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News brief

Whose Trade Organisation? Food crises have tripled since 1980s
Lebanon faces food crisis Pooling knowledge on domestic livestock
One third suffer water shortage Africa's rice revolution
Flood-proof rice getting closer Nematologists lonely no more
Rapid response system for animal disease Rich countries, poor water
Science and Technology to top education agenda New research portal for DFID
Newcastle vaccine in modified maize Brazil scores a first for World Food Prize

Whose Trade Organisation?

Farmers protesting in Dominica

After four years of negotiation, world trade talks in Geneva have collapsed. The Doha Round, which has focused on free trade in agriculture, has frozen, with no agreement reached to make current trade rules more flexible. While the European Union and the US refuse to cut subsidies, developing counties will not agree to open up their markets to manufactured goods in return for greater access to western markets for agricultural produce. Europe's trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, said that despite potential farm subsidy cuts of 75 per cent by the EU, the USA would not match such a deal, failing to accept "the flexibility being shown by others." But, he said, the EU would not allow poorer countries to suffer as a result.

John Hilary, director of campaigns and policy at War on Want, said that blame for the impasse should be "shouldered by both the US and the EU" whilst Duncan Green of Oxfam said that developed countries "should use the time ahead to reopen the debate on institutional reform of the WTO." There is concern that even if talks are revived, there will not be enough time to agree a trade deal and have it ratified in Washington, with the US Government only granted negotiating authority by Congress until July 2007. Complete failure of the Round will have serious consequences for the WTO.back to headlines

Lebanon faces food crisis

With roughly 500,000 Lebanese people displaced within the country, and a further 200,000 estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries, Lebanon is facing a food crisis. Damage to roads, bridges, and population displacement have disrupted the food supply, states a report by FAO, and hindered the delivery of food imports, which provide up to ninety per cent of the country's cereal needs. The crisis follows recent intense Hizbollah fighting with Israel, which has coincided with the annual harvest of crops.

The United Nations has appealed for nearly US$150 million to address immediate priorities in the country. Although the World Food Programme is satisfied with the initial response from donors, funding the logistics is proving more problematic. Robin Lodge of the WFP, based in Beirut said: "This is crucial, as we in the WFP are responsible for moving UN agencies' relief aid into and within Lebanon." He added that matters have improved, with a recent donation of US$3.8 million by the European Commission. "We are now more than fifty percent funded, but it is nonetheless important to keep up the momentum," he said. Head of logistics for the WFP in Lebanon, Thomas Keusters, said that refugees are returning in their thousands, although he emphasised, "they will be relying on relief assistance for many weeks." back to headlines

One third suffer water shortage

By 2050, agriculture will consume twice as much water as it does today

One third of the world's population live in areas where water is either over-used, leading to falling groundwater levels and drying rivers, or cannot be accessed because of the absence of appropriate infrastructure. The finding was revealed at this year's World Water Week, and comes from the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (CA), a 5 year study by over 700 scientists, that is due to be released in full this November. The assessment suggests that by 2050, agriculture will consume twice as much water as today. In maintaining food supply for the world's growing population, governments will therefore have three choices: expand irrigation by diverting more water into agriculture and building more dams; expand the area of rain-fed agriculture by clearing more forest and other natural habitats; or increase productivity from the water already in use.

In identifying areas with most potential to increase water productivity, the assessment singles out the African savannahs. According to Frank Rijsberman, director general of the International Water Management Institute (IMWI) which spearheaded the assessment, "The savannahs are fragile...and making them productive systems for farmers is very difficult." But, he added, 'this year the World Food Prize goes to three scientists who have done exactly that for the Brazilian savannahs. They proved that it can be done. The same miracle needs to be repeated in Africa.' Many innovative approaches are described, including re-use of urban wastewater and rainwater harvesting. David Molden, who led the assessment team, noted that balancing the needs of people and the environment would require many tough choices. "Not all situations are going to be win-win, and in most cases there are winners and losers. If you don't consciously debate and make tough choices, more people, especially the poor, and the environment, will continue to pay the price."back to headlines

Flood-proof rice getting closer

Research is taking the world one step closer to flood resistant rice and much higher rice production. The results were reported after genetic engineering and breeding trials, conducted at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and at the University of California. Rice geneticist David Mackill, who heads the Division of Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology at IRRI, says "Several traditional rice varieties have exhibited a greater tolerance to submergence, but attempts to breed that tolerance into commercially viable rice failed to generate successful varieties." Mackill's team has therefore focused on identification of several genes closely linked to the biological processes corresponding to submergence vulnerability or tolerance. After accomplishing this, the scientists then genetically engineered a strain of Indian rice by inserting one of the newly discovered genes, known as Sub1A. Resulting growth trials demonstrated that plants were able to both thrive during prolonged submergence and retain their adaptations to local conditions.

