A project intending to control, and ultimately eradicate, foot and mouth disease (FMD) in South East Asia has been launched. Fifteen countries from Australia to Vietnam are involved in the project, which aims to enhance intelligence of the disease through developing more affordable diagnostic tests and strengthening links between scientists. Dr John Crowther of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, which is funding the project, said that the components of diagnostic tests for FMD were too expensive for extensive use in many countries in the region. To overcome this problem, the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (AAHL) will produce and supply the reagents to the regional reference laboratory for FMD in Thailand, where they will be distributed to participating countries in the region. As Dr Crowther explained, "This will help build greater levels of knowledge on the location and spread of all strains of the disease." The first delivery of reagents is expected in October 2003.
Foot-and-mouth is continuing to spread within Zimbabwe and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) may soon be required to supply veterinary aid as the epidemic spreads into Botswana. Zimbabwe has lost millions in valuable foreign exchange in loss of exports and Botswana too is feeling the effects of a recent EU ban on meat exports. South Africa has also banned the import of meat as well as live animals, dairy products, hides and skins. Straying livestock may have contributed to the spread of the disease but the upsurge in smuggling, particularly from Zimbabwe to Botswana, is more likely to have contributed to the occurrence of the disease across Zimbabwe's borders. In Namibia, however, the private sector is playing a vital role in raising awareness of the disease amongst veterinarians and farming communities. In particular, Farm Assured Namibian Meat has been helping to distribute CDs of FAO's Good Emergency Management Practices (GEMP) and thousands of full colour leaflets on the disease.
In a recent report, What's your poison?, the Environmental Justice Foundation revealed that many cases of pesticide associated acute poisoning go unreported. Of the three million cases that are reported, which lead to 220,000 deaths, 99 per cent occur in developing countries, although they account for less than 20% of pesticide usage. The high incidence of poisoning is attributed to inadequate regulatory frameworks for pesticide use.
Pesticide poisoning can lead to problems with fertility (male and female), developmental disorders (such as birth defects, deformities, miscarriage and stillbirths) and skin diseases. And although difficult to prove, the group believes there is a strong link between pesticide use and cancer. Children are particularly susceptible - research carried out in Cambodia in 2000 revealed that 48 per cent of farmers allowed their children to apply fertilisers. "The answer lies in reduced risk, reduced use and reduced reliance on pesticides," says Steve Trent of EJF. The group is also calling for all World Health Organization Class 1a and 1b pesticides to be phased out.
Earlier this month, it was announced that DNOC, a pesticide that contains a mixture of benomyl, thiran and carbofuran should be added to the Prior Informed Consent list for hazardous chemicals. This recommendation, under the Rotterdam Convention, follows a review by the government of Senegal of cases of pesticide poisoning among groundnut farmers.
A new variety of sorghum, developed by a South African brewing company, is bringing increased income to farmers in Uganda. Epuripur - a hybrid of the existing red variety of sorghum - was developed by Nile Breweries at the Serere Agricultural and Animal Research Institute (SAARI) in eastern Uganda as part of its quest to brew affordable beers for the Ugandan market using local ingredients. The variety is said to be easy to grow and matures in 120 days to produce 700kg per acre. Fetching prices of 300 Ugandan shillings per kilo (compared to sh150 for traditional red sorghum) local people have welcomed the new strain which is also used to produce the local bread, Atap, and for porridge.
The Ugandan government has given the company an indefinite tax break, on the condition that it sources raw materials for the new product - Eagle Lager - locally. However, brand manager Ian MacKintosh said that Epuripur was not yet being grown in sufficient quantities, so the company has been importing sorghum from South Africa to meet their requirements. He hopes that the company will be able to source all its Epuripur sorghum locally by the end of the year and is encouraging farmers to work co-operatively to produce the crop. Around 50 groups have already been registered, each consisting of at least 20 members. Production is being regulated by the brewing company and the research institute, SAARI, which is supplying sorghum seed to the farmers.
Recent studies in India, presented at a recent IWMI meeting, have revealed that some water policies and projects are increasing poverty and inequality in communities. For example, transferring the management of irrigation systems from state control to farmers - which was intended to make agriculture more efficient and productive - can drastically increase the poverty gap in some rural communities. Instead, a 'pro-poor' approach to irrigation management transfer should be adopted, said Professor Tushaar Shah, IMWI's principal research and groundwater expert.
The IWMI-Tata Water Policy Programme involves 100 social scientists, hydrologists and agricultural researchers working with members of the NGO community from across India to study, test and recommend solutions to the water crisis. It is paying particular attention to improving the critical water situation in Gujarat, through the North Gujarat Sustainable Groundwater Initiative, which includes investigating water-saving technologies that can help communities that rely on rain-fed agriculture. Technologies such as tubewell recharge, sub-surface and micro-tube drip irrigation have been found to be effective. Similarly, pressurised irrigation systems for farmers who are unable to irrigate all their land, can reduce the severe groundwater overdraft. "India needs to forge a water management strategy of its own, based on current research and recommendations," explains Prof. Shah. "We have put our recommendations forward so that decision makers and government authorities can take action."
Farms in northern Australia are being threatened by the invasion of the Yellow Crazy ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes). The ant is recognised as one of the world's worst invaders by the Global Invasive Species Programme, and represents a major environmental and economic threat to the region. "The density of foraging worker ants in super-colonies is amazing, reaching around 1000 per square metre or 79m per hectare of bush," explained Dr Ben Hoffmann, senior research fellow for CSIRO (www.csiro.au). "They are a serious pest to agriculture as they cause outbreaks of sap-sucking insects which harm plants."
