award, which celebrates businesses that excel in efforts to identify, investigate and root out forced labor from their supply chains.

Global fashion retailer C&A, U.S. technology company Intel and British mutually-owned retail and services group The Co-operative Group were the other winners of the annual award designed by Turner Prize winning sculptor Anish Kapoor.

With modern slavery increasingly dominating headlines worldwide, businesses are under increasing pressure from both governments and consumers to disclose what actions they are taking to ensure their supply chains are free from slavery.

About 25 million people globally were estimated to be trapped in forced labor in 2016, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and rights group Walk Free Foundation.

“Whilst we have outsourced our production and manufacturing all over the world, we will not outsource our moral responsibility which is to do right by the 1.3 million workers who make our products,” said Aditi Wanchoo, senior manager of social and environmental affairs at Adidas, at the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference.

The winners were chosen from a shortlist of 15 companies that employ millions of people worldwide in sectors ranging from electronics and hospitality to retail and mining and included British multinational bank Barclays, Nestle and Walmart.

The shortlist was selected after businesses completed a detailed questionnaire, designed in partnership with human rights specialists at multi-national law firm Baker & McKenzie, giving details about their operations.

An independent specialist assessed the company submissions on the strength of anti-trafficking policies already in place, as well as their ability to identify and respond to problems.

Rebuilding Lives

Adidas, the world’s second-biggest sportswear firm, was hailed for its transparent audits, strong responsible sourcing guidelines, and robust tools to trace higher-risk supply chains.

The sportswear giant was one of the world’s first companies to create a role dedicated to fighting slavery, and uses technology to encourage workers to speak out about any abuses.

The Co-operative Group was honored for having excelled in business partnership and supplier engagement, and won praise for its ‘Brighter Future’ program which aims to offer jobs to 30 slavery and trafficking victims in Britain.

“We want to go further than our own supply chains in tackling modern slavery,” said Pippa Wicks, deputy chief executive of The Co-operative Group.

Intel, the world’s largest computer chipmaker, was awarded for its innovation, in particular an initiative which leverages the company’s data analytics, and uses artificial intelligence to combat child sexual exploitation in the United States.

The company has openly discussed its anti-slavery efforts, and refused new business with several suppliers who have failed to implement measures to combat forced labor, the judges said.

Fashion retailer C&A, which was praised by the judges for going beyond compliance standards in all categories, called for more collaboration between brands, governments and civil society to implement projects which tackle slavery in source countries.

The C&A Foundation, affiliated with retailer C&A, is in a partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation on trafficking.

The Stop Slavery Award was won last year by multinational tech companies Hewlett Packard Enterprise and NXP Semiconductors.

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Mexico to Respond to Tough US Proposals at Fifth NAFTA Round

Mexico will respond to U.S. demands for changes in content rules for autos and an automatic expiration clause in the NAFTA trade deal when negotiations on reworking the accord begin again this week, a top government official said on Tuesday.

A fifth round of talks to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement starts on Wednesday in Mexico City, notable for U.S. demands that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has labeled “poison pills.”

Foremost among them are a 50 percent minimum U.S. limit in NAFTA automobile content, the scrapping of a key dispute mechanism and inclusion of a sunset clause that will terminate the pact after five years if it is not renegotiated.

The measures soured the mood among U.S., Mexican and Canadian negotiators when put forward last month, and Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo, said his country would respond to the auto content and sunset clause plans.

“Those responses will be angled very logically toward what we’re hearing from the business world in Mexico and the United States,” Guajardo said at an event in Mexico City.

The three sides would explore what scope there was for narrowing their positions on that basis, he added.

Industry officials across the region have balked at the auto proposals, arguing they would add bureaucratic hurdles, be hard to enforce and could damage the competitiveness of the sector.

In addition to seeking to establish U.S. minimum thresholds, the team led by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has proposed raising the regional content requirement for NAFTA autos to 85 percent from 62.5 percent at present.


The coming round, which runs through Nov. 21, would seek to examine the viability of such ambitious targets, Guajardo said.

