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News brief

US disregards WTO consensus on farm subsidies

Choosing to differ over GM crops

Food situation in southern Africa becomes critical

Protecting forests from palm oil and soy

Genetic contamination in Mexican maize

Foot and mouth: joining forces

Hopes and fears in Afghanistan

Profiting from environmental protection

What to do about whitefly?

Whatever the weather in Uganda

Rice unravelled

Raised beds and rain shelters for Vietnam's vegetables

Fresh evidence in cassava poisoning

Palm oil: the ebb and flow

Ageing cocoa causes concern

DFID Departmental Report 2002

US disregards WTO consensus on farm subsidies

Shock and condemnation have greeted US plans to increase financial support to American farmers by $73.5 billion to $180 billion over the next decade. This will boost spending on US agriculture by 70%, which American farm leaders say is still not enough to meet their costs of production. EU Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler referred to the increase as a backward step that will distort prices and threaten world trade rules, adding, "This marks a blow to the credibility of US policy." He questioned US commitments at the WTO to liberalize markets, and observed, "At a time when all developed countries have accepted the direction of farm support away from trade and production supporting measures, the US is heading in the opposite direction." The view in Canada, equally forthright, is that, "this is a foul and insidious piece of legislation" and that it threatens the already fragile Canadian farm sector. Many Third World agricultural exporters are also very concerned that the US is set to undercut their markets.

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Food situation in southern Africa becomes critical

Critical food shortages in southern Africa threaten to put millions of lives at risk over the coming year. Aerial view, Malawi farmlandThe World Food Programme (WFP) has launched an appeal but donations so far have been slow, and programme staff fear a major crisis could develop if the response does not improve in the next three months. In Malawi, the government has declared a state of emergency, and the WFP, which is already feeding 300,000 people, has warned that three or four million people could ultimately be at risk. Since January it is estimated that hundreds of people have died from starvation, or succumbed to other diseases because of lack of food. Already many farmers have been forced to harvest unripe maize from their fields as their only source of food. The scarcity is also reflected in maize prices, which have increased six-fold in the last 18 months.

As the Kwacha continues to plummet, the majority of farmers are unable to afford high-yielding hybrid seeds or fertilizers. In addition a programme that had been distributing 'starter packs' of seed and fertilizer to the poorest farmers was curtailed after World Bank funding came to an end. The country has very few reserve stocks of maize, despite surplus harvests in 1999 and 2000. In the short term, the government has arranged to import maize from South Africa, although this will prove very expensive. Longer term solutions are the subject of a combined government/donor 'food security strategy' currently under discussion.

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Genetic contamination in Mexican maize

The Mexican government has confirmed that its natural genebank of maize has been seriously contaminated by genetically modified varieties. Mexican scientists have tested over 1800 seedlings from sites in two states, and found contamination in 8% of seeds. 95% of sites had some contamination, and in one site 35% of plants tested exhibited GM proteins. Areas close to roads were the worst affected.

The source of the contamination is thought to be GM maize imported from the US. Mexico has banned the planting of GM varieties since 1998, in order to protect the purity of its natural varieties, whose diversity is crucial for future development of the crop in response to pest, disease and climate challenges. The US maize was imported for food rather than planting use, but farmers may have planted it without realising the implications. The Mexican findings, reported at a bio-diversity convention in The Hague, are the latest twist in a controversy that began in November last year, when a report on the contamination was published in the journal Nature. The validity of the reports findings were widely criticised, and in early April 2002 Nature's editors agreed that the paper should not have been published. However, the latest findings clearly bear out the study.

