The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

News brief

Cold snap prompts emergency response

Alapaca herd have been fighting for survival following a severe cold snap in the highlands of Peru
Alapaca herd have been fighting for survival following a severe cold snap in the highlands of Peru
credit: WRENmedia

FAO has sent urgent supplies of medicines and vitamins to farmers in highland areas of Peru after severe cold weather led to the government declaring a state of emergency. "El friaje", the local name for a devastating combination of unseasonable frost, hail and snowstorms, has affected 11 of the country's 25 provinces. The extreme conditions have weakened alpaca herds, making it difficult for the hardy camelids to graze. Sheep populations have also been affected.

FAO has warned that it expects a sharp increase in livestock sickness and mortality over the coming months as a result of the bad weather and has sent 37,000 doses of anti-parasitic medicine, antibiotics and vitamins to help upland farmers protect their herds. This year's cold snap arrived two months earlier than expected and also threatens crop production in the highlands, where growers have limited opportunities to sow and harvest.

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Trade blow for international summit

The future of the WTO (World Trade Organization)'s troubled Doha Round remains in doubt after high-level talks collapsed in Geneva. Discussions on liberalising international trade stalled when China, India and the US failed to agree on the level of farm import tariffs that could be imposed by developing countries. The WTO had proposed a "Special Safeguard Mechanism" to protect producers in poorer countries against unrestricted imports, but US negotiators said the level had been set too low.

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson described the impasse as a "collective failure", while China blamed the unwillingness of the US and EU to scrap their own farm subsidies. Political deadlock has dogged the Doha Development Agenda, known as the Doha Round, since negotiations began in 2001. Despite the latest setback, WTO Director-General Pascal Lemy remains hopeful that an agreement will be reached if talks resume in September.

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Scientists report pesticide cancer link

Pesticide and fertiliser use in India has been linked to a number of health problems
Pesticide and fertiliser use in India has been linked to a number of health problems
credit: FAO/G Bizzarri

Farmers could be at risk of DNA damage and certain cancers due to excessive pesticide exposure, a recent study has warned. Researchers at India's Patiala University took blood samples from farmers in Punjab state twice-a-year for three years, finding evidence of "significant" gene damage that could not be attributed to risk factors such as age, alcohol intake and smoking.

Pesticide companies in India have blamed farmers for spraying crops too often and for failing to use protective clothing. There have been separate claims that some farmers are mixing pesticides in a desperate attempt to tackle outbreaks of pink bollworm and aphids on cotton crops. In May, a government-funded report showed the groundwater in four Punjab districts was contaminated with chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which could be responsible for a range of health problems, from cancer to birth defects.

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China 'quake shakes farm sector

Agriculture in China's earthquake-stricken Sichuan Province has suffered damage worth around US$6 billion and will take up to five years to recover, according to FAO. A recent fact-finding mission by the UN agency found that over 30 million people in rural areas had been affected, losing thousands of hectares of farmland and millions of livestock. An earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale struck the region in May, killing over 70,000 people.

A lack of farm labour after the disaster meant a "significant proportion" of the region's wheat could not be harvested, while collapsed grain stores destroyed around 350,000 tonnes of the harvested crop. About 20,000 ha of rice fields have also been affected and a shortfall of up to 50 per cent is possible due to delayed planting, pests and water shortages. Over three million pigs were also killed. The relief effort will focus on the urgent provision of fertilisers, pesticides, livestock, farm tools and machinery.

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Rome summit pledges food support

FAO's Jacques Diouf addresses the World Food Summit in Rome
FAO's Jacques Diouf addresses the World Food Summit in Rome
credit: FAO/G Napolitano

World governments have agreed to increase assistance to developing countries to help them cope with high food prices. A three-day summit in Rome, convened by FAO, concluded with the signing of a declaration to increase food production, support farmers and provide humanitarian relief in countries facing critical food shortages.

Addressing the conference, FAO director-general Jacques Diouf warned that in real terms the amount of money spent on food aid has more than halved since 1980, and subsidies for biofuel production have diverted 100 million tonnes of cereal away from human consumption. He said: "What is important today is to realise that the time for talking is long past. Now is the time for action."

The final stages of the conference saw heated debate over an FAO working party's recommendation for the regulation of biofuel production, and angry exchanges on the issue of trade liberalisation.

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Kenya's bitter biofuel battle

Kenya has approved a controversial biofuel plantation in the Tana river delta. The 80 sq mile site, near the coastal city of Mombasa, is earmarked for sugarcane production, complete with an ethanol processing facility. While the government has welcomed the prospect of investment and job creation in the region, campaigners claim the project will destroy pristine wetlands. The livelihoods of thousands of farmers and fishermen who use the land could be affected, including pastoralists from neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia who would lose seasonal grazing lands.

Crop production for biofuel is causing increasingly bitter disputes in East Africa, where companies have been keen to buy up large areas of land to grow fuel crops in order to satisfy demand from the EU and US.

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Record rice will ease price pressure - USDA

Rice production is expected to rise in many areas this year
Rice production is expected to rise in many areas this year
credit: IRRI

The world's grain producers will enjoy bumper harvests this year, the US government has predicted, with higher prices and favourable weather contributing to a boom in wheat and rice production. The Agriculture Department (USDA) expects the world's wheat harvest to rise by eight per cent this year to a record 656 million tonnes, and rice yields to rise to 432 million tonnes. This, it believes, will ease pressure on food and feed prices around the world and replenish global stockpiles. However, it predicts Myanmar's rice harvest will be down seven per cent to around ten million tonnes after Cyclone Nargis struck the country's rice-growing region in May, damaging crops and destroying stored grain.

