The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

News brief

Relief effort slow to start in Myanmar

Some of Myanmar's key food producing areas have been flooded following Cyclone Nargis
Some of Myanmar's key food producing areas have been flooded following Cyclone Nargis
credit: FAO/19708/Giuseppe Bizzarri

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has begun distributing food aid to some of the worst-affected areas of Myanmar after the country was struck by Cyclone Nargis. The WFP currently has more than 800 tonnes of food aid in warehouses in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, but has called for more emergency assistance from the international community as the extent of the devastation becomes clear. The country's secretive ruling military junta has been criticised for hampering the relief efforts by denying access to many foreign aid workers, increasing fears of a humanitarian crisis as waterborne diseases take hold.

In the week following the cyclone, Burmese state television reported an estimated death toll of over 22,000, with as many as 40,000 people still missing. A further 1 million were also thought to have been left homeless, after high winds battered five states and a tidal surge hit coastal regions. Rice fields in the country's coastal region have been destroyed and many areas still remain underwater, with long term damage from salt-water inundation feared. FAO has warned that up to two-thirds of the country's rice-growing areas have been affected, jeopardising the country's ability to export a predicted 600,000 tonnes of the staple grain this year, potentially forcing up the price of rice on world markets. Damage to the country's palm oil and rubber plantations is also expected.

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World food price update

FAO has welcomed the US government's commitment of US$770 million in emergency food aid and agricultural assistance to help tackle the growing world food price crisis. It follows a US$200m pledge from UN agency IFAD (International Fund for Agriculture) to help poor farmers boost food production.

In recent weeks, riots in Haiti have left five people dead and led to the sacking of prime minister Jaques-Edouard Alexis after surges in the prices of basic food items. Rioting has also affected Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, India, Mozambique, Senegal and Yemen, leading the UN to issue a warning that failure of the international community to act could destabilise national governments. FAO's World Food Programme (WFP) has already said it may have to ration food aid due to the higher cost of staple grains, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has warned the crisis could harm progress towards achieving the organisation's Millennium Development Goals. Some analysts have attributed the crisis to a "perfect storm" of poor harvests, rising biofuel production, oil price hikes, declining world food stockpiles and increased demand from industrialising countries, such as India and China.

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Dry areas face looming water crisis

Urgent action is needed to alleviate a possible water crisis in the Middle East and North Africa
Urgent action is needed to alleviate a possible water crisis in the Middle East and North Africa
credit: FAO/20868/R. Messori

Agricultural reform is needed to avert a potential water crisis in North Africa and the Middle East, the World Bank has warned. Its report, Making the Most of Scarcity, states that around 85 per cent of water in the region is used for agriculture, which does not leave sufficient room to accommodate the effects of climate change and population growth. It predicts that water availability per capita in the regions could shrink by as much as 50 per cent by 2050, leading report co-author Julia Bucknall to call for governments to make "painful changes" in farming practices. These include switching production away from thirsty crops like wheat, which can be grown more efficiently elsewhere, and using precious water resources to grow cash crops such as grapes, tomatoes, melons and strawberries, which are better suited to the climate.

The report also calls for policy changes to discourage the overuse of non-renewable water sources - such as the rapidly depleting aquifers of Yemen - a country singled out along with Jordan as being most at risk of water shortages.
Report

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Farmers can't wait for wheat

A new drought-resistant, high-yielding wheat variety is proving so popular with farmers in Kenya, that crop breeders are struggling to keep up with demand.

Developed over the last ten years at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), the new variety, Njoro-BW1, is now being cultivated on more than 10,000 hectares in the country.

The strain was developed through a process of 'mutation plant breeding', which uses radiation-based techniques to modify crop characteristics. KARI worked closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the African Co-operative Agreement for Research, Development and Training related to Nuclear Science and Technology to create Njoro-BW1, which also produces good quality flour, and has moderate resistance to wheat rust. As its popularity with farmers has grown, the Kenya Cereal Growers Association has provided KARI with much-needed land and support in its efforts to produce enough seed. It is hoped the new variety will continue to boost the proportion of home-grown wheat consumed in Kenya.

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Kofi's clarion call

Kofi Annan at the Salzburg Global Seminar
Kofi Annan at the Salzburg Global Seminar
credit: Herman Seidl

Kofi Annan has called for a "uniquely African Green Revolution" founded on "bold pro-poor policies" to address the current food crisis facing Africa and the world. Dr Annan was speaking at a conference, Towards a 'Green Revolution' in Africa?, organised by the Salzburg Global Seminar, the Institute for Development Studies and the Future Agricultures Consortium held in Salzburg from 30 April - 2nd May.

During the three days of discussions, delegates agreed that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions but that moving in one direction, with one vision and goal was key to the future of agriculture in Africa. It was also stressed that farmers and their needs must be placed at the centre of any initiative. One particular proposal for directing research innovation and technology development was the establishment of an Africa-wide, farmer-owned fund to ensure that research was demand driven. Improving data, using it more effectively and developing a learning culture was recognised to be key. Recommendations from the conference were further refined during a follow-on seminar to address A 'Green Revolution' for Africa: What framework for success? Updates from the events can be accessed on the Future Agricultures website.