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Hopes and fears in Afghanistan

As a vital first step in the Future Harvest programme to rebuild agriculture in Afghanistan, 3,500 tons of wheat seed has been distributed to more than 60,000 farmers in eleven provinces. The seed, purchased in Pakistan, is of two improved varieties specifically adapted for Afghanistan's conditions. Distribution has been jointly managed by the UN World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organisation, together with local authorities and a large number of non-government organisations. US based geographical and meteorological agencies have provided detailed information on soil moisture, and as a result distribution has focussed on areas between 1500m and 2500m where moisture levels are sufficient for the seed to grow without irrigation. Despite four years of drought and extensive damage to irrigation systems, there is optimism that the improved seeds, combined with good April rains in the central part of the country, will produce decent harvests in September and October.

In the north of the country, however, farmers face a further threat from locust swarms. Nine provinces are at particular risk, and the danger is so severe that the FAO has set up an emergency monitoring and control programme. Success of the programme hinges largely on the input of local people, and in four of the provinces the approach is working well. Local communities have set up campaigns to sweep locust hoppers into trenches, where they are buried. However, even in these areas, additional chemical control will probably be necessary and, in other provinces, such as Baghlan, few people have been mobilised. In these areas, FAO operatives will have to initiate chemical spray treatments. Current expectations are that the campaign will not have a great impact on this year's locust population, and will need to be resumed next year.

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What to do about whitefly?

In Uganda, 20.6 million people are estimated to still be affected by the current epidemic of cassava mosaic disease (CMD), and in north-western Tanzania, whilst around 1 million people are currently affected, more than 5 million are imminently threatened. Cassava affected by CMDThis severe epidemic, which began during the 1990s has also spread into Kenya, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and has resulted in the to the virtual abandonment of cassava cultivation in many areas. The disease has had a major impact on food security in the region, and caused financial losses estimated at in excess of US$60 million per year.

To combat this problem the DFID-funded Crop Protection Programme (CPP) is funding research, which will develop management technologies for whiteflies and whitefly transmitted diseases of cassava as well as sweet potato, beans and vegetables. Recent DFID-funded initiatives include involvement in the collaborative research project, "Sustainable Integrated Management of Whiteflies as Pests and Vectors of Plant Viruses in the Tropics" which is managed by CIAT under the umbrella of the CGIAR Systemwide Integrated Pest Management Program (SP-IPM). The initiative has been recognized as a flagship project of the SP-IPM and offers a model to the CGIAR for collaborative research on global challenges. In May 2002 the DFID Crop Protection Programme plans to issue a call for complimentary research projects to support the SP-IPM whitefly project.
For further details contact the CPP: A.Ward@nrint.co.uk

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Rice unravelled

Two draft genome sequences of rice were published in early April. The Beijing Genomics Institute has presented the draft sequence of the indica rice subspecies and Syngenta that of the japonica subspecies. These drafts will be combined with a complete rice genome sequence being compiled by the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project to be published later this year.

With base pairs numbering some 430 million, rice has the simplest genome of all major cereal crops. Wheat, for example, would have taken 40 times the resources to unravel. But the publication of the rice genome has great significance for other major cereals because some 80% of its genes are similar to those found in maize, wheat and barley. Another issue that the publication of the rice genome raises is that of the relationship between private and public funding of agricultural research, an issue that will gain more importance as the science of genomics increasingly assigns function to specific genes. (See Perspective).

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Fresh evidence in cassava poisoning

The Cassava Cyanide Disease Network, which links scientists in several countries including Australia and Mozambique, is warning that inadequate processing and over-dependence on cassava has led to widespread poisoning in parts of Africa. Sundried cassava chipsTwo conditions are of particular concern. Konzo, from the Zairean word meaning 'tied legs', is an irreversible paralysis of the legs resulting from acute exposure to cyanide, a poison present in cassava tissue. The condition affects women and children and is prevalent in much of East and Central Africa. Long term exposure to cyanide as a result of predominantly cassava-based diet, can also lead to a sensory disorder, Tropical Ataxic Neuropathy. Symptoms include blurred vision, deafness, weakness and difficulties in walking.