Approximately one quarter of the global rice crop is grown in lowland areas which are exposed to unpredictable flash floods throughout the year, and whilst rice can survive temporary submergence, most strains perish if submerged for too long. Many farmers in poor areas of the globe can lose 10 to 100 per cent of their crop, depending on factors such as water depth, stage of growth when flooding occurs, length of flood, water temperature, and amount of nitrogen fertilizer present. Development of submergence-tolerant varieties for commercial production is currently taking place in Laos, Bangladesh and India.
See also Marked for speed. back to headlines

Animal health assistant, Meru, Kenya Rapid response system for animal disease

A collaborative Global Early Warning and Response System (GLEWS) to predict and respond to animal diseases worldwide has been launched by the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health, OIE. The system is an online platform to combine the coordination, verification and emergency responses of the three organisations. The organisers say that the new system will enable sharing of information, analysis and joint field-work, leading to improved emergency responses worldwide, and better prediction and prevention of animal diseases.

Message alerts posted on the website will be jointly assessed to determine how collaborative action should proceed. OIE director general, Bernard Vallat said: "From an animal health point of view, controlling contagious animal diseases in their early stage is easier and less expensive for the international community." Assistant director of the FAO, Susanne Weber-Mosdorf, commented: "Today, the spread of avian flu reinforces the fact that the animal and human health sectors must work closely, and that early detection and coordination is critical." back to headlines

Science and Technology to top education agenda

The African Union has outlined a draft plan of action to reform the educational curriculum throughout Africa. Science and Technology, described in the plan as "the most important tool available for addressing challenges to development and poverty eradication," is to be a major priority. The plan for the 'Second decade of Education for Africa' was approved at a recent meeting held in Ethiopia, to outline educational reform from 2006 to 2015.

Teaching methods should encourage linkages between science and technology on the one hand, with the learner's culture and environment on the other.The draft plan states that the teaching and learning of science and technology "must be reformed at all levels", and that such knowledge is essential to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Teaching methods should encourage linkages between science and technology on the one hand, with the learner's culture and environment on the other, which will improve outcomes and encourage girls to pursue a career in this field. The draft plan also emphasises that African languages should be promoted and used wherever possible, "as a language embodies a people's culture and supports their dignity." However, it adds that international languages must not be overlooked. Other areas to be covered in the curriculum include employment skills and youth empowerment.
See the full draft plan. back to headlines

Chicken farmer, Mr Omoding with his chickens on his farm in UgandaNewcastle vaccine in modified maize

Genetically modified maize could offer an edible vaccination against the highly contagious Newcastle disease according to recently published research. The research, conducted at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV) in Guanajuato, Mexico, suggests that after eating the maize, chickens produced antibodies against the virus. The antibodies were found to provide protection at a comparable level to commercial vaccinations.

Frands Dolberg of the Network of Smallholder Poultry Development commented that the technology could be a possibility for millions of small-scale poultry producers where delivering vaccines is a problem. But, he pointed out that the success of the technology would depend upon how accessible it is, and that poor poultry keepers often struggle to access such technology.
back to headlines

Food crises have tripled since 1980s

A report released by Oxfam has warned that the average number of food crises in Africa each year has almost tripled since the mid-1980s. The paper condemned food aid efforts as "too little too late", pointing out: "it is not right that seventy per cent of food aid distributed by the UN is still produced by the developed world." The paper outlines two key challenges to reduce hunger in Africa. The first is to improve the immediate response to food crises, with local governments delivering aid where possible "as part of their wider social protection programmes, backed by reliable funding."

The second challenge is to tackle the "root causes of acute and recurring hunger", with emphasis on effective agricultural policy, determined on a national basis. The report says that conflict is responsible for more than half of the continent's food crises, while other factors such as climate change and HIV / AIDS - which is expected to claim one fifth of the agricultural workforce in southern Africa by 2020 - reduce food security. And, despite the importance of agriculture in Africa, aid for agricultural production dropped by 43 per cent between 1990 and 2002. Entitled 'Causing Hunger: an overview of the food crisis in Africa', the report warned that at current rates of progress, the 2015 Millennium Development Goals will not be met.
A PDF version of the Oxfam report can be found under 'Publications' at back to headlines

Pooling knowledge on domestic livestock

Currently, the database includes breeds of cattle, sheep and goats from Africa, and pigs and chickens from Africa and AsiaImprovement and preservation of livestock breeds has taken a step forward with the creation of the Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System (DAGRIS). Hosted by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the DAGRIS database assembles and makes available formal and 'grey' research covering the origin, distribution, diversity, use and status of local breeds. Currently, the database includes breeds of cattle, sheep and goats from Africa, and pigs and chickens from Africa and Asia. Future coverage should include geese, ducks and turkeys, and the addition of livestock breeds from Latin America and the Caribbean. To further enhance capacity at the national level, 'Country DAGRIS' will also be established with local partners, to better meet their specific research and development needs.

The use and development of animal genetic resources will be vital in the face of rapidly increasing populations and changing lifestyles that are predicted to greatly increase the demand for foods of animal origin, particularly in the developing world. Lack of accessible information on indigenous, locally adapted breeds has, up to now, been a major constraint. As a result, many genetic conservation and livestock improvement programmes in developing countries are unsuccessful, a third of the world's 5,000 breeds of livestock are at high risk of extinction and more than 700 have already been lost.

