The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

News brief

ECOWAS welcomes biotechnology

ECOWAS has agreed on an action plan for biotechnology in the region
ECOWAS has agreed on an action plan for biotechnology in the region
credit: WRENmedia

The Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, has agreed on an action plan for the region, following a meeting in Accra to discuss agricultural biotechnology. The 15 members adopted the action plan for 2006-2010, to increase investment into biotechnology and enhance public-private partnerships. Ministers also agreed to set up a fund to assess socio-economic impacts of genetically modified organisms. Scientists highlighted the potential of biotechnology to improve existing crop varieties, and to breed varieties of crops resistant to disease and environmental stresses.

But in a conference timed to parallel the ECOWAS meeting, critics have rejected the planned introduction of GM crops into the region. Organised by Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth, Nigeria and Ghana, participants argued that the GM debate is about food sovereignty rather than food production. They said that ministers should prioritise local agricultural systems and reduce their dependence on the biotechnology industry.
ECOWAS, Civil society press release

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Uganda's forest under threat

Global production and consumption of sugar is around 140 million tonnes anually
Global production and consumption of sugar is around 140 million tonnes anually
credit: WRENmedia

Demonstrations in Kampala on the 12th April left at least three people dead, as scientists and environmental campaigners challenged the decision of the Sugar Corporation of Uganda (SCOUL) to lease part of a natural forest for cultivating sugarcane. Mabira Central Forest Reserve, Central Uganda's largest remaining block of moist semi-deciduous forest, contains many plant and animal species, and is also used for growing traditional medicines. SCOUL, a joint venture between the government of Uganda and the Metha family, has requested the lease of 7,100 hectares of the Reserve. But Uganda's National Forest Authority says that such a move would undermine the country's policy to protect and sustainably manage permanent forests. The forest is also a source of carbon credits, and an environmental organisation has warned that destroying part of it could result in losses of up to US$316 million in carbon credits.

Suresh Sharma, the Metha Group Regional Director of African Operations, told Kampala's Monitor news agency that "it is essential and prudent to expand the capacity of SCOUL to meet the challenges of the world market." He added that the company was "mindful" of environmental issues, noting that this year the company has planted 400,000 trees on 350 hectares of land.
See also www.ugpulse.com

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Poverty is declining, says World Bank

The latest World Development Indicators released by the World Bank, show that the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 18.4 per cent between 2000 and 2004. The Bank attributes this decline to increased annual growth in GDP across the developing world. The number of people in the world living on less than $1 per day is also declining, falling by over 260 million between 1990 and 2004 - though this is attributed to China's massive poverty reduction.

However, critics have noted that high economic growth rates have not reduced poverty meaningfully for many people. In Africa, the number of poor people between 1994 and 2004 remained at 298 million, despite impressive growth rates. The WDI report provides statistics on indicators such as health, transport, access to water resources and communication facilities. It is released amidst criticism of the G8 industrialised nations for failing to meet aid pledges, so far reaching only 10 per cent of the US$50 billion agreed for Africa in 2005.
WDI report

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New pigeon pea to spark pulse revolution

A new pigeon pea variety increases yields by 48 per cent
A new pigeon pea variety increases yields by 48 per cent
credit: ICRISAT

Scientists in India have developed a new pigeon pea variety, which has increased yields by 48 per cent compared to the most popular Indian variety, Maruti. The new variety, known as ICPH 2671, was developed at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics, ICRISAT, using the Cytoplasmic Male-Sterility system (CMS). Led by Dr K B Saxena, the researchers used the cytoplasm or cell-fluid outside the nucleus of a wild relative of red gram, Cajanus cajanifolius, picked from the forests of Madhya Pradesh to develop the technology. ICRISAT says that ICPH 2671 shows a high resistance to fusarium wilt and sterility mosaic disease, the two most prevalent pigeon pea diseases in all the major growing areas.

According to Saxena, long-time researcher on pigeon pea, ICPH 2671 "is a big breakthrough, especially considering that during the past 50 years, scientists have released over 100 open-pollinated pigeon pea varieties but with little or no effect on overall productivity." The Indian National Commission on Farming welcomed the hybrid pigeon pea, which yields three to four tons per hectare. Prof MS Swaminathan, the Chairman of the Commission commented that "these hybrids are capable of launching a pulses revolution just in the same way as the semi-dwarf varieties triggered the wheat and rice revolution in the 1960s." Already, the private and public sectors have been invited to commercialise the crop so that seeds can reach farmers in the next couple of years. Experts in the Philippines, Myanmar and China have also shown a keen interest in the technology.
www.icrisat.org

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Experts needed for peer review of IAASTD reports

Reports assessing how agricultural knowledge, science and technology have contributed positively or negatively to the development and sustainability of international goals to date will be available for peer review by May 20th. The reports from IAASTD, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, are the first collaboration on a global agricultural and technology assessment among governments, the private sector and non-governmental organisations. They will address eight thematic issues of bioenergy, climate change, transgenics, human health, women in agriculture, traditional and local knowledge innovation, availability and management of natural resources and trade. IAASTD is inviting experts to comment on its second draft of reports, including global and five sub-global assessment reports to be complete by the end of 2007 and approved in early 2008. The reports are available for peer review at: http://www.agassessment.org/. Experts are urged to provide comments to: IAASTDreview@worldbank.org by May 20th 2007.