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No end in sight for Argentina's soybean stalemate

Argentine farmers are still locked in a bitter dispute with the government over controversial new export taxes. A series of farmer strikes in protest against the higher levies on soybeans (up from 27 to 40 per cent), grains, oilseeds and vegetable oils led to shortages of basic food items in many parts of the country in March. A truce during April broke down with further protests and roadblocks to prevent trucks carrying grain to the country's ports are expected.

The government introduced the new taxes to curb domestic price rises, offset the effects of the devaluation of the Peso, and protect food supplies at a time when it is more profitable for farmers to sell their crops abroad. But farmers say the taxes discourage the sale of crops on futures markets, and could lead to a decline in farm output resulting in up to 2m hectares being left idle in 2009.

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Rooting for tubers

The potato is the third most important food crop in the world
The potato is the third most important food crop in the world
credit: FAO/Giulio Napolitano

The importance of the potato as a major crop in the fight against poverty and malnutrition has been re-affirmed at a meeting-of-minds in Peru, as part of the UN's International Year of the Potato (IYP) 2008.

Tuber experts from around the world gathered at the 'Potato Science for the Poor' conference in Cusco in March, to discuss ways to increase potato production and profitability in developing countries. Co-sponsored by the International Potato Center (CIP) and FAO, the conference marks the beginning of a year-long drive to raise awareness and production of the humble spud. Pamela Anderson, director general of International Potato Center (CIP), said: "As a global community it is time for us to come together and define an agenda which focuses explicitly on the poor and the hungry. This is an opportunity, greater than we've ever seen before, to use this crop for the dual purposes of guaranteeing food security but also generating income." Further IYP-related events will be held in Italy, Poland, Romania, Scotland and Switzerland. (See also My perspective: Jim Godfrey)

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DFID pledges US$2billion to development research...

The UK Department for International Development (DFID)'s new US$2billion research strategy places agriculture at the top of the development agenda. The five-year plan will double investment in research to US$440m per year by 2010, making the UK government the largest source of development research funding in the world. A total of around US$800m will be invested in research into farming, fisheries and forestry, with a focus on helping poor countries increase production. An additional US$200m will be used to study climate change. International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander said the move is a major step towards achieving the UN's Millennium Development Goals: "This level of investment, together with the research expertise here in the UK, will help put us at the forefront of research for development, and ensures we have the greatest possible impact on the lives of the world's poorest people."
DFID Research Strategy

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...and launches the International Growth Centre

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) is to invest at least US$64m over the next three years to establish a new research centre to study economic growth. The International Growth Centre, described by DFID as a "virtual network of experts", will aim to provide practical advice to developing countries on ways to stimulate economic growth, which is believed to have accounted for 80 per cent of poverty reduction worldwide since 1980.

International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander said economic growth can have a "huge impact on improving the lives of people in developing countries and is at the heart of the UK's efforts towards reducing poverty worldwide."

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Safer trading for Ethiopia

Poor market information has prevented Ethiopian farmers getting the best price for their produce
Poor market information has prevented Ethiopian farmers getting the best price for their produce
credit: World Bank

A new commodity marketing system in Ethiopia could "revolutionise" the country's trade in agricultural products. The Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), specialising in coffee, sesame, haricot beans, teff, wheat and maize, opened in April, and aims to remove the high transaction costs and excessive risk that afflict agricultural trade in the country. It is hoped the system will give smallscale farmers - who produce around 95 per cent of the country's crops - better access to price information, while reducing the risk of buyers defaulting on payments.

The ECX includes a trading floor in the capital Addis Ababa, six warehouse delivery locations, and 20 electronic price "tickers" in major market towns. Clear rules have been established for trading, warehousing, payments, delivery and business conduct, together with set procedures to settle disputes. Prime Minister Meles Zenawari, said he expects the ECX to "revolutionise" Ethiopia's "backward and inefficient marketing system."

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After the rains, drought adds to Zimbabwe's woes

With ongoing unrest following the disputed general elections, extreme dry weather is threatening Zimbabwe's maize harvest. While early maize crops planted in November are expected to produce fair yields, the majority of the country's maize was late-planted and is expected to fail. The worst-affected provinces are Manicaland, Masvingo, Mashonaland East and Matebeleland South.

The situation has been aggravated by the already precarious food situation in the country and the short supply of key inputs, such as fertiliser, seed, fuel and tillage power. Many farmers are already reeling from flood-related damage earlier in 2008. FAO described the food situation in the country as "critical", with the country receiving only 80 per cent of the 1m tonnes of cereal imports required over the last 12 months.

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Rice price not benefiting Asia's smallholders

Small producers in Southeast Asia are struggling to capitalise on the high price of rice
Small producers in Southeast Asia are struggling to capitalise on the high price of rice
credit: FAO/14829/P. Johnson

Many smallholders in Asia have been unable to capitalise on the recent surge in the price of rice. The majority of rice-growers in Thailand and Vietnam tend small plots and only have small stockpiles of the grain. Wealthier farmers, meanwhile, have been able to hold onto their larger surpluses to sell at a later date - further restricting supply and forcing up the price.

Increasing costs of fertiliser, pesticide and labour have all eaten into the returns to smallholders and many are now worried that if they invest in larger farms, the resulting increase in the supply of rice will cause the market price to drop and wipe out their profits.

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May 2008
WRENmedia www.wrenmedia.co.uk