The World Food Programme (WFP) has appealed for an additional US$140 million to bridge a gap in its food aid budget for Zimbabwe. The UN agency has warned that up to 5 million people - nearly half the population - could face starvation by early 2009 after successive failed harvests and years of government-led farm seizures.
The appeal comes soon after the WFP announced radical changes to the way it provides emergency food aid. The organisation's new procurement policy will see it purchase agricultural commodities from the world's poorest farmers, for redistribution to disaster-stricken areas. Until recently the organisation has bought all its food supplies from developed countries, predominantly the USA, but it will now focus on supplies from farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is hoped the new approach will encourage long-term agricultural development in these regions.
The threat of global recession triggered by the ongoing international banking crisis could hit hard agriculture in developing countries, FAO director-general Jacques-Diouff has warned. And he added that moves by richer nations to cushion the impact of the crisis on their economies by reducing international aid spending and erecting trade barriers to protect domestic industries will reverse the recent trend of increasing goodwill towards international development.
In a statement to mark the 34th session of the FAO's Committee on World Food Security, in October 2008, Diouff said: "Borrowing, bank lending, official development aid, foreign direct investment and workers' remittances may all be compromised by a deepening financial crisis." But he added, "The global financial crisis should not make us forget the food crisis. Agriculture needs urgent and sustained attention too, to make hunger and rural poverty part of history."
Already many development organisations are preparing to make staff cutbacks during 2009 to cushion the impact of the crisis.
Chicken breeders in China have slaughtered thousands of birds as the discovery of high levels of the chemical melamine in eggs triggered a fresh wave of public alarm. The move comes after a series of national recalls of melamine-tainted products, including baby milk, which has been linked to several infant deaths in the country. The latest scare caused the price of mainland-produced eggs to plummet causing many poultry farmers to cull unprofitable flocks.
Melamine is normally used in the manufacture of plastic bottles and fertiliser, but due to its high nitrogen content, has been used to artificially increase the nutritional value of food and feed. The Ministry of Agriculture has announced it is to crack down on the illegal practice of supplementing animal feed with melamine and to wipe out criminal networks trading in the chemical.
Rising world food prices have plunged an additional 75 million people below the hunger threshold, according to FAO. The UN agency estimates that the total number of hungry and malnourished people in the world now stands at 923 million. It also warns that the recent food price hikes mean it looks as though the international community will fail to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people suffering from hunger worldwide by 2015. The cost of basic food staples has soared since 2007, sparking riots and demonstrations around the world.
credit: FAO/G Napolitano
The UK Department for International Development (DFID) has pledged US$135 million to help Bangladesh respond to the urgent challenge of climate change. The low-lying South Asian country is one of the most vulnerable in the world, with the 2006 Stern Review Report warning that rising sea levels could result in one-fifth of the country being submerged by the end of the century. The Bangladeshi government will use the money to help protect its citizens from this threat, as well as mitigate the impact of waterlogged land and increased soil salinity.
Some of the money will also support the Chars Livelihood Programme, which helps protect thousands of families living on the remote, sandy islands (chars) of the Jamuna river in the country's north-west, against rising river levels. The scheme will help raise smallholder farms, vegetable gardens and livestock shelters onto plinths above the anticipated flood levels.
Rat infestations continue to cause large crop losses in north-western Burma. The maudam phenomenon has been blamed for reducing one-fifth of the population of Chin state to the brink of starvation.
The natural phenomenon, caused by the flowering of the bamboo plant, occurs roughly every 50 years. The nutritious fruit and seeds produced attract the rats, which multiply rapidly into a plague. When all the bamboo fruits have been eaten, the rats ransack local crops, often wiping out whole fields and leaving villages with nothing. The last maudam was in the 1950s when 15,000 died from the resulting famine. In present-day Burma, around 100,000 people are threatened with starvation and thus far the ruling military junta has provided no assistance to affected communities.
The government of Vietnam is to spend US$145 million on a programme of dyke building and farmer relocation due to heavy annual flooding in the Mekong delta. Over 30,000 families will be resettled to safe areas in the region, which produces about 90 per cent of the country's rice. Funding will be provided by the state-run Vietnam Development Bank and will pay for the cost of building new villages above the peak water level of the devastating floods of 2000, which killed nearly 500 people.