“It’s one thing for them to say ‘we want 85 percent regional value’ and another for them to explain how to achieve that technically, understanding how the industry works,” he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from NAFTA if he cannot rework it to the benefit of the United States, spooking investors and hurting the Mexican peso.

Mexican and Canadian officials have privately voiced skepticism about the prospect of negotiators making substantial progress on the most divisive issues during the current round.

That does not necessarily mean talks will be bad-tempered.

The White House is pushing for congressional approval of Trump’s planned tax cuts, and officials say that could help set a more measured tone for the round, lest trade disputes create friction with NAFTA-supporting Republican lawmakers.

If Trump makes headway on tax cuts, it is more likely to help NAFTA talks than harm them, said Bosco de la Vega, head of Mexico’s National Agricultural Council (CNA), a farming lobby.

“What we know from our U.S. counterparts is that they’re saying, ‘listen: we see that the future of [NAFTA talks] will depend on the success or failure of the tax reform.’ It will have a direct impact on NAFTA. How much? Who knows?” he said.

Meanwhile, Guajardo expressed confidence that negotiators could make progress on less divisive topics in Mexico City.

“There are some chapters we believe we can finalize this round,” he said, noting that talks on telecommunications and regulatory practices were advancing.

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Global Insurance Partnership Beefed Up to Protect Poor from Climate Risks

Germany on Tuesday pledged $125 million to boost the work of an international insurance partnership that aims to cover 400 million more poor and vulnerable people against disaster risks by 2020.

That goal was first set in 2015 by the G7 group of wealthy nations, but the effort has now been expanded to bring in other partners, including the World Bank and an alliance of about 50 countries vulnerable to climate threats, including small island states like Fiji, which is presiding over the talks in Bonn.

In July, Britain contributed 30 million pounds ($39.4 million) to establish a Center for Global Disaster Protection.

Fiji’s prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, said that when powerful Cyclone Winston hit his nation last year, wiping out 30 percent of its economy, tens of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, and many households were uninsured.

“People protected by their wealth have no idea of the heartbreak of the poor and most vulnerable when they lose their homes and livelihoods in climate-related disasters,” he told an event to launch the partnership.

Fiji needs new forms of finance to develop while also reducing the risks of weather extremes and rising seas to tourism, forests, fisheries and agriculture, as well as to infrastructure, much of which is exposed on the coast, he said.

The InsuResilience Global Partnership will develop and roll out innovative finance and insurance solutions for individual countries tailored to the needs and challenges of their poor people in particular, it said.

Those will include sovereign risk pools like the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility (CCRIF), which has paid out $62 million to 10 Caribbean countries since hurricanes Irma and Maria brought destruction to the island states in September.

Using the additional funds announced Tuesday on the sidelines of the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, the global partnership will also aim to expand schemes such as the NWK Agri-Services cotton company in Zambia, which offers weather and life insurance to small contract farmers and is already backed by InsuResilience.

In 2015, some 52,000 farmers bought insurance, of whom more than 23,000 received payments after a major drought in 2016.

Allen Chastanet, prime minister of St. Lucia, said the CCRIF had proved to be “an amazing asset,” enabling quick access to funds after a disaster. But it was just as important to provide money to help Caribbean nations adapt to climate change to help prevent catastrophic losses, he said.

“Insurance is not dealing with the overall solution. It is dealing with the symptom, not the actual cause,” he said.

Aid agencies working in developing countries to reduce the risks of disasters said the partnership must also look at ways to help vulnerable communities prepare better for climate threats, besides providing insurance.

“Insurance doesn’t actually reduce risk, and it could be unaffordable for the communities it’s meant to cover,” said Tracy Carty, head of Oxfam’s delegation at the Bonn conference.

“No other choice”

Ibrahim Thiaw, deputy executive director of UN Environment, said the expansion of insurance could help bring down its costs, as has happened in Africa with mobile phones, which are now almost everywhere.

“Insurance is booming around climate. It will grow because people have no other choice. They need that buffer to protect themselves,” he told a separate discussion.

The group of climate-vulnerable countries working with InsuResilience, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Costa Rica, are also working on their own schemes, such as the planned Sustainable Insurance and Takaful Facility, which is based on the principles of Islamic finance.

