credit: David Mowbray, CIMMYT
A devastating wheat fungal pathogen known as Ug99 has moved from East Africa to Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, CIMMYT, has reported. The disease spores can travel long distances in the wind, and experts working on wind models at CIMMYT predict that it could easily spread to the wheat-growing areas of North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan and India, causing as much as US$ 3 billion in annual losses. According to the FAO, countries in the immediate predicted pathway account for 25 per cent of the global wheat harvest, cultivating more than 65 million hectares of wheat.
Concern is fuelled by previous experience with another wheat disease, yellow rust, which once discovered in Yemen, took only four years to reach East Asia, and resulted in losses exceeding US$ 1 billion. In a press release for CIMMYT, M.E. Tusneem, Chairman of Pakistan's Agricultural Research Council, said, "If we don't control this stem rust threat, it will have a major impact on food security, especially as global wheat stocks are already at an historic low." The virulent new form of stem rust has been identified in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia since 1999 and is also suspected but not confirmed in Sudan.
In 2006, poppy production in Afghanistan, which accounts for 90 per cent of the world's opium trade, rose 25 per cent, reaching record levels. That is the conclusion reached in the US State Department's annual report on narcotics, a conclusion which the US Assistant Secretary of State Ann Patterson has described as 'alarming'. The report noted that the government of Afghanistan has spent money on security rather than encouraging alternative sources of income for farmers who rely on poppy production for their income. In the UK, Lord Howell told the House of Lords that the policy of eradication was "just not working", and suggested that if poor farmers were licensed, their poppies could be manufactured into pharmaceutical products such as diamorphine, used to relieve patients from pain after an operation.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has agreed to fund research at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) to accelerate the dissemination of drought tolerant maize varieties in Africa. The project will raise yields from below subsistence, allowing farmers to sell surpluses in urban markets. Already, combined efforts by national research systems, NGOs and seed companies in several African countries have led to the planting of up to one million hectares of new drought-tolerant varieties, boosting farmers yields by 25 to 30 per cent. Marianne Banziger, the Director of CIMMYT's Global Maize Program said "with every year of research now and in the future, we can add to drought-affected fields another 100 kilograms of maize. That means more maize for farming families to eat or sell when conditions are toughest."
CIMMYT and IITA will use the funds to forge closer links with research organisations in eleven of the most maize-dependent and drought affected countries, including Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Farmers will be closely involved in the breeding process, for example by helping to screen potential new varieties. Although several research studies have been conducted in Africa for drought tolerant maize varieties, Asian countries have been the major beneficiaries of the findings. Kenya has already pledged full support for the project, with the Ministry of Agriculture offering to provide experts.
Following a desert locust outbreak in Eritrea in December 2006, the FAO has raised the alert level in the Red Sea area to 'caution'. The agency warned that it has received reports of increasing locust concentrations on the north-west coast of Ethiopia. The fear now is that when vegetation begins to dry out after the unusually good rains, the locusts could infest Eritrea and neighbouring countries, a spokesperson said. Locusts can form bands up to five kilometres wide. The adults can consume their own body weight in food every day, and swarms leave hunger and poverty behind them. The governments of Sudan and Yemen have deployed experts to the coastal areas to monitor the situation. The FAO has advised the use of bio-pesticides to minimise the risk to human health.
A focus on research, development, energy and efficiency as a means to adapt to the effects of climate change are essential to any international agreement on climate change, a group of more than 100 legislators and officials from 13 countries have agreed. The officials met in the US Senate, to decide the future of international climate policy, as the end of the Kyoto Protocol draws to a close in 2012. In a statement released at the end of the meeting, the group also agreed that emissions should not rise beyond 450 to 550 parts per million in the atmosphere, and that emission targets should be formed for all countries, based on their development needs.
The statement recommends a global carbon market, and urges negotiations on the new framework to be agreed at the G8 summit in June 2007, and to be concluded by 2008. Although the statement carries no legal status, those at the meeting included president of the World Bank Paul Wolfowitz, Sir Nicholas Stern, the Republican presidential candidate John McCain and representatives from Brazil, China, India and Mexico. The meeting follows the broadest consensus to date released by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that climate change is already having an environmental impact, and that with 90 per cent certainty, it is driven by human activity. In a recent statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has announced that the dangers of war are at least matched by the climate crisis. He urged the US to lead the way in the urgent need to address global warning.
A model developed by a team of researchers in the United States of America has successfully predicted an outbreak of rift valley fever for the first time in sub-Saharan Africa. The model analyses satellite images of rapid vegetative growth, to predict weather conditions favourable to an increase in disease spreading insects. Such weather includes heavy rainfall, elevated humidity and heavy cloud cover. The model, which predicted an outbreak of rift valley fever within three months of October 2006, allowed a warning message to be passed to countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Somalia.
The disease attacks cattle, sheep, goats, camels and caused hundreds of deaths in Kenya during an outbreak between 1997 and 1998. The team who developed the model included researchers from the Department of the US Defence's Global Emerging Infections System and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre. The model can also be used to predict outbreaks of other diseases such as malaria and cholera.
A new drug known as ASAQ, a combination of two drugs previously used successfully in the fight against malaria, has been launched in Paris. The low-cost drug aimed at children will not be patented, allowing cheap reproduction. Launched by the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative and the world's largest multi-national pharmaceutical company, Sanofi-Aventis, the drug is distributed in smaller doses than previously possible. Children need only take one pill per day for three days. Malaria expert for the National Malaria Control Programme in Cameroon, Professor Wilfred Mbacham, said that the combination of medication will kill the parasites entirely, without allowing them to build resistance. He also said that because the medicine is easy to take and lasts a short period of time, patients are more likely to finish the course, preventing further risk of resistance in the parasite. However, critics argue that malaria builds resistance quickly, and that this could be only a short-term solution.