DAGRIS is available both on-line and via CD-ROM, and will be regularly updated as more information becomes available.
See back to headlines

Africa's rice revolution

Demand for rice in Africa is growing at six per cent per year, faster than any where else in the world. As such, the crop deserves to be a cornerstone of a new Green Revolution in Africa, according to delegates at the first African Rice Congress organised by the African Rice Center (WARDA) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Gathering to compare over ninety research papers, the delegates also emphasised the importance of local production of rice to meet this growing demand (see Rice rivalry). Although sub-Saharan Africa consumes twenty million tons of rice annually, only thirteen million tons is grown locally, with the rest imported.

Among other objectives, the Congress resolved to enhance partnerships with stakeholders including the private sector, and emphasised the importance of capacity development. The winner of the Best Scientific Paper award went to Ugandan Plant Pathologist Dr George Bigirwa, Head of the National Cereals Research Programme based at NARO, for his paper which concludes that Uganda has greater advantages for growing rice than Kenya or Tanzania. Dr Wang Ren, Deputy Director of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), said that with the right approaches, sub-Saharan Africa will meet growing demand for rice consumption.
For more information see back to headlines

Nematologists lonely no more

Infective second-stage juveniles of root-knot nematodes invading behind a root tip.
credit: Rothamsted Research

For a group of African nematologists, work has just become a lot less lonely. A virtual network of seven scientists working in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe has been set up under the Nematology Initiative in East and Southern Africa (NIESA). "The idea is to provide a critical mass of nematological expertise in the region" says Professor Brian Kerry of Rothamsted Research which, along with CABI and the University of Reading, is providing laboratory equipment, training and research support to crack some of the nematode problems facing African farmers.

According to Professor Kerry, there is no shortage of trained nematologists in Africa. But working in isolation, with little equipment, technical back-up or editorial support to write papers, many leave the profession. "The idea is that this network, linked with its own interactive website, will provide a core of expertise to develop sustainable methods of nematode management. In turn these experts will train other nematologists and the people need on the ground to identify and deal with pests in order to significantly improve production of vegetables and flower crops." One of the most promising breakthroughs in nematode control has come from collaborative research between Rothamsted Research and Centro Nacional de Sanidad Agropecuria (CENSA) in Havana. The result is a nematode-destroying fungus, Pochonia chlamydospria, for use in urban horticulture which will be one of the first biological control methods to be evaluated for Africa by NIESA.back to headlines

Rich countries, poor water

Mismanagement of water resources in developed countries are leading to a "truly global crisis", according to a report from the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). The report argues that climate change, drought, loss of wetlands, bad infrastructure and poor management "are a wake up call to return to protecting nature as the source of water." Director of the Global Freshwater Programme, Jamie Pittock said: "Economic riches don't translate to plentiful water." He said the crisis in rich nations "is proof that wealth and infrastructure are no substitute for protecting rivers and wetlands".

The report argues that while many developed nations have drawn up agreements such as the World Commission on Dams (2000), there is a lack of commitment by governments, and failure to implement. The report outlines seven key challenges, including the need to change attitudes and knowledge about water resources in the developed world, and the need to bring agriculture into line. Although agriculture uses the most water, the sector "faces lower prices for water, and lower expectations that it will use the water effectively and manage its waste," the report says. It names pesticides and fertilisers as the two major pollutants of water resources in the developed world after salt.
The full report can be accessed at: back to headlines

New research portal for DFID

Information on more than £500 million of development research commissioned by the UK Department for International Development over the last ten years has been brought together in a free access database, including research reports, leaflets and multi-media material. The Research for Development (R4D) site contains information on more than 4,500 projects covering developments in health, agriculture, social science, education and communication. The portal lists more than 300 institutions around the world involved in DFID-funded research, and includes details of the projects and outputs, which can be searched by country, research theme, and institution. The site also features short news items, case studies, thematic summaries, as well as commissioned documents for DFID's current and past research.
See back to headlines

Brazil scores a first for World Food Prize

Unchecked Cerrado on the left and crops on the right provide a good illustration of the pre- and post-transformation work.

Two soil scientists and a Brazilian government official recognised for their work in transforming the Brazilian Cerrado from vast areas of infertile plains into highly production crop land have become the laureates for the World Food Prize 2006. The three 2006 Laureates (Dr Colin Mclung, Alysson Paolinelli and Edson Lobato) all worked independently of one another but their collective efforts over 50 years have contributed to the agricultural development of the Cerrado.

The Cerrado is an arid brush savanna stretching across central Brazil from the western plains to the northeastern coast. With soils characterized by high acidity and aluminum levels that are toxic to most crops, Brazilian farmers had long referred to the area as campos cerrados - "closed land", with little promise for sustaining production. However, with improved soil chemistry and the support of rural credit and other development programs, average yields are higher than any other region in Brazil and contribute significantly to national production of soybean, maize and coffee as well as beef. The transformation of the region is the word's single largest increase in farmland since the settlement of the US Midwest and has been hailed as a major achievement for agricultural science.
For further information see www.worldfoodprize.orgback to headlines


1st September 2006