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Potato test smashed

Activists are believed to have destroyed an experimental GM-potato plot at the UK's University of Leeds, three weeks after trials began. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had given approval for researchers to run the six-month-long test - the first of its kind in the UK - in May 2008 at a site in Yorkshire.

The transgenic potatoes have been engineered to resist infection by potato cyst nematodes (PCN) or "eelworms", parasites that live in the soil and attack the roots of potato plants. PCNs can cause stunted growth and in extreme cases, crop failure. A synthetic repellent and genes from rice were inserted into the potatoes to fend off PCNs and if successful, the technology could have been used to help African farmers fight nematode attacks. University of Leeds' Howard Atkinson said the destruction of the trial was like "burning university books 75 years ago."

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Drought grips Ethiopia...

Failed rains have left millions of Ethiopians in the south of the country facing famine, the United Nations (UN) has warned. The UN Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates that around that around 3.5 million people will need emergency food aid worth more than US$100 million over the coming months.

Despite making an urgent appeal for 350,000 tonnes of emergency food aid in June, the Ethiopian government has reacted angrily to speculation about a possible humanitarian crisis in the region, accusing aid workers of exaggerating the problem in order to raise money.

Around 80 per cent of Ethiopians depend on subsistence agriculture, but the dry spell means they will not be able to produce their own food until the next rains come in October. The UK Department for International Development has pledged US$30 million in aid to help avert a crisis.

Neighbouring Somalia is also on the brink of a humanitarian emergency as a result of failed seasonal rains, soaring food prices and the country's precarious security situation. FAO has warned that half of the population could face acute food shortages by the end of the year.

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...While floods buckle US farm belt

Flooding in the US has forced maize prices up to new highs
Flooding in the US has forced maize prices up to new highs
credit: FAO/G Bizzarri

One of the world's most important maize-producing areas has been hit by the worst flooding in 15 years, killing 24 people and devastating crops. An estimated two million hectares of maize fields were ruined in the US Midwest after a week of torrential rain during mid-June. The disaster has forced maize prices up to new highs, with the cost of a bushel (approx 25.4kg) in the region quadrupling to an unprecedented US$8. Farmers estimate total losses of around 700 million bushels, either through destroyed crops or by being unable to replant on waterlogged land.

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EU debates CAP reform

Plans to overhaul the European Union (EU)'s controversial Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were unveiled in May 2008. Draft proposals for a so-called CAP "health check" include plans to scrap milk quotas by 2015 and introduce incentives to encourage farmers to protect the countryside.

Subsidies currently provided under the system - worth around US$60 billion per year - have long been criticised for distorting food markets, despite far-reaching reforms in 2003. If approved, the new measures will continue to "decouple" subsidies and production to prevent farmers producing surpluses simply to secure larger pay-outs. The money saved will be redirected to help protect smaller family-run operations. Other proposals include the abolition of the set-aside scheme, and a new biofuel subsidy paid to farmers who use a proportion of their land to grow fuel crops.

The draft must be agreed by all 27 EU member states in order to take effect and discussions between EU farm ministers are expected to continue until the end of the year.

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Rainforest champion quits post

Brazil's award-winning Environment Minister Marina Silva, who fought to protect the Amazon rainforest, resigned suddenly in May, claiming her conservation efforts were being thwarted by powerful business lobbies. Silva had opposed plans to build hydro-electric dams in the region and fought claims that her pro-rainforest stance was holding back economic progress. Her resignation comes after it was revealed that rates of deforestation in the Amazon have reached record levels this year.

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Egypt approves first GM crop...

Egypt is only the second African country to adopt GM technology on a commercial scale
Egypt is only the second African country to adopt GM technology on a commercial scale
credit: IFAD

Egypt has approved cultivation of a pest resistant Bt maize variety. Ajeeb-YG is the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be approved in the North African country. The National Biosafety Committee (NBC) and Seed Regulation Committee endorsed the crop based on a series of field trials conducted between 2002 and 2007. Ajeeb-YG is a cross between an Egyptian maize variety resistant to three corn borer pests and MON 810, a GM crop developed by Monsanto. Initially the seeds will be imported from South Africa, the only other African country planting GM crops commercially.

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...And Australia counts the cost of GM delay

GM crops in Australia could generate over US$8 billion in ten years, according to a report released by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE). Part of the financial boost would result from greater pest and weed resistance and the need for fewer chemicals. Other factors include reduced labour, machinery and fuel costs.

The report looked at the potential economic impact of cultivating GM oilseed rape in isolation and alongside GM wheat, maize, soyabean and rice, concluding that if all GM crops were permitted immediately, the country's economy would benefit by US$8.5 billion by 2018.

Apart from GM cotton and carnations, no other GM field crops have been commercially released in Australia, but GM oilseed rape will be introduced in the states of New South Wales and Victoria during 2008.

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DFID and UK supermarkets join forces for Africa

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has opened bids for British supermarkets to take part in a US$4 million scheme to increase food imports from Africa. The Food Retail Industry Challenge fund (FRICH) encourages supermarkets to team-up with African producers to help them compete with suppliers from all over the world to meet the UK standards. The move could result in greater trade in sustainably-produced chocolate, exotic fruit, spices and other food products from some of the poorest countries on the continent.

FRICH will award seven grants of US$500,000 to supermarkets and their suppliers, which will be matched by supermarkets' own contributions. The money will be used to improve productivity, increase value-addition along food supply chains and help small exporters secure much-needed investment.

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July 2008
WRENmedia www.wrenmedia.co.uk