The Yellow Crazy ant, believed to have originated from India, was accidentally introduced to Australia 60 to 70 years ago. Native species are at risk including red land crabs, whose numbers have fallen by 30 per cent since super-colonies were first reported in 1989. This has resulted in major changes in the island's rainforest ecosystem and is threatening several rare and endangered species on the island. The ants are also a threat to human health as their acid spray can make people and animals blind if people, particularly children, accidentally rub it into their eyes.
More than US$170,000 is to be invested in setting up a honey processing plant in western Uganda. The money will also be spent equipping members of the Bushenyi Beekeepers Association (BUBEEKA) to exploit the lucrative honey market by providing them with the skills and equipment they need. However, donors are offering the funds under the proviso that reporting and accountability at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF) is improved. "The Ministry has never written a report, nor given accountability for funds given to the Uganda Honey Beekeepers Association," said Chris Drew, of the United States Agency for International Aid (USAID).
Scientists in New Zealand have genetically modified production of the protein casein in cattle for the first time. After years of research, Dr Goetz Laible and his team have successfully produced milk with elevated levels of two of the four different casein proteins that determine cheese yield in milk. A combination of genetic engineering and cloning techniques culminated in nine cows producing milk with the altered properties. Dr Laible said that the advance would boost dairy farmers' incomes: "An increase in casein would be of great value to the dairy industry, because farmers are paid on the basis of how much casein is produced in the milk." Commercialisation is possible, but would take several years to create large herds, he said. Future research will focus on boosting herd numbers and study production of the milk in large amounts as part of a five-year programme.
Predictions of rapid pest resistance to the Bt toxin in genetically modified cotton have been disproved by results of the longest trial of GM crops to date. Scientists at the University of Arizona found that numbers of the pink bollworm - which attacks cotton crops in southwestern United States - fell by 65 per cent in areas where the Bt variety was grown. Bt cotton has a gene transferred from the bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that lets plants produce a natural insecticide. Critics feared that the pests could quickly develop resistance to the toxin rendering it useless. The scientists have been tracking resistance of Bt cotton in pink bollworm caterpillars, since Arizona's farmers started planting the crop in 1996. Although high frequency of a resistance gene was noted in 1997, it has since reached a plateau and Bt cotton is therefore still considered an effective form of pest control. Yves Carriere, the university's entomologist, said that eradication of the pest would be possible in several years if farmers planted 80 per cent of their fields with the genetically modified strain.
A Ugandan scientist has discovered a potentially useful role for the soldier termite - waste disposal. During his experiments at Makerere University in Kampala, Chris Kasamba noticed that termites were making light work of the polythene bags he was using to grow seedlings. "Instead of looking on termites as a menace, I turned around and saw them as an opportunity," he said. However, he hasn't yet discovered whether the termites are metabolising the plastic, or storing it in their nests.
DNA tests have been developed to differentiate basmati from other rice varieties in a bid to protect the authenticity of the 11 fragrant rice strains grown in north-west India and Pakistan. The tests will be used to establish whether manufacturers are being honest about the contents of packets claiming to be basmati rice or whether in fact the aromatic, long-grain variety from the Himalyan foothills is being mixed with other long-grain alternatives. Checks carried out four years ago found substantial mixing of products. Recent guidance issued by the UK food standards agency will encourage the country of origin to be made clear on the packet as well as a clear indication whether the product has been mixed with non-basmati rices. The guidance may be used in future in legal action taken against companies that do not comply with the labelling requirements.
UK Sales of Fairtrade products have more than doubled over the past three years, and now make up 14 per cent of the country's roast and ground coffee market. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, Britons drink 1.7m cups of Fairtrade tea, coffee and cocoa each day and eat 1.5m Fairtrade bananas a week. And sales are likely to continue growing following widespread promotion of such products, all featuring the new logo, during Fairtrade fortnight (March 3-15, 2003). Producers of Fairtrade products from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean were among those encouraging UK shoppers to buy Fairtrade goods: "Only the best quality goes into our Fairtrade coffee," Blanca Rosa Molina, a coffee grower from Nicaragua told shoppers. "Buy our coffee because it is the best quality, not because we are poor farmers." Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for trade and industry, said that by choosing Fairtrade products, consumers could make a real difference to the livelihoods of some of the poorest farmers in the world. "At a time when coffee prices in particular are at such low levels this can make the difference between simply existing and having a sustainable future."
A framework has been developed by ISNAR, the International Service for National Agricultural Research to help developing countries improve decision-making about use of biotechnology and the importation of GM food crops. One of the most important roles of the new policy framework will be to assist countries, such as Zambia, that have been recently struggling over its acceptance of GM food aid. About 30% of Zambia's population is believed to be still facing serious food shortages due to drought and, although initially reluctant to accept GM grains as aid, importation of GM maize has now been accepted under the condition it is milled for flour and not used as seed. The framework, available online (www.isnar.cgiar.org/ibs/biosafety/index.htm), has been designed to be used as a tool to assist countries develop or update biosafety regulations by facilitating policy-makers to evaluate the scientific and social impacts of different policy options. A CD-Rom version will also be made available later in 2003.
Farmers in southern India are being provided with the means to interact with scientists and extension officers via an interactive delivery system, which is popularly known as 'HAM' or radio for amateur. The project aims to enhance the value of the HAM radio by recording, editing and disseminating useful conversation through local radio stations for the benefits of farmers. The idea is to provide up-to-date scientific knowledge to the rural populace for their information and education. This is the first and pioneering attempt in the whole of Asia to link farmers with researchers and extension staff through HAM radio network. The project has commenced simultaneously at the Tamil Nadu Rice Research Institute (TNRRI) and the Soil and Water Management Research Institute (SWMRI), Thanjavur and is being funded by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Phillipines and the Commonwealth of Learning(COL), Canada.