It aims to close the gaps in insurance protection and disaster risk reduction for its member states’ 1 billion people, only 14 percent of whom have access to some form of risk cover.

Members would contribute to a fund that pays out when a disaster hits, as well as supporting adaptation and green projects, said Sara Jane Ahmed of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities. The facility aims to start work next year.

This week, the U.N. climate change secretariat also launched an online platform under the Paris climate agreement that will use artificial intelligence to connect countries seeking innovative insurance solutions with the expertise they need.

U.N. Climate Chief Patricia Espinosa said the new efforts would bring together those working to prevent climate disasters and help allay damage across the international community.

“Failing to plan for climate impacts is a huge risk,” she said, noting how Hurricane Irma had recently left Barbuda uninhabited for the first time in 300 years while persistent drought is displacing people in Africa’s Sahel region, contributing to the migration crisis in Europe.

“It is in our best collective interest to build resilient societies,” she added.

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Urban Farming Technologies Crop Up in Homes, Restaurants

How do you obtain the freshest, locally grown produce in a big city? For an increasing number of urbanites, the answer is to grow it yourself.

Cam MacKugler can help. MacKugler was at the recent Food Loves Tech event in Brooklyn, New York showing off Seedsheets, roll-out fabric sheets embedded with seed-filled pods.

The sheets are placed atop soil in a home planter or an outdoor garden. When watered, the pods dissolve and plants sprout in 10 days (for pea shoots) to 70 days (for dragon carrots).

The seed groupings on any given Seedsheet provide ingredients for specific dishes like salads or tacos. Pricing starts at $15 for pre-made sheets and go up to $100 for custom outdoor sheets measuring 1.2 by 2.4 meters.

“Someone that’s never gardened before might say, ‘I want to know where my food comes from but I don’t know how to do it, but I like salads so I’m going to buy the salad kit,’ ” said MacKugler, Seedsheet’s CEO and founder.

Efforts like Seedsheet come as consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and are more interested in socially and environmentally responsible growing methods.

MacKugler told VOA that most of the company’s sales come from urban millennials.

Comparing Seedsheets to meal kit delivery companies like Blue Apron, MacKugler said Seedsheet took an experiential and educational approach to gardening, while making it user-friendly for customers.

“I view it as a way to not only help them grow food, but also help grow their skill sets of knowing how to curate their food, how to actually bring food from seed to supper. It’s a life skill,” said MacKugler, “It’s the same thing that you get from using Blue Apron and learning how to cook.”

Consumers aren’t giving up on the convenience and low cost of packaged foods, but new products and technologies are playing a bigger role in helping them understand where their food comes from.

“Consumer education is really progressing,” said Nicole Baum, senior marketing and partnerships manager at Gotham Greens, a New York-based provider of hydroponically grown produce.

Baum said consumers were less familiar with the term “hydroponics,” growing plants in water instead of soil, when Gotham Greens started in 2011. Perceptions have since changed, and she has seen an increase in competing companies.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more people within the space from when we first started, which is awesome,” said Baum. “I think it’s really great that other people are coming into the space and looking for ways to use technology to have more productive, efficient growth.”

Gotham Greens provides rooftop-grown leafy greens and herbs to supermarkets and top-ranked restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, which uses seasonal vegetables but also depends on the reliability of produce from urban hydroponic farms.

“When we write our menus, we know that there are staples that we can continue using,” said Gramercy Tavern sous chef Kyle Goldstein.

Companies like Smallhold were also on hand at the Food Loves Tech event to promote their mushroom mini-farms — self-contained, vertical farm units that are intended for use in commercial kitchens.

Smallhold’s mini-farms are installed and serviced by the company at restaurants, with chefs harvesting mushrooms directly on-site. Hannah Shufro, operations lead at Smallhold, said the mini-farms minimize the environmental footprint that comes with transporting and packaging produce for delivery.

“A lot of chefs these days, I think, are more concerned with sustainability” and have always been concerned with freshness, she said.

Shufro noted that produce starts to lose its nutritional value from the moment it’s picked or harvested. “When you’re harvesting food right out of a system that’s growing on-site, it does not get fresher than that,” she said.