Talks to reach an International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture collapsed last month when four nations - USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - vetoed an agreement that had been six years in negotiation. The Undertaking would have guaranteed scientists continued free access to the seed varieties held in the seedbanks of international crop research centres by replacing the existing voluntary agreement, to which the USA has never signed up, with a legally binding framework.
The Centres hold some half million plant varieties covering all the world's major food crops, a public responsibility which costs approximately US$350 million a year to maintain. Plant breeding and biotechnology companies had agreed to help fund seed conservation by handing over a small percentage of royalties charged on the varieties created using publically owned seeds. Governments had agreed to continue funding the genebanks through the World Bank. Developing countries had agreed to relinquish sovereignty over their food plants to ensure that no-one could register intellectual property rights on their farmers' crop varieties. But trade officials argued that the planned levy on products might infringe WTO rules on free trade and intellectual property rights. There are fears that failure to establish the Undertaking could lead to the world's plant genetic resources being privatized and passing into corporate control.
Untied aid, free trade, fairer trade, and more transparent development assistance are put forward in the White Paper published in December 2000 by the UK government's Department for International Development. Secretary of State, Clare Short, rejects the attitude that the effects of globalization are inevitably disadvantageous to the poor. The White Paper commits the UK government to shape its own policies and use its own influence in the international system to try to ensure that the poor are not further marginalized as the rest of the world races towards greater prosperity within the global economy.
The White Paper acknowledges that the work of the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) is vital. "It is essential that it moves forward with reforms to its governance, organization and structure so that it can deal with the increasing complexities of its role in public goods research and in the organization and management of genetic resources and intellectual property." (Full report and interview in the next edition of New Agriculturist)
A small, insignificant weed has achieved fame by being the first plant to have its genome fully sequenced. An international consortium of scientists have published the full genome of thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) in the journal Nature, the result of ten years' effort. It is expected to take a further ten years to discover what each of the plant's 26,000 genes actually does. With a full understanding of how plants function at the genetic level will come an understanding of how to improve them more quickly and more surely for resistance to drought or disease, or for higher yields or earlier flowering, for example. Genetic engineers should also be able to predict more accurately the environmental consequences of releasing genetically modified crops. A computational analysis of the Arabidopsis genome, that makes it more reliable as a genetic model for other plant species, has been published in the journal Science.
India's WTO Agreement on Agriculture is to be reviewed this month. There are concerns that India's farmers will be unable to compete with cheap, subsidized farm imports from developed countries when the country lifts Quantitative Restrictions on 825 farm items in April 2001. Domestic farmers are already feeling the effects of cheap imports of edible oils, skimmed milk powder, coconuts, apples and grapes. Four former prime ministers of India have questioned India's policy with regard to the WTO, particularly in view of continuing farm subsidies in developed countries which are protected under the WTO "Green Box" scheme.
Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in South Africa has spread to Swaziland, where an export abattoir has been placed under quarantine after inspectors detected FMD virus infection in cattle imported from the Kanhym cattle and pig feedlot estate in neighbouring South African province of Mpumalanga. The meat inspectors at a Swaziland Meat Industries abattoir recognised typical FMD lesions on the mouths and tongues of cattle destined for slaughter. Swaziland's Director of Veterinary Services, Dr. Robert Thwala, warned that cattle and meat imports from South Africa would be restricted until the disease is under control.
South African veterinary authorities have now quarantined number of farms in Mpumalanga. The President of Agri-Mpumalanga, Lourie Bosman, is reported as stressing that strict control measures were in place to vaccinate Kanhym's 10 000 cattle and 54 000 pigs in an area which accounts for 13 percent of South Africa's beef and 3 percent of pork production.
The infection may have been caused by cattle imported from beyond South Africa's "red line" which separates agricultural areas from the Kruger National Park where FMD is endemic. In September South African experienced its first outbreak of FMD (a different strain) in 44 years in KwaZulu-Natal necessitating the slaughter of thousands of animals and quarantining of a 20,000 square km area.
Pests of stored grain make a noise when they eat. An electronic listening device, originally developed for quarantine inspection, has now been refined by a DFID-funded team of scientists working with a commercial partner. The instrument is able to "listen" to samples of grain and monitor over a few days the eating habits of any larvae that are present. It will help plant breeders to quickly evaluate resistance to pest attack, a characteristic that it is essential to preserve if high yielding crop varieties are to attract the interest of farmers. The technology is currently being developed for cowpea but could, it is hoped, be adapted to test maize, sorghum and other grain crops.
The Indian government has provoked anger among the farming community by approving field trials of 'Bt Cotton'-a genetically modified variety containing the 'Cry 1AC' gene which makes it resistant to cotton bollworm, a damaging pest. The trials aim to generate data about environmental safety, but many NGOs and farmers' organizations have questioned the safety protocols of the earlier small-scale trials, and the validity of the data they produced. The government's decision has heightened the storm in India, where debate rages between those sections of the scientific community who argue that GM crops are the way forward for India, and the environmentalists who stress that the technology has not yet been accepted even in the developed countries from where it originated.