The mayor of Curitiba, the capital of Paraná state in Brazil, has urged that tackling urban 'pressure points' by reviving them and making them sustainable, can have positive ripple effects for the whole community. At the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2007 briefing in Washington D.C, Jaime Lerner said that the key to city design, is to ensure that people are not dependant on cars for their daily living. Bus, rail, biking and walking areas should be accessible to all, but citizens should also be encouraged to live closer to work, he said. The city of Curitiba has introduced a rapid bus transit system and multi-use buildings to boost the standard of living. The city has also converted a landfill site into the Open University for the Environment, which provides environmental education at little or no cost.
A fundamental change in the way that knowledge is produced and used in policy making is essential to food sovereignty, according to a report released by the International Institute for Environment and Development. The report, written by Dr Michel Pimbert of IIED for the International Forum on Food Sovereignty, an international conference held in February in Mali, explained that food sovereignty is about "ensuring that farmers are in control of what they farm, and how they farm it." He added that communities have the right to define their own policies, to suit their "ecological, social economic, and cultural circumstances." He urged a need to support domestic markets and small-scale agricultural production, and a shift away from top-down policies and corporately controlled research, adding that this will require "more direct citizen participation in decisions about the technologies, research priorities and policies for food and farming."
At a recent meeting in Nairobi, stakeholders in the cotton industry including the Cotton Board of Kenya, the West African Cotton Growers and over 60 farmers gathered to discuss current challenges and the future of the cotton industry. The meeting follows a report released by the Institute of Economic Affairs based in Nairobi, which stated that diminishing world prices, cheap imports and greater competition have all contributed to the decline of the cotton industry in Kenya. Low profits have caused some farmers to abandon the crop, which the Kenyan authorities say has the potential to reduce poverty in areas with low rainfall. Despite the launch of a government initiative last year, the 'Kenya Vision 2030' which attempts to address problems in the cotton sector, the Cotton Board of Kenya reported that of roughly 350,000 hectares in the country suitable for growing cotton, only 25,000 hectares are currently being cultivated. The country's textile and clothing industries also need to be revived.
The event coincides with a report released by the Environmental Justice foundation in collaboration with the Pesticide Action Network UK, concluding that cotton is the 'dirtiest' crop in the world. The crop, which is the most valuable agricultural non-food product and occupies roughly 2.5 per cent of the world's crop land, is responsible for the release of more insecticide globally than any other single crop. According to the report, the powerful nerve agent Aldicarb, labelled 'extremely hazardous' by the WHO, is applied to US$112 million worth of cotton crops each year. The authors of the report urged all buyers of cotton to "Pick Your Cotton Carefully" and choose organic, fairly traded cotton.
Avian influenza has existed in backyard poultry flocks for centuries, but it is the growth of factory farms, 'confined animal feedlot operations', and global poultry trade that have led to the spread of avian flu, says a report released by the Worldwatch Institute. The report, one of many included in the Institute's 'Vital Signs 2007 - 2008', was released by research associate Danielle Nierenberg in San Francisco at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She told participants: "many of the world's estimated 800 million urban farmers, who raise crops and animals for food in backyards and on rooftops, have been unfairly targeted by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation," adding that "the socio-economic importance of livestock to the world's poor cannot be overstated."
Nierenberg said that demand for meat has driven livestock production from rural to intensive peri-urban and urban systems, where animals are concentrated in their thousands, and disease can spread quickly. In the report, experts suggest that international agencies, such as the WHO and the FAO, should focus the bulk of their efforts on stopping diseases before they occur, and on large poultry producers rather than small farmers. The report follows a fresh outbreak of the disease in Nigeria, where the UN has expressed concern that poultry are still being moved around despite the government-imposed quarantine.
The African media can play a crucial role in communicating climate change information to the public, says Patrick Luganda, chairman of the Network of Climate Journalists in the Greater Horn of Africa. According to Luganda, ordinary people have observed the effects of climate change, but are unsure what to do about it. Thus, while farmers are grappling with the effects of climate change, many people are "starved of real, timely information on what their options are," he commented. He added that while in the past the media has shown little understanding about weather and the climate, the dissemination of correct information can mobilise farmers. The network, established in 2001, holds workshops and brings together journalists and climate scientists from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
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A study published recently in the New York University Journal of International Law and Politics has confirmed that poor farmers in China who receive secure, long-term land rights are more likely to invest in their land, improving production and income. The report, the first ever conducted on land rights in rural China, also concluded that farmers with secure land rights receive better compensation if their land is used for non-agricultural purposes. Currently, however, fewer than 40 per cent of Chinese farmers were found to possess clear and documented land rights, and implementation of a government programme to improve tenure arrangements has lagged in recent years. The report, compiled by scholars from the Rural Development Institute, Renmin University in Beijing, and Michigan State University, is based on data collected in mid-2005 from interviews with members of more than 1,900 farm households from provinces containing the majority of China's agricultural population.
In an outbreak which experts are referring to as 'colony collapse disorder', 24 US states have reported the mysterious disappearance of bees, with some farmers estimating the loss of almost a third of their bees in the past six months. The losses will impact crop production in the region, as bees pollinate over US$14 billion worth of seed and crops each year. In North Carolina, a 30 to 40 per cent drop in bees will affect the blueberry harvest, worth US$36.7 million in 2005, because they rely on bees for pollination. The trend is sparking concern among farmers and beekeepers alike. Researchers are still investigating the cause for the disappearance, with speculations including viruses, fungus and poor bee nutrition. They say that the bees are likely to have died in the fields, but are wondering why the bees are leaving the hives, their babies and their queen, as they are highly social insects.