The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

News brief

Feast in the east for desert locusts

Desert locusts have a voracious appetite
Desert locusts have a voracious appetite
credit: FAO/20499/A. Proto

Kenya's wheat and maize crops are under threat after the country's first outbreak of desert locusts for nearly half a century. The frenzied feeders continue to invade the arid north-eastern region from breeding grounds in neighbouring Ethiopia. FAO has reported that new immature swarms continue to form in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, moving south into Kenya, with a moderate risk of some reaching Uganda and possibly Tanzania. Many of the swarms are less than 10km in size and highly mobile, making them difficult to treat. Local security issues in some areas also pose problems for pest control teams. The insatiable insects can consume the equivalent of their own body weight in vegetation in a single day, moving in swarms of up to 80 million per kilometre. Desert locust outbreaks in West Africa caused crop losses worth around US$2.5bn in 2003-2005.
FAO Locust Watch

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Climate change "roadmap" agreed in Bali

A "Bali roadmap" has been established in preparation for a climate treaty to be drawn up at the end of 2009. Outlined by delegates from almost 190 countries at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali in December 2007, the plan-of-action includes the establishment of an 'adaptation fund' to enable developing countries to deal with the harmful effects of global warming and a scheme to award poorer countries for protecting trees.

Despite initial deadlock, delegates also agreed that richer nations and private sector companies should be able to earn carbon credits by paying for forest protection in developing countries. But critics argued the conference failed to agree mandatory emission targets and caps that will be needed if major cuts in carbon emissions are to be achieved. Tony Juniper, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, argued in the Observer newspaper that the aim of the European Union was to agree emission reductions for industrialised countries of between 20 and 45 per cent by 2020. "The US, backed by Canada and Japan, were against this and, along with Russia, they set out to wreck any prospect for a deal based on these figures," he said. The talks were called because the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol, the international framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, expires in 2012.

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Grains of hope for Bangladesh

Bangladesh is suffering chronic rice shortages
Bangladesh is suffering chronic rice shortages
credit: World Bank

Bangladesh is to step-up its commitment to providing free rice to millions of its people, after a series of recent natural disasters wiped out crops worth US$600m. Around 570,000 families will receive free rice until May 2008 and a further 45,000 tonnes of imported rice will be subsidised by the government in January 2008 alone, as part of an ongoing food distribution programme.

The move follows steep price rises for rice of up to 70 per cent in the wake of floods in July and August, and cyclone Sidr in November 2007, which destroyed villages on the country's southwest coast, killing thousands of people. Around 60 million Bangladeshis are facing severe food shortages as a result of the disasters.

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DFID boost for African Development Fund

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) is to double its support for the African Development Fund. Over the next three years, DFID will pledge £417m (US$ 822m) to the Fund - part of the African Development Bank group - helping 40 African countries to improve infrastructure, water and sanitation and invest in new energy projects.

The Fund provides grants and long term interest-free loans to African countries to help fight poverty and promote economic growth. International Development secretary Douglas Alexander said the pledge represented the Government's "commitment to help build African institutions, our confidence in the reform process being undertaken by the African Development Bank and our belief that the Fund can effectively support development in Africa's poorest countries."

In a separate initiative, a DFID-funded bioenergy research programme has been launched to help provide sustainable and affordable energy to some of the Africa's poorest people. The £4m (US$7.8m) Policy Innovation System for Clean Energy Security (PISCES) project will be led by the African Centre for Technology Studies and look at environmentally-friendly ways to provide energy security.

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New windows of opportunity for women farmers in Africa

Women farmers in Africa are underrepresented in scientific institutions
Women farmers in Africa are underrepresented in scientific institutions
credit: WRENmedia

A US$13m initiative aimed at increasing the number of African women in agricultural science has been announced by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development) programme, funded by the Gates Foundation will address the disparity between the high number of women farmers in Africa and their under-representation in scientific institutions. One of the initiatives will involve fast-tracking the careers of around 360 African women in scientific research in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Vicki Wilde, head of the CGIAR Gender & Diversity Program said, "We cannot fight hunger and poverty in Africa, particularly in the struggling regions of sub-Saharan Africa, unless women have a strong voice not just on the farm, but in the lab."

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Organic food "will not help the poor " - FAO

Organic agriculture will not provide food security for the world's poor, the FAO has announced. Rejecting claims that the organisation endorses organic farming as a solution to world hunger, Director-General Dr Jacques Diouf has stated that while there is a place for organics in world agriculture, it is not sufficient on its own. He said: "We should use organic agriculture and promote it... but you cannot feed six billion people today and nine billion in 2050 without judicious use of chemical fertilisers."

Dr Diouf's comments echo the World Bank's World Development Report 2008, which identifies low fertiliser use as one of the major constraints on agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 800 million people live in abject poverty. However, Dr Diouf called for chemical inputs to be used carefully and in conjunction with chemical-free systems such as Integrated Pest Management. In 2005 over 30 million hectares - around two per cent of the world's farmland - was dedicated to organic production worth around US$24bn.

