The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

News brief

Earthquake rocks farmers in Peru

Many of Peru's most most vulnerable people depend on farming
Many of Peru's most most vulnerable people depend on farming
credit: FAO

FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) has called for US$13 million to meet the food needs and restore the livelihoods of Peru's farmers and fishermen affected by last month's devastating earthquake. The aid will form part of the UN's US$37 million appeal to help victims of the disaster, which killed over 500 people and destroyed 40,000 homes in the country's southern coastal region. Many of Peru's most vulnerable people dependent on agriculture and fishing for their income have been affected. The area is also a major cotton growing region, as well as producing valued export crops including grapes, chillies and onions.

The organisation fears loss of crops, livestock and equipment is a major threat to local livelihoods. FAO representative in Peru, Luis Castello, said: "The situation is much worse than originally estimated. In addition to the hungry and homeless, the devastation to farms and fishing communities is likely to have a profound effect on the local economy." The money will be used to repair damaged farming and fishing infrastructure and rehabilitate food production in rural areas, while assistance will be provided to people in urban areas to grow food at home and in school gardens.

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Severe floods hit Africa and Asia

UN officials have estimated that US$34.7 million is needed to implement 48 food-relief projects worldwide after flash foods destroyed crops and contaminated drinking water across Africa and Asia. Relief agencies have appealed for support in providing food and safe drinking water to affected areas.

In Niger, up to 20,000 people have been left homeless by floods since mid-July. Heavy rain and flooding have also affected nine other countries across West Africa and criticism has been raised over the lack of early warning systems. FAO reports that the worst floods ever recorded in Sudan have severely affected food security and put over three million people at risk from disease.

At the time of writing, around 28 million people in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have been affected by monsoon floods. In Bangladesh alone, more than 500 people have died but many millions have been affected with thousands losing their homes and livelihoods. A lack of clean running water and access to latrines is fuelling a rapid increase in contagious diseases and diarrhoea. Local communities are heavily reliant on food aid distributed by agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), which is currently in its third round of emergency food aid to Bangladesh.

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Sugar rush for stevia growers

The leaves of the stevia plant are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar
The leaves of the stevia plant are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar

Paraguay is to boost production of stevia (Stevia rebaudiana bertoni), a herb traditionally grown as a sweetener, following interest from soft drinks giant Coca-Cola. The so-called "sweet leaf" could become the company's new sugar-substitute, since its extract is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar and virtually calorie-free. Paraguay's Ministry of Industry and Commerce plans to increase the area dedicated to stevia cultivation from 1,500-50,000 hectares.

The forecasted "sugar rush" could create thousands of jobs in the country, where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line. Stevia is a popular sweetener in commercial soft drinks across South America and Asia, and the boost in production is likely to stimulate competition with China - the world's biggest producer. China currently dedicates 20,000 ha to stevia production but farmers in Paraguay hope the country's favourable climate will allow more harvests per year compared to China.

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Foot-and-mouth impacts on UK meat industry

The recent outbreak of food-and-mouth in dairy cattle in the UK has had an impact on UK meat prices
The recent outbreak of food-and-mouth in dairy cattle in the UK has had an impact on UK meat prices
credit: WRENmedia

Meat prices in the UK are set to increase, not only as a result of rising wheat prices but due to the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth (Aphtae epizooticae) in dairy cattle on several farms in the southern county of Surrey. After two initial outbreaks were contained, bans on livestock movements in mainland Britain and exports to Europe were lifted. Experts had high hopes that the virus had been eliminated and that the UK could be declared free of the disease by the OIE (World Organisation for Animal Health) before the end of the year. However, a third outbreak, confirmed on the 12th September, has resulted in national movement and export bans being reinstated.

Initial tests from the latest outbreak indicate that the animals have been infected with the same strain that resulted in the earlier outbreaks in August. A nearby animal health research laboratory at Pirbright, Surrey, has been identified as the source and investigations have established the presence of the virus in a pipe which may been damaged during recent flooding, allowing the disease to spread. The latest outbreak has come at a crucial time for livestock farmers who need to move their animals and were preparing to sell them at market. The impact on meat production will be severe if overseas markets, in particular, take time to regain confidence in British exports.

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Pig disease spreads to Vietnam

The PRRS outbreak is believed to have originated in China
The PRRS outbreak is believed to have originated in China
credit: WRENmedia

Authorities in Vietnam are continuing to battle an outbreak of Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), or "blue ear disease". At least 28,000 pigs have been infected since the outbreak was reported in the country's central province of Quang Nam in June 2007; over 5000 have died. The viral disease can cause reproductive failure in sows and can be fatal to suckling piglets, which develop respiratory problems and secondary bacterial infections.

The outbreak follows the ongoing PRRS epidemic in China where over 600,000 pigs have been either killed or culled since June 2006. Chinese scientists believe a new and particularly pathogenic strain of PRRS - which is not transmissible to humans - is affecting adult pigs not normally killed by the disease. In a move to try and protect its own pig populations, Cambodia has banned all pork imports from Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The price of pork has risen sharply across the region.