The livelihoods of 3.5 million families in the South Indian state of Kerala are under threat as the value of coconut falls to its lowest level for ten years. Flooding of the market both by over-production and increased imports has caused prices to crash from Rs 4.80 to Rs.2. and in addition, NAFED ( the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation) has halted its coconut procurement scheme. As a result, farm work has stopped and many daily wage earners have been left without a source of income.
Former Agriculture Minister VV Raghavan warned that suicides may occur - as has happened before in India following crop failures- if the Kerala farmers are not helped. He suggests that NAFED should be procuring coconuts to produce oil for export, that coconut should be given the benefits eligible for other oil seeds, and that the Coconut Development Board's funds should be used to help the farmers.
Of the 4,183 breeds of domestic animal for which population figures are available, 1,335 are faced with extinction and 2,255 will be lost in the next twenty years if adequate action is not taken, according to the FAO's 'World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity' (3rd Edition).
Over half of Europe's 2,576 breeds are at risk, many being endangered because of their perceived lack of economic competitiveness. The pig and poultry industries, for example, rely on a handful of specialised breeds. In sub-Saharan Africa 20% of mammal breeds are at risk, double that of five years ago, and the figure for bird breeds is twice as high. The situation in Asia and South America is similar.
Sustainable utilisation and conservation are two vital elements of the FAO's 'Global Strategy for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources', and it argues that for the strategy to be successful everyone from farmers to policy makers must be involved. In a major five-year project, the FAO is helping countries to evaluate their genetic resources, and their priorities for action in terms of breed development and conservation.
The unreliable and inconsistent quality of fish seed reaching farmers has been found to be an important constraint to those wishing to take up aquaculture in NE Thailand and S Laos. In both regions, it was believed that seed produced by the private sector networks were inferior to those produced by Provincial-level government hatcheries although a DFID-funded project has shown otherwise. However, the project has highlighted the need for raising awareness and improving measurement of quality to allow traders and farmers to make a more informed selection of stock. In NE Thailand, the Government agencies are already changing their role in response to project findings by addressing policy issues, which concern the interaction between public and private sectors involved in production of fish seed.
A quicker way to screen potentially effective chemical insecticides may soon be possible thanks to a team of Australian and American scientists who have succeeded in cloning two hormone proteins. These regulate the transition of juvenile insects through their various moults to become adults. In insects such as locusts and grasshoppers, alternations to the hormone levels can influence the form into which adults develop and prevent commencement of the migratory phase. Chemical control on sedentary insects is easier, more effective and environmentally safer than trying to control a flying swarm. The team from CSIRO's entomology biotechnology programme will patent their work as a first stage towards commercial application for insecticide screening.
Implementation of the US$60 million oil palm project under the Vegetable Oil Development Project on Bugala Island in Lake Victoria has stalled due to environmental concerns. Soil erosion and siltation into the lake from the clearing of vegetation for the palm plantation, and chemical waste from the would-be oil palm factory, are some of the contentious issues. There is also an objection to the intention of BIDCO Oil Refineries Ltd. of Kenya to expand the oil palm plantation from 4,500 to 10,000 hectares out of the island's 29,600 hectares.
A group of Zambian farmers have been urged to grow herbs and spices for the international market at a recent workshop in Lusaka. Mr Mike Brook of the UK company The Organic Herb Trading Co., advocated both the financial and environmental benefits to be gained from organic production of the cash crop. The farmers felt empowered and excited by his practical advice on how to grow the plants, and hoped the government would be able to assist those wishing to try out the new ideas. Agriculture Minister Mr Suresh Desai, confirmed that the government had been trying to provide extension and financial support to those venturing into organic farming. Suppliers to the company will have to comply with internationally recognized standards for organic certification.
Four new varieties of Quality Protein Maize (QPM) seed were authorized for release by Uganda's National Variety Committee a few weeks ago. According to Dr Justus Imanywoha, plant breeder at Namulonge Agricultural and Animal Production Research Institute, the four new seed varieties are superior in food value, disease resistance and in yield. The benefits of QPM maize are now widely recognized. (see News items 99-5, 00-5 and 00-6). Over 900,000 tonnes of normal maize are produced annually in Uganda which farmers sell privately to neighbouring countries, especially Kenya. The World Food Programme also buys thousands of tonnes of maize in Uganda to feed the ever growing number of refugees from Sudan, Congo. Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Kenya and Nigeria. QPM maize would bring nutritional benefit to them as well as to Uganda's own citizens.
Farmers in East Timor have been planting a wide range of rice, maize, cassava, bean, potato, sweet potato and groundnut varieties as part of the Seeds of Life project to establish food self-sufficiency in the UN protectorate. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research funded the seed distribution which was supported by five CGIAR centres and two NGOs...
... and 2,500 cattle have been flown to Kosovo to help farmers who lost all their livestock during the Balkans war. The breeds selected are Simmental Fleckvieh and Brown Swiss both of which are well adapted to the climate and farming style of Kosovo. The Emergency Farm Reconstruction Project, funded by the World Bank and The Netherlands is managed by FAO and includes rehabilitation of veterinary services and farm machinery and follows earlier distribution of seeds.