The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

News brief

Traditional African 'superfood' gets thumbs-up

Babobab fruit could soon be on sale in the EU
Babobab fruit could soon be on sale in the EU
credit: PhytoTrade Africa

Millions of Africans are set to benefit from a new ruling allowing the sale of baobab fruit in the European Union (EU). The fruit, which has been consumed in Africa for thousands of years and contains up to six times more vitamin C than oranges, has been unavailable in Europe because it requires pre-sale approval from the European Commission. Following lobbying from the trade association PhytoTrade Africa, approval has now been granted and could pave the way for a global trade worth up to US$1 billion per year.

The cheese-like pulp of the baobab fruit is expected to be used in smoothie drinks and cereal bars and could result in employment for millions of workers in Southern Africa, where the fruit will initially be sourced.

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Relief for Haiti's farmers

FAO is distributing equipment and 600 tonnes of seed to farmers in some of the poorest parts of Haiti to help them cope with the rising costs of food, fuel and fertiliser. Around 70,000 farming families are expected to benefit from the US$4 million project, part of the organisation's Initiative on Soaring Food Prices (ISFP).

Haiti has suffered riots over the increasingly unaffordable price of staple grains, and recent reports from the capital, Port-au-Prince, say impoverished slum dwellers have resorted to eating "mud" cakes to stave-off hunger. It is hoped that the emergency supplies of bean, maize and sorghum seed, together with hoes and machetes, will help farmers increase production and reduce the country's reliance on expensive food imports. FAO requires an additional US$60 million of funding to reach a further 400,000 families by early 2009.

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African Swine Fever on the move

ASF has already spread from Georgie to Armenia and Russia
ASF has already spread from Georgie to Armenia and Russia
credit: FAO/J Spaull

Concerns are growing that the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia over the autonomous Georgian region of South Ossetia could exacerbate the spread of a virulent strain of African Swine Fever (ASF). The virus, which is transmitted by infected pigs, pork meat and soft ticks, was first discovered in Georgia in 2007 and is believed to have entered the country in infected meat from southwest Africa. It quickly spread into neighbouring Armenia, resulting in widespread culls, and is reported to have reached Azerbaijan and Russia.

Now, with increased movements of people displaced by the South Ossetia conflict, it is feared the disease will continue its eastward spread and may even reach as far as China. A westward spread could also affect Eastern and Central Europe. Recent reports suggest that the disease is now prevalent in wild boar populations in the Caucasus, making it much more difficult to control. ASF causes fever, skin lesions and convulsions in infected pigs and usually leads to death within two weeks. There is no vaccine, but it is not contagious to humans.

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Oz drought is worst on record...

Australia continues to endure its worst-ever drought. A year after the country suffered its driest autumn on record, historic low rainfall is still affecting its main crop-growing region, the Murray-Darling Basin. The area, equivalent to the size of France and Germany, produces agricultural exports worth around US$20 billion per year and grows nearly half the country's vegetables, fruit and grain. Up to 10,000 farming families have already been forced off the land as rivers used to irrigate crops have run dry. Some scientists have speculated that without heavy rains in the coming months the environmental damage may be irreversible, and Australia's chief climate adviser has warned that irrigated agriculture in the Basin could be virtually cease by 2100.

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...and famine threatens millions in East Africa

Drought has drastically affected crops and livestock production in East Africa
Drought has drastically affected crops and livestock production in East Africa
credit: IFAD

Up to 14 million people in the Horn of Africa are facing an imminent food crisis due to ongoing drought and spiralling world prices for cereal and fuel. According to the World Food Programme, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, northern Kenya and northern Uganda are worst-affected. In Ethiopia alone, around 10 million people - 12 per cent of the population - are currently in need food aid and the UN agency has called for an additional US$420 milllion to provide emergency food across the region until the end of 2008.

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DFID and USAID boost Afghan seed sector

Western governments have pledged US$12 million to help Afghan farmers cope with extreme weather and food shortages. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have each provided US$6 million of loans to private smallscale seed producers in the troubled Central Asian state.

The money will be used to purchase about 6,000 tonnes of certified wheat seed as part of the Afghanistan Variety and Seed Industry Development initiative, jointly implemented by FAO and the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture. According to the UN, many poor Afghans spend up to 60 per cent of their income on bread alone, and it has appealed for over US$80 million to help combat malnutrition in the country.

