The New Agriculturist - Reporting Agriculture for the 21st Century

News brief

Record wheat harvest no cause for celebration

Volatility in the financial markets could wipe out the record gains made in world cereal production
Volatility in the financial markets could wipe out the record gains made in world cereal production
credit: WRENmedia

Volatility in the financial markets could wipe out the record gains made in world cereal production, FAO has warned. In its twice-yearly commodity publication Food Outlook, the UN food agency said that a second price surge could take place in 2009/10 as a result of ongoing price instability and restricted access to credit in the global economy.

According to one of the report's authors, Concepcion Calpe, the recent fall in food prices could create a false sense of security that markets are becoming more stable. In actual fact, the report states that much of the recovery in cereal production was concentrated in developed countries, where farmers were in a good position to respond to higher prices by growing more crops.

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Land grabs 'a new form of colonialism'

Qatar is eager to snap up land in Africa for food crop production, and has applied for the lease of 40,000 ha in Kenya to grow fruit and vegetables. The oil-rich Gulf state, which has virtually no arable land of its own, is dependent on food imports. It has already negotiated the lease of land in Cambodia for rice production, Sudan for maize and wheat, and Vietnam for growing vegetables. In Kenya, the potential site is on uncultivated land in the Tana river delta, an area that saw fierce but unsuccessful opposition by local communities to a huge sugarcane plantation for biofuel production in 2008.

Sharp food price rises since 2007 have resulted in many wealthy nations looking to poorer countries to provide them with affordable food. In November 2008, South Korean company Daewoo Logistics secured a 99-year-lease on 1.3 million ha of cropland in Madagascar, and Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are reported to be in negotiation with Sudan and Senegal. Rustom Masalawala, director of the Earth Institute at Colombia University, is urging developing countries to be wary. He told New Agriculturist: "If these people come in and take the best land then essentially you have a new form of colonialism. Local people will be left with the marginal pieces of land which will create a disaster - nations will not be able to feed themselves even though food is being grown on their land and being exported."

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International Year of Natural Fibres unveiled

Nearly 30 million tonnes of natural fibres are produced globally every year
Nearly 30 million tonnes of natural fibres are produced globally every year
credit: ©FAO/R Messori

The United Nations has declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres (IYNF). Nearly 30 million tonnes of natural fibres - those from animals and plants - are produced around the world each year, with cotton accounting for two-thirds of total production. Other important fibres include wool, jute, sisal, coir, silk and hemp. These renewable fibres are easily transformed into yarn for use in clothing, upholstery, packaging and papermaking.

Following the highly successful International Year of the Potato in 2008, IYNF seeks to raise the profile of natural fibres as important sources of income for poor producers, particularly in context of the price rise of synthetic substitutes. The UN also hopes IYNF will help raise awareness of the importance of natural fibres, encourage sustainability and efficiency in fibre production, promote policies to encourage production and stimulate international partnerships in the natural fibres industries. A programme of events is being compiled, including a number of international conferences.

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Fears over fertiliser

Diminishing phosphorus reserves could spell disaster for non-organic wheat yields, new research suggests. The price of the mineral, widely used as fertiliser, has increased by 500 per cent in the past two years as world demand of 125 million tonnes per year eats into the estimated reserves of 4-8 billion tonnes. Research by the UK's University of Newcastle, as part of the European Union's Quality Low Input Food Programme, shows that non-organic wheat yields could plummet from an average of nine tonnes per hectare (t/ha) to just four t/ha by 2040, and could even fall as low as 2.5 t/ha. Researchers found organic wheat, grown without chemical fertilisers, yielded six t/ha.

The UK's leading organic lobby group, the Soil Association, said that when phosphate reserves eventually run out, one solution could be for farmers to use human waste as fertiliser as an alternative source of phosphorus (see Human fertiliser - closing the nutrient loop).

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Arsenic in the Mekong

Fish is a vital source of dietary protein for many Cambodians
Fish is a vital source of dietary protein for many Cambodians
credit: ©FAO/G Bizzarri

Mekong Delta fisheries in Cambodia could be under threat after high levels of arsenic were discovered in river water. Contamination has already affected water drawn from wells, as well as bottled and tap water, with up to 1.7 million Mekong people at risk of arsenic poisoning. In some parts of Cambodia, and in neighbouring Vietnam, contamination levels are 30 times above the World Health Organization's safe level of 10 parts per billion (ppb). The discovery, made by UNICEF, follows studies of wells along the river which also flows through Lao PDR and China.

Arsenic is difficult to detect as it has no taste or smell, and it can take years of slow build-up before symptoms, including skin lesions and cancer, become apparent in humans. The source of contamination is currently unclear, but UNICEF said it believed river sedimentation, causing levels of naturally-occurring arsenic to accumulate, is to blame. Until a formal scientific study is completed, industrial pollution has not been ruled out.

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Cocoa prices soar

Cocoa is the latest commodity to attract the interest of financial speculators worldwide. In 2008, the price of cocoa bean, predominantly used to produce chocolate, surged by 70 per cent following fears of falling supplies from Cote d'Ivoire, the world's largest producer.

A 40 per cent fall in the amount of cocoa beans reaching the country's ports has been blamed on the combined impact of cold weather, heavy rains, black pod disease, high fertiliser prices, strikes and corruption. Ongoing land disputes have also resulted in a volatile security situation in the country's western cocoa producing areas.