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A new foot-and-mouth disease 'roadmap'

Direct losses from FMD alone in India amount to more than US$ 4.5 billion per year
Direct losses from FMD alone in India amount to more than US$ 4.5 billion per year
credit: WRENmedia

A roadmap report to tackle foot and mouth disease, the most contagious disease affecting cloven-hoofed animals, has been launched at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The 'roadmap' recognises that current vaccines available for the disease are not appropriate for use in developing countries due to lack of infrastructure. The roadmap is expected to provide breakthroughs to reduce risk of FMD and promote effective control measures. In India, prevalence of the disease is "one of the biggest impediments to growth of the livestock sector," according to the deputy director general of animal science at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, ICAR. Direct losses from FMD alone in India are estimated to be more than US$4.5 billion per year. The disease is also a major obstacle to productivity and market opportunities in South Asia, the Horn of Africa, and South Africa, particularly for small scale farmers. Led by the International Livestock Research Institute, the roadmap is funded by the EU and the Wellcome Trust.
www.ilri.org

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Guidelines for growing Artemisia for anti-malarial medicine

The World Health Organisation has published guidelines for the cultivation of the medicinal plant Artemisia annua, to meet standards required for quality anti-malarial medicine. The plant is considered a solution in areas where prophylactics such as chloroquine and amodiaquine have induced resistance. The market for products containing artemisinin derivatives has grown, but levels of the drug found in the plant leaves depend on the quality of the soil, rainfall, and other environmental and geographical considerations. (see also Artemisia in Africa)

The authors warn governments that farmers must work with manufacturers to determine the actual market for the plant before it is cultivated on a large scale, and that technical facilities and knowledge must be available to ensure the correct extraction of artemisinin from the dried leaves. The guidelines advise that pilot tests should be run on small plots to ensure that land selected is suitable for growing high-yielding plants, and aim to provide a model for the promotion of good agricultural practices and collection methods in other countries. Of the global deaths each year from malaria, 90 per cent occur in sub-Saharan Africa.
See WHO publications

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Venezuelan support for West Africa

Drought and degradation of natural resources are major problems for local communities in Burkina Faso
Drought and degradation of natural resources are major problems for local communities in Burkina Faso
credit: WRENmedia

In a historic move to donate US$4.6 million to strengthen food security in Mali and Burkina Faso, the Government of Venezuela is the first country in Latin America to fund FAO projects in developing nations. The FAO has reported that the projects will establish irrigation facilities with low cost technologies such as the human powered treadle pump, to promote better management of rainwater. In both countries, more than 80 per cent of the population relies on agriculture. Problems such as drought, low agricultural productivity and the degradation of natural resources have compounded the situation for local communities in those countries. The irrigation project is expected to directly benefit 45,000 people in Burkina Faso and 46,000 people in Mali.
www.fao.org

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Safflower and rice as pharmaceutical crops

The pharmaceutical company Sembiosys, based in Canada, could become one of the world's first suppliers of plant-based pharmaceuticals. The firm has discovered that the human gene for insulin can be added to genetically modify the seed oil plant safflower (Carthamus tinctorius). The company's Chief Executive Mr Baum, said that the insulin produced could significantly cut prices for diabetes treatment, especially for those in poorer countries. He added that the firm's North American farm growing the safflower would be able to meet growing global demand for insulin.

The plans follow trials by other pharmaceutical companies to develop a range of plant-based products to fight diarrhoea, dehydration and other diseases that kill millions of children in poorer nations of the world. Ventria Bioscience, based in the United States, says that rice including human genes for breast milk production will be grown in Texas, backed by the US Department of Agriculture. The rice will be ground to extract a pharmaceutical protein for adding to fluids as a powder, to provide more affordable medicine.