Haiti's main rice-producing region has been ruined after hurricanes and tropical storms brought flooding, landslides, high winds and sea surges during a recent one-month period. The string of storms struck the Caribbean nation between August and September, leaving many regions under water. Up to 800 people were killed, thousands remain missing and a further 850,000 are still affected. Tropical Storm Faye, Hurricane Gustav and Tropical Storm Hanna struck first, followed by the devastating Hurricane Ike. The entire Artibonite Valley, the country's main rice-region, was submerged.
The country, which has suffered massive deforestation and extensive land degradation, was unable to contain or divert flood waters, resulting in all ten administrative regions being affected. The World Bank is to provide US$25 million in emergency grants to help rebuild damaged infrastructure, while FAO and sister agency IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) have announced details of a separate US$10 million emergency package to boost the country's battered farming sector.
Malawi plans to move away from dependency on food aid through an ambitious new programme to develop 'green belts' in the country. President Bingu wa Mutharika has called upon G8 governments to support his efforts to create these fertile zones around the country's lakes and along its rivers. Initial plans are to use the nearby water supplies to irrigate rice, wheat, maize, millet, cassava, potato and beans.
It is hoped the green belts may stretch from the northern border with Tanzania to the southern border with Mozambique, and enable the country to grow and harvest crops all-year-round. Although the vast majority of crop production in Malawi is rain-fed, the country has significant underutilised irrigation infrastructure, much of which was abandoned in the mid-90s after the fall of dictator Kamazu Banda. The green belt scheme looks set to bring some of these systems back into use, as well as developing new irrigation capacity.
An Australian beetle, known as the "destroyer" is in the front line of Pakistan's offensive against the devastating mealybug.
Mealybugs, small, sap-sucking insects, have destroyed over three million bales of the country's cotton - around seven million metric tonnes - since it was first discovered in the country in 2005. Its indiscriminate appetite means it is also a threat to many other crops, including tomato, aubergine, okra, chilli and wheat. Pakistan is the world's fourth-largest cotton producer, with the fluffy fibre accounting for around 60 per cent of export revenue.
Trial plots in a CABI (Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International)-led project, funded by Pakistan's Ministry of Food and Agriculture, alerted researchers to the usefulness of Crtyptolaemus montrouzieri, the "mealybug destroyer". It is now being mass produced and is being released across Pakistan. As well as protecting yields, it is hoped the beneficial insect will allow farmers to move away from use of expensive pesticides.
Farmers in Syria have suffered massive crop failure following the worst drought in 40 years. Around 150,000 farmers in the Middle Eastern country have completely lost their harvests and have been left with little or no planting material for next season. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has launched a rescue package worth US$20 million to help drought-affected citizens.
This year's wheat harvest is down 40 per cent on 2007, forcing the Syrian government to end 15 years of self-sufficiency and begin importing the staple grain. Up to 90 per cent of barley crops also failed, spelling disaster for livestock keepers who use barley in animal feed. Nearly 60,000 herders have lost their herds and FAO is to supply feed to some 10,000 herders in the worst-affected eastern state of Badia. The UN hopes to distribute 9,000 tonnes of improved wheat and barley seed to 30,000 farming households in time for the planting season.
FAO has sent a rapid response team to Morocco in an attempt to contain outbreaks of PPR (pestes des petits ruminants) in 29 provinces of the country. Morocco, which has over 17 million sheep and some five million goats, has reported more than 130 outbreaks so far, mostly in sheep. PPR is highly contagious and is usually fatal to sheep and goats, with mortality rates of around 80 per cent.
The disease is likely to have been spread across the country by small wild ruminants and there are fears it could reach neighbouring countries through trade in infected livestock. Control of animal movements in parts of North Africa is notoriously difficult, partly due to the large numbers of nomadic herders in the region. FAO has warned that increased trade in livestock, especially sheep, around the time of the Eid-Al-Ahda celebration in December could accelerate the spread of the disease.
The epidemic follows a similar, but unrelated outbreak recently in northern Kenya.