The Network has warned that traditional methods of processing practised in East Africa, such as sun-drying and heap fermentation, leave large quantities of the poison in the cassava flour, in contrast to the roasting method used in west Africa, which removes most of the cyanide. It has also recommended support for a greater diversity of staple crops in cassava dependent areas. Other work to address the problem includes attempts to breed cassava varieties with a lower cyanide content, which are being carried out by researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria and the National Agronomic Research Institute in Maputo, Mozambique.

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Ageing cocoa causes concern

Chocolate manufacturers attending the West African Coffee and Cocoa Summit in London, have warned the industry may face a major supply problem in the future as many of the world's ageing cocoa plantations are becoming unproductive, and are at increasing risk from pests and diseases. Old cocoa plantationCurrently some 30% of cocoa production is lost to pest and disease damage, but Tony Lass, head of cocoa at Cadbury-Schweppes warned that, without greater investment in research and replanting, this figure would increase,. A particular concern is that diseases prevalent in one region are now spreading to others, and this problem cannot be addressed without long term investment in breeding programmes.

In West Africa a new species of black pod fungus is already the subject of an IPGRI breeding project. Cocoa trees in the region all originate from a relatively small number of plants brought from South America over a hundred years ago. As a result the genetic base of West African cocoa is very narrow, and this means that a potentially large proportion of trees could be susceptible to the fungus. Through screening of wild varieties of cocoa from Peru, the IPGRI breeding programme has identified varieties that show resistance to the new fungus, which are now being cross-bred with high yielding plants from West African countries for use in replanting programmes.

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Choosing to differ over GM crops

The lack of consensus on the health and environmental safety of genetically modified crops has been clearly illustrated in recent months.Non GM Soya In Indonesia the government has announced new regulations on the labelling of GM products, and authorities in The Philippines have approved tighter controls on imports. From July next year, any company wishing to import a genetically modified product not on an official list will need to obtain a permit.

In contrast, the Indian government has finally given its approval for cultivation of GM cotton, in a bid to protect India's share of the world cotton market against GM-growing rivals, China and the US. The decision has been a controversial one; while yields from modified varieties can be 30% higher, and save farmers considerable costs in pesticides, many farmers have been unwilling to adopt varieties owned by foreign bio-tech companies. Others have expressed concern about the possibility of contamination between GM and non-GM varieties (See Genetic contamination in Mexican maize), and loss of bio-diversity if a small number of GM varieties come to dominate India's cotton fields.

Fears of contamination are also delaying a decision in Brazil over whether to allow cultivation of GM soya bean. The country does not want to risk its lucrative European market for non-GM soya, which has expanded following the adoption of GM varieties in the US.

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Protecting forests from palm oil and soy

Migros, Switzerland's largest retailer, recently made a commitment to buy palm oil only from responsibly managed, forest-friendly plantations. Oil Palm TreeThe decision was prompted by a new World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) initiative that aims to protect tropical forests from expanding edible oil plantations. Global demand for edible oils is increasing rapidly, and tropical lowland rainforests, one of the richest ecosystems on the planet, are most at risk from the expansion in palm oil and soy plantations.

The 'Strategic Action on Palm Oil and Soy' is a joint approach by the WWF network, co-ordinated by WWF Switzerland, which will operate at two levels. Country-based projects will focus on the development of best practices for plantations, while at a wider level the action will promote investment, trade, aid and land use policies that can regulate plantation expansion in the interests of forest protection. Policies and practices include the establishment of new plantations on already degraded land and use of plantation techniques that prevent forest fires, reduce water pollution and soil erosion, and allow species to migrate.

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Foot and mouth: joining forces

The Agricultural Research Service of the United States and South Africa's Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute are engaged in a two-year collaboration in developing new vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). The South African institute has being working on vaccines for several strains of FMD which are indigenous to Africa, but constant mutations by the virus mean that old vaccines can quickly become redundant. The US has not had an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease for more than 70 years, but reducing the world-wide prevalence of the disease is seen as vital in protecting the country's own livestock from infection. As production of FMD vaccines on the US mainland is prohibited, international collaborations are a key activity for the ARS research team. Joint studies have also been conducted with Brazil, China and Russia, but the partnership with South Africa is currently the most advanced.