Further speculative activity has been fuelled by reports of lower harvests in Ghana the world's second-largest cocoa producer.

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DFID announces help for Rwanda's farmers

Land registration will bring greater prosperity to hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families, and help them stay in control of their livelihoods
Land registration will bring greater prosperity to hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families, and help them stay in control of their livelihoods
credit: ©FAO/G Napolitano

Small farmers in Rwanda are to receive legally-recognised land rights as part of a new US$55 million scheme, led by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and supported by a range of donors. It is hoped the initiative, which will take around four years to implement across the whole country, will lead to fewer disputes over land ownership and provide the security needed by farmers and businesses to invest in long-term food production.

The programme, which has been successfully trialled in four areas, will enable farmers to map their own boundaries using satellite images or aerial photography. DFID Minister Ivan Lewis said: "Land registration will bring greater prosperity to hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families - and help them stay in control of their livelihoods. Secure land title is key to helping the Rwandan economy to continue to grow."

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Reclamation crop blamed for Yemen floods

Experts in Yemen are calling for the government and NGOs to tackle a fast-growing invasive shrub, which has been blamed for contributing to floods that have devastated acres of farmland. Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora), a hardy evergreen weed from the Americas, was introduced to combat desertification and stabilise sand dunes in the Middle East state. It has since spread, mainly through animal droppings, to arable land, blocking waterways and diverting floodwater into nearby villages.

Mesquite has been linked to severe flooding in Yemen's southeastern Hadramaut region, where over half-a-million palm trees, thousands of other fruit trees and nearly 70,000 beehives were washed away in October 2008. According to the country's Ministry of Agriculture, around 80 per cent of farmers in the region have been affected by the loss of crops, livestock, agricultural equipment and wells.

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Central Asia facing fisheries crisis

FAO has called for regional cooperation to solve the region's fish crisis
FAO has called for regional cooperation to solve the region's fish crisis
credit: ©FAO/S Panner

The fishing sector in Central Asia is close to collapse, FAO has warned. The UN agency said fish production in the region has plummeted by as much as 98 per cent in Kyrgyzstan. At a recent meeting in Tajikistan, the organisation blamed overfishing, widespread poaching and pollution for the crisis, as well as a lack of investment in research, processing facilities and poor maintenance of fleets and hatcheries.

Poor management of the sector is linked to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was followed by rapid privatisation and widespread corruption. Average fish consumption across the region has dropped to less than one kilogramme per capita per year, against the world average of 16kg pa. FAO called for regional cooperation to solve the crisis. It recommended the establishment of an intergovernmental fisheries body tasked with rescuing the industry and promoting sustainable fisheries development.

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Ebola discovered in Filipino pigs

Parts of the Central Luzon region of the Philippines are under strict quarantine controls after the Ebola-Reston virus was found for the first time in pigs. The discovery was made during government investigations into the high mortality rates in pigs in the area, when tests revealed Ebola-Reston as well as the virulent porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus. The World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and FAO are to investigate the source, strength and transmission of the virus, in order to develop effective guidelines for protecting human and animal health.

Ebola-Reston is part of the same Filoviridae family as the highly-pathogenic Ebola viruses found in parts of Africa. While the discovery of the virus in swine is a world-first, it has previously also affected monkey populations in the Philippines.

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Bingu double for agricultural reform

Bingu wa Mutharika has helped transform agriculture in Malawi
Bingu wa Mutharika has helped transform agriculture in Malawi
credit: ©FAO/G Napolitano

Malawi's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has been formally recognised - twice in quick succession - for his government's work to substantially improve agriculture and reduce poverty. Wa Mutharika was awarded FAO's Agricola Medal just one month after receiving the first Food Security Policy Leadership Award by FANRPAN (Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network). FANRPAN praised wa Mutharika as being instrumental in bringing about "a unique green revolution for Malawi."

In less than three years, Malawi's Agriculture Input Subsidy Programme has helped the country, previously suffering from dire grain deficits, to become a net exporter of maize, and the initiative has been hailed as a potential model for food security in Africa. At the award ceremony in Lilongwe, FAO director-general Jacques Diouf also cited Malawi as one of the few countries to surpass the 2003 Maputo agreement by African Heads of State and Government to allocate ten per cent of their budgets to agriculture.

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African agriculture and forests key to climate change mitigation

Smallholder farmers in Africa hold the key to adapting to and mitigating against climate change through sustainable agriculture and forests, says a bold initiative launched by African countries at the COP 14 meeting in Poznan, Poland. In supporting the Africa Climate Solution, a high level delegation called for the recognition of the contribution made by African agriculture and forestry to climate change mitigation.

According to Sindiso Ngwenya, Secretary General of COMESA, "Despite the expansion of the global market for carbon emissions, Africa has been left out in the cold from this trade." The Africa Climate Solution initiative calls for the inclusion of the widest range of bio-carbon - including afforestation, reforestation, agroforestry, enhanced natural regeneration, re-vegetation of degraded lands, reduced soil tillage, and other agricultural practices - in the climate change agreements to be concluded at the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009.

"We are saying reward our resource-poor farmers for contributing to efforts towards adapting and mitigating the effects of climate change," said Dr. Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, CEO of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and lead advocate for Africa's civil society organisations (CSOs), who have added their voice and endorsed the African Climate Solution as a model for a better future after 2012.

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January 2009
WRENmedia www.wrenmedia.co.uk