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Rice researchers unite for Africa

A collaboration of centres is expected to boost rice production in Africa
A collaboration of centres is expected to boost rice production in Africa
credit: WRENmedia

Three of the world's leading international agricultural research institutes have announced that they will unite their activities for future rice research in Africa. The establishment of the sub-Saharan Africa Rice Consortium (SARC), will combine the expertise of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Africa Rice Center (WARDA) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

The collaboration of centres is expected to unify efforts to boost rice production in Africa by introducing expertise from Latin America and Asia, and further harmonising current rice research in Africa. The initiative aims to increase production to reduce the need for imported rice. With rising global rice prices, Africa's annual import bill is set to double to over US$ 2 billion. Currently, around 40 per cent of rice is imported to meet domestic demand.

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Biological control of aflatoxin

Eight non-toxin producing strains of Aspergillus flavus fungus have been identified at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). The fungus is known to create aflatoxins - chemical poisons that contaminate staple crops such as maize, affecting millions of people across African and impairing the growth and development of children. Prolonged exposure to minute amounts of aflatoxins can cause liver cancer and suppression of the immune system. In 2004, acute aflatoxin poisoning from contaminated maize killed 125 people in Kenya.

The biological control method being promoted by IITA uses the atoxigenic (non-poison producing) strains to eliminate the highly toxic relatives of Aspergillus. The result is reduced aflatoxin contamination of up to 99.9 per cent in field trials. The non-toxin strains are now currently being tested in large-scale field trials in Nigeria. The use of indigenous non-toxic strains is crucial to ensure that the released strains are highly competitive under local conditions and safe in the local environment.

Similar research conducted by scientists at the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is using non-toxic strains of Aspergillus to out-compete toxic varieties in cotton. Cottonseed is an important feed source for America's dairy herds.

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Hardy herds in conference call

ILRI warns that Ankole cattle could become extinct from Uganda within 20 years
ILRI warns that Ankole cattle could become extinct from Uganda within 20 years
credit: WRENmedia

Ankole cattle from Uganda could become extinct within 20 years, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) has warned. Addressing a scientific forum at the FAO's First International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources in Interlaken, Switzerland, researchers from the institute said Ankoles are one of many indigenous breeds under threat from the introduction of high-yielding, non-native species.

Holstein-Fresian cattle have displaced many local herds in developing countries because of their high milk productivity. But unlike well-established indigenous breeds, they are not adapted to harsh environmental conditions; traits which can take thousands of years to develop. Ugandan farmers recently lost entire herds of Holstein-Fresians during extended periods of drought because cattle were unable to walk long distances to access water.

The week-long summit on animal genetic resources aims to develop a global strategy for the international community to work together to conserve, sustain and develop the world's livestock breeds.

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Wheat price a symptom of 'agflation'

Increasing wheat prices are an ongoing global concern
Increasing wheat prices are an ongoing global concern
credit: WRENmedia

Global wheat prices have hit an all-time high, compounding fears that the global economy has entered a period of "agflation" - the new economic term to describe agriculture-fuelled price inflation. Droughts, floods, production shortfalls, growing demand and dwindling stocks have created a harvest season panic that has buoyed the price of wheat to record levels. However, increased wheat prices are not seen as a short-term problem, but an ongoing global concern that could see food prices double within the next five to ten years. It is expected that rising wheat prices will trigger increases in the price of bread and livestock products as producers pass on increased costs to consumers.

Prices in the US and Europe have increased by 75 per cent during the last four months as countries, including Egypt and India who are mass importers of wheat, have taken precautionary measures to stockpile grain. Rising demand for wheat used for biofuel production is also increasing concerns over insufficient supplies. The World Food Programme (WFP), which coordinates supplies for famine relief, has expressed concern about the impact of dwindling stocks of vital commodities. The organisation feeds about 90 million people every year and is concerned about both prices and the availability of food as pressure mounts to earmark land for the production of crops for biofuel.

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Scientists battle cattle emissions

UK scientists are looking at ways to cut ruminant emissions from cattle to reduce their methane "hoofprint". A single cow can produce up to 200 litres of methane per day and farmed ruminants are responsible for around a quarter of "man-made" methane emissions worldwide.

However, scientists at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) in Aberystwyth report that planting improved grass varieties with a higher sugar content would aid digestion and reduce the amount of methane expelled. The sweeter grass provides a more balanced diet for the micro-organisms in the cows' rumen creating less gas and allowing more of the ingested carbon and nitrogen to be converted into meat and milk. The institute intends to conduct further investigations into grasses and rumen digestion by collaborating with other UK universities.