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Profiting from environmental protection

Poverty and EnvironmentThe links between environmental protection and poverty alleviation are the subject of a new report published by the UK Department for International Development. The subject, however, is a controversial one, with some environmental lobbies accused of trying to impose a developed world agenda on poor countries. The DFID report challenges what it calls the myth that poor people do not care about the environment and lack the resources and knowledge to improve it. It sets out how environmental protection is vital for economic development, food security, health and basic services, and goes on to explore how local, national and international policy can be used to reduce poverty through better environmental management. Options include strengthening the rights of tenure for poor people to land and resources and development of financial systems that reflect environmental costs. The relationship between poverty and the environment will be a major theme at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg this August.
For more information on the report, email: epd@dfid.gov.uk

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Whatever the weather in Uganda

Weather and climate information is to be provided to farmers in Uganda through a radio and internet project (RANET) which was set up in May 2000 and is already disseminating information in Chad, Senegal, Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique. In collaboration with the WorldSpace Foundation, RANET is able to make observations, forecasts, and bulletins more readily available to hydro-meteorological and extension services via a digital radio signal sent through AfriStar satellite, which can be received on the Africa Learning Channel (ALC). Print out of quarterly weather forecasts prepared by the Ugandan Meterology Department will be made available to villages, though agriculture extension workers, local chiefs and local FM radio stations, in order to help farmers plan their planting. Information on a range of subject areas, including animal husbandry, environmental issues, recycling, food processing, and health issues will also be made available through the ALC. RANET is supported in Uganda by World Vision and is being implemented in most regions of the country.

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Raised beds and rain shelters for Vietnam's vegetables

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam has recently been host to a joint meeting of farmers, scientists and extension workers who have been working on ways to boost year-round supply of vegetables in the country. Fifty participants exchanged information on production methods and technologies, including use of raised beds and rain shelters, grafting techniques, improved varieties and pest control methods. Dr Pam Van Bien, Director of Vietnam's Institute of Agricultural Sciences is confident that the technologies discussed could make a significant impact on vegetable production, particularly in the south of the country. Improved production would be good news both for the farmers, and the consumers, who would benefit from lower prices. The workshop was sponsored by AVRDC-ARC and the Swiss Agency of Development and Co-operation.

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Palm oil: the ebb and flow

The recent visit of President Sukarnoputri to New Delhi has given Indonesian palm oil producers a valuable advantage over their rivals. Pile of oil palm kernelsUnder a new trade agreement, India will exchange palm crushing and milling equipment for Indonesian palm oil, thereby giving oil exporters improved access to an Indian market that is otherwise protected by 75% import tariffs. Both Indonesia, and her main rival Malaysia, have been pushing for greater access to the Indian market for over a year, as over-supply has led to a fall in palm oil prices. In a bid to raise the price by cutting supply in the short term, Malaysia has begun a replanting programme, and Indonesia is now set to do the same. 110,000 hectares of unproductive plantation in Sumatra and Kalimantan will be rehabilitated with new high yielding varieties over the next two years.

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DFID Departmental Report 2002

DFID Departmental Report 2002The achievements and key developments of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) during 2001/2 are outlined in the latest annual departmental report, which is now available in pdf format on the DFID website or in print. The Department's plans for the next two years are also detailed. The report focuses on poverty reduction and how this is being achieved by working with the international community to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, with particular emphasis on support for Africa. Recent assistance to Afghanistan is highlighted in the Department's continuing flexible and rapid response to humanitarian disasters. The report is broken into six easy-to-read sections and is illustrated with case studies and eye-catching photography.
Email: enquiry@dfid.gov.uk

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