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Future bright for Romanian rice

Romania is set to expand rice production
Romania is set to expand rice production
credit: FAO/G Napolitano

Rice production in Romania is set to expand as high world prices make it more attractive for the Balkan state to diversify away from its main staples, wheat and maize. Blessed with a hot climate, fertile lowlands and a plentiful supply of water from the Danube River, rice producers expect to be able to grow the crop easily and more cheaply than European competitors in Italy and Spain.

The majority of the production is expected to be undertaken by large foreign companies taking advantage of up to 5 million hectares of unused arable land in the country. Romania expects to produce 40,000 tonnes of rice in 2008, about ten per cent of total European production.

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Kenya's livestock hit by devastating disease

Pastoralists in the Turkana region of Kenya are battling the latest outbreak of a killer livestock virus. PPR (Peste des Petits Ruminants), known locally as "lomoo", has killed thousands of sheep and goats in the area. The disease has been recorded in 16 districts in the north of the country, and attempts to quarantine the region have left some herders reporting a ten-fold slump in the sale price of their animals.

Symptoms of PPR, which is not transmissible to humans, include lassitude, fever, discharges from the eyes and nose, mouth sores, laboured breathing and diarrhoea.

PPR is believed to have killed at least 400,000 sheep and goats in the region since 2006, despite ongoing efforts to vaccinate. Current estimates put about 3 million sheep and goats at risk.

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India's farm loan waiver proving costly

India has waived or discounted the loans of about 43 million small farmers
India has waived or discounted the loans of about 43 million small farmers
credit: IFAD

India's government is to seek approval from parliament to release an additional US$5 billion to fund its ambitious scheme to write-off small farm debts. The initiative waives or discounts the debts of about 43 million smallholders, who took out loans between 1997 and 2007. But the cost has soared beyond the estimated US$17 billion when the plans were announced in February 2008.

The scheme, which came into force on June 30th, is intended to stem the high rate of farmer suicides in the country, which have been linked to high levels of indebtedness. The government has ordered banks and co-operatives to forgive loan repayments, with the promise to compensate them from national coffers over the next four years. While many small farmers have welcomed the move, others have criticised the decision to only include farmers with less than two hectares of land. India's opposition has accused the ruling Congress Party of political expediency and trying to garner rural support in advance of national elections in 2009.

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Islanders unite to fight climate 'havoc'

Pacific island nations called for more action to be taken to combat the effects of climate change in the region, as fifteen heads-of-state gathered for the three-day Pacific Islands Forum on the tiny atoll of Niue, in August 2008.

Many low-lying islands in the Pacific are threatened by rising sea levels and, addressing the conference, Niuean Prime Minister, Toke Talagi, said: "The challenge is no longer a matter for research or scientific theory and modelling; the evidence is quite clear that climate change is already wreaking havoc here."

Ways to generate economic growth and measures to curb rising fuel prices in the region were also discussed, and participants called for the immediate restoration of democracy in Fiji, which remains under military rule since a bloodless coup in 2006. Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama boycotted the summit.

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UN's fertiliser fears

World fertiliser prices have risen faster than any other commodity in the last 18 months
World fertiliser prices have risen faster than any other commodity in the last 18 months
credit: FAO/F Botts

Millions are at risk of food shortages as the price of fertiliser continues to rise on world markets, the UN has warned. The organisation says that fertiliser is now unaffordable for many subsistence farmers, with world fertiliser prices rising faster than any other commodity over the last 18 months. The UN predicts that prices will remain high for at least the next three years, blaming the soaring price of oil and the boom in production of biofuel crops in the USA.

The high cost of fertiliser has triggered riots and demonstrations in India, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Vietnam and Taiwan in recent months. Governments in developing countries have also been hit by enormous increases in the cost of fertiliser subsidies for farmers. Hardest hit is India, which expects to pay out US$24 billion next year, a six-fold increase on 2005.

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Monsoon rains bring widespread flooding

Up to half-a-million people in India's eastern Bihar state remain stranded after monsoon rains brought severe flooding. The Indian government estimates a further 3 million have been displaced and up to 100 killed. Neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh have also been affected.

The floods were triggered by a failed dam on the Kosi river in Nepal, which submerged villages and destroyed up to 100,000 hectares of farmland there. When the river reached India, where it becomes the Bihar river, it burst its banks.

While flood waters now appear to be receding in Bihar, they are rising in the northeastern state of Assam, affecting a further 1 million people. The UN has warned that poor conditions in India's temporary relief camps could trigger disease outbreaks among flood refugees.

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September 2008
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