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Turkish delight over super seed

Drought-resistant chickpeas are proving a success in Turkey
Drought-resistant chickpeas are proving a success in Turkey
credit: ICARDA

Drought-resistant chickpeas are proving a success after a summer of bumper yields in Turkey. The results come at a time of acute drought in the country's Central Anatolia region, which has devastated wheat and barley crops. Despite adverse conditions, the Gokce chickpea variety is producing around 1.5 tonnes per hectare. Developed by researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), in conjunction with Turkish scientists from the national agricultural research system, the pulse also has shown moderate resistance to Ascochyta blight, a major fungal disease of chickpea which can destroy crops.

Gokce, a large seeded variety, has been quickly adopted by farmers in Turkey, one of the largest producers of kabuli chickpeas in the world. In 2007, over 85 per cent of some chickpea areas have been planted to Gokce, with over 500,000 ha grown across the country. ICARDA intends to trial the seed in Iraq, where chickpea crops are particularly susceptible to Ascochyta blight and agro-climatic conditions are similar to Central Anatolia. There are also plans to undertake trials in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

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Bird flu - an ever-present danger

Outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of avian flu continue
Outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of avian flu continue
credit: WRENmedia

Several new cases of the virulent H5N1 strain of avian flu have been reported since the last issue of New Agriculturist. In August, Indonesia confirmed the first human fatalities in Bali province, where two women in their 20s died, taking the country's death toll to 85. At the end of July, Egypt confirmed its 38th human case, while Bangladesh and India have both reported outbreaks in chicken populations, with the latter culling around 200,000 birds in Manipur state in the north-east of the country.

WHO has identified human pandemic influenza - from mutated avian flu virus, for example - as a major potential health threat in the 21st century. Its 2007 annual report states that the boom in air travel could enable the virus - and illnesses such as AIDS, ebola and malaria - to spread rapidly. It calls for closer cooperation between countries to tackle new and existing threats to human health.

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Phone service to tackle 'fat khats'

Bundles of khat, captured by the DEA in 2006
Bundles of khat, captured by the DEA in 2006
credit: US Drug Enforcement Agency

Producers and traders buying and selling the controversial stimulant khat (Catha edulis), can now check the market price of the plant using their mobile phones. Kenyan non-profit organisation Sakijo International has introduced an text messaging system to shed some light on the shadowy world of khat trading, giving farmers better information about the prevailing price in markets from London to Mogadishu.

Khat, a shrub native to the Horn of Africa and the Arab Peninsula, is widely used in Somalia and Yemen, where its leaves are chewed for their mild narcotic effect. It is exported to countries with large Somali communities such as the UK and Holland where the sale and consumption of khat leaves remains legal. With millions of regular users worldwide, the trade is big business and Sakijo International hopes the new service will enable khat producers to command a fairer price for their crop, and tackle the large commissions taken by middlemen.

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Zimbabwe abattoirs re-licensed but meat shortages continue...

The Zimbabwean government has recently re-licensed over 40 private abattoirs throughout the country in an effort to augment the beleaguered state-run Cold Storage Company (CSC). Normal supply of beef, which is an essential commodity for most Zimbabweans, is yet to resume and meat prices are unaffordable for many. The monopoly of the CSC had previously been restored as part of recent government directives to slash the prices of goods and services by up to 50 per cent in an effort to curb profiteering.

The shortage of meat products is blamed on decreasing agricultural production and widening food shortages as a result of the country's controversial land reforms. An acute shortage of commodities, including bread, milk, sugar and maize-meal continues as interventions imposed by the Cabinet Taskforce on Price Monitoring and Stabilisation are ongoing. With the start of the third term, there are concerns that schools, particularly boarding schools, will be unable to cater for their pupils.

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A comeback for kava

The market for Kava collapsed in 2000 following health fears
The market for Kava collapsed in 2000 following health fears

Smallholder farmers in the South Pacific now have the backing of a WHO report in their battle to rebuild their business of exporting dried kava. The market for extracts of the plant Piper Methysticum - which had developed as a major source of income for many of the islands of Vanuatu - collapsed in 2000 when allegations were made that consumption of the herbal product, renowned as a natural treatment for stress and anxiety, could lead to liver damage. Many European countries banned imports and Australia followed suit with tight import restrictions. Farming incomes plummeted and kava plots were abandoned.

Now the WHO Assessment of the Risk of Hepatotoxicity with Kava Products, which appears to rule out a link between kava and liver damage, has been welcomed by the kava business. Chief Selwyn, one of Vanuatu's most senior tribal leaders, is relieved "This is the scientific proof we needed to tell the world that our kava is good for health. We want to rebuild farmer incomes". Other observers are more cautious. According to Dr Vincent Lebot, a specialist working in kava production for the last twenty years, the damage to the industry is deep and lasting. "In Europe, consumers are already scared of kava," he said. "We always knew kava is safe to consume. Whatever science says to prove this, I fear that the damage is already done."

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September 2007
WRENmedia www.wrenmedia.co.uk