But there are fears that the rice could contaminate commercial crops. The US Centre for Food Safety said that the rice variety had not been passed through a drug review process, and that the US Department of Agriculture was yet to approve the proposal. Critics, such as Clare Oxborrow from Friends of the Earth, have voiced concern that GM crops are worrying enough when intended for food consumption. "But when it might be a pharmaceutical crop in the future that contaminates the food chain, that raises serious worries and questions about the risks involved for human health."
www.ventria.com, www.foe.co.uk

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Prize-winning work for the environment

Activities such as bee keeping are promoted to prevent poaching
Activities such as bee keeping are promoted to prevent poaching
credit: WRENmedia

Eleven years after taking over the North Luangwa Wildlife Conservation and Community Development Programme in Zambia, Hammerskjoeld Simwinga has been awarded one of six Goldman Environmental Prizes. His work assisting local communities to set up local activities, such as bee keeping and fishing instead of poaching, has credited him the US$125,000 award, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for the environment. Together with the Zambia Wildlife Agency, Simwinga also set up community projects to make sunflower oil, plant food crops and keep chickens instead of poaching elephants, which he made communities realise attracted tourists, and therefore money. The programme provides 35,000 people with healthcare and education services, and has grown to include 64 villages. According to Reuters News Agency, poaching has dwindled and wildlife is returning to the area. A Mongolian herder is the winner from Asia. Tsetsegee Munkhbayar successfully worked with government and grassroots organizations to shut down destructive mining operations along Mongolia's scarce waterways. Wangari Maathai is among previous winners of the prize.
http://www.goldmanprize.org/

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Methane technology for Tanzanian coffee farmers

Coffee farmers can save $28 a week on fuel costs, using wastewater as fuel. A project tested by 120 members of the local farmers coffee group of the Leguruti village in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, has introduced a technology to turn wastewater from the coffee cleaning process into fuel, to power the very pulper machine which creates the wastewater.

Processing raw coffee beans creates wastewater containing high concentrations of acid. Micro-organisms feed on the acid and produce methane gas as a by-product, which in turn is used to drive the pulper machine. The intervention also prevents wastewater from the pulperies leaking into surrounding community areas, leaving a foul smell which has previously caused conflict.

The machine is introduced by TechnoServe, a company which, since 1996, has assisted over 6,000 smallholder growers in Tanzania to become more competitive in the global market. With rising fuel prices and the unstable price of coffee threatening farmer profits, saving on fuel would be welcomed. Reaction from farmers to the new technology has been mixed, however, not least because of the US$4,000 initial cost to purchase the system.
www.technoserve.org

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Climate divide

The latest report from the IPCC warns that global rainfall is shifting from the equator
The latest report from the IPCC warns that global rainfall is shifting from the equator
credit: WRENmedia

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that global rainfall is shifting from the equator towards the poles, and that produce from rain-fed agriculture could halve by 2020 as a result. The lead author of the report, Saleemul Huq, said that funds allocated to allow poor countries to adapt will not allow them to do so adequately, highlighting the likely divide between rich and poor nations in tackling the effects of climate change. The report notes that while developed countries are investing in technologies such as flood barriers in their own countries, they are not spending enough in developing countries where the impacts of climate change will be more severe. Some scientists have argued that equipping African meteorology departments with advanced technology is the only way to reduce effects such as widespread flooding. The third report by the IPCC is due to be launched on 4th May, in Bangkok. It will provide mitigation options in the short and medium term, such as waste management and carbon sequestration, to prevent and limit greenhouse gas emissions.
www.ipcc.ch

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Training saves costs in China

A study in the Southern Province of China has revealed that well designed and integrated training can improve pesticide application and save costs for local farmers. The survey showed that after training, 61 per cent of farmers had cut their pesticide bills by an average of 17 per cent, and that wasteful disposal of pesticide containers was cut by more than half. Results, taken from 2000 farmers before and after training, also showed that following training farmers sought more advice from extension workers, chose better quality pesticides, and read product labels before application. Undertaken by CropLife in China, together with local private partners and the government, the report concluded that "better timing of applications helped farmers use pesticides more effectively and decreased pesticide residue levels in agricultural products." Based on these findings, the government of Guanghan has invested funds to train more women farmers in the area.
www.croplifeasia.org or email: Lichelle Carlos

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HIV/AIDS and food security

A new study among women smallholders in Malawi will address the question of how agricultural development can increase resilience and resistance of rural women to HIV/AIDS. While studies have found that HIV prevalence results in increased food insecurity, there has been little information about ways in which food insecurity itself fuels the spread of the virus. The study will use anthropological research methods to increase the understanding of the relationship between food insecurity and HIV/AIDS especially in women who, in South Africa, constitute 58 per cent of all sufferers. The study will examine how more secure livelihoods for rural women could prevent their vulnerability to exploitative power relations, and how improved agricultural technologies could enhance food security. The study will recognise that the uptake of AIDS information is low among poor women, and that innovations will need to be well targeted and communicated.
j.verheijen@malawi.net

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May 2007
WRENmedia www.wrenmedia.co.uk