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Global warming to hit Asia hardest...

Climate change could reverse development in the Asia-Pacific region
Climate change could reverse development in the Asia-Pacific region
credit: FAO/24460/A.Vitale

Global warming could undo decades of social and economic progress in Asia and the Pacific, unless immediate action is taken, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has warned. The December 2007 report, Up in Smoke? - Asia and the Pacific, highlights the impact of climate change on the world's most populous continent. The report argues that the combined effects of sea-level rises on coastal populations, glacial retreat, extreme weather conditions and the race for biofuels could hit the Asia-Pacific region the hardest, affecting livelihoods and potentially reversing development. The report follows a four-year study by major UK poverty and environment groups and calls for developed countries to go beyond their duties under the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse gas emissions, end forest clearance in an effort to stop the expansion of biofuel plantations, and coordinate an international plan of action to relocate, compensate and care for threatened communities. Around 60 per cent of the world's population lives in the Asia-Pacific region, over half of them along vulnerable coastal areas.

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...While water crisis continues

A report highlighting the unprecedented water crisis in East Asia has been released by the Asia Pacific Water Forum. The report, commissioned by the Asia Development Bank (ADB), focuses on urban water and waste management and stresses that inappropriate management practices and not physical scarcity are the cause of water constraints in the Asia Pacific region, where more than 600 million people lack access to safe drinking water.

The report points to the need for a 'fundamental change' in water management, calling for recognition of the inherent inter-relationship between water and other sectors such as agriculture, energy, food and the environment. It also draws attention to issues of risk and uncertainty related to climate change and points out that often neglected changing demographics such as increasing urbanisation and a growing elderly population have major implications for water management. The independent Outlook report is the first in a series of analyses on the future water situation in Asia.

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Cool innovation for fresher food

Low-cost
Low-cost "zero-energy" fridges can help keep produce fresh
credit: WRENmedia

Homemade "zero-energy" fridges are becoming hot property in Uttar Pradesh, India. Villages in the province have adopted the new environmentally-friendly design as part of a land reclamation initiative to improve village life and farm incomes in areas afflicted with sodic soils.

The fridge is a rectangular chamber set in earth, made from a double wall of bricks. The cavity is filled sand, which is kept damp, and the structure covered with a wooden lid. It maintains a temperature cool enough to keep fruit and vegetables fresh for up to eight days. Construction materials cost around 200 rupees (US$4).

The fridges are proving popular with households, and farmers hope to modify the design in order to keep their perishable produce fresh for longer.

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Bird Flu in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Agriculture has announced that the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu has been detected within its borders. In a statement released by the official SPA news agency, the Ministry said that no human cases had been found and that an investigation had been launched into the origins of the disease outbreak.

The authorities had already ordered the cull of 13,500 ostriches after an outbreak was reported on a farm in December, causing neighbouring Jordan to raise its state of alert to the highest level. The number of culled birds in the kingdom totals over 4.5 million since the disease was first detected in November. During the last two months, a total of 12 countries reported outbreaks including Bangladesh, Benin, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Myanmar, Poland, Romania, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.

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Mexico's biofuel hopes

The Mexcican government believes the country's biofuel sector should move away from the use of maize and sugarcane
The Mexcican government believes the country's biofuel sector should move away from the use of maize and sugarcane
credit: FAO/1351/F, Botts

Farmers in Mexico are to receive government-backing to grow crops for biofuel production. The country's new biofuel law, which comes into effect this year, aims to encourage the use of beets, yucca root and sorghum to produce biodiesel, while improving the livelihoods of some of the country's poorest farmers. The Mexican administration has shunned the use of maize and sugarcane due to the dominance of the US and Brazil in the bioethanol sector. Critics have argued that the new law will hit the poor hardest as more agricultural land will be dedicated to the production of so-called "green" fuels, forcing up the price of food.

Increased world demand for maize for the production of bioethanol pushed up the price of Mexico's staple, triggering street protests across the country in February 2007.

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Drought-stricken China counts the cost

China has been hit by its worst drought for fifty years, with up to one million people in the south of the country left without access to water. Around 400,000 hectares of crops have been affected, with grain losses in the region of 37 million metric tonnes. The country's sugar industry has suffered, with the main sugar-producing region of Guangxi receiving less than half its average rainfall and rice-growing provinces have seen water levels in rivers, lakes and reservoirs fall to historic lows.

China suffers annual droughts and floods which its scientists have attributed to extreme weather and global climate change. But this latest drought appears to be particularly severe with the country's largest freshwater lake, Poyang in Jiangxi province, having shrunk to less that two per cent of its size since mid-2007. The official People's Daily newspaper reports that the government has earmarked $US310 million to send water to thirsty villages.

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January 2008
WRENmedia www.wrenmedia.co.uk