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Editorial (May 2008)

Kofi Annan has called for urgent action to tackle the world food price crisis (Herman Seidl)
Kofi Annan has called for urgent action to tackle the world food price crisis
Herman Seidl

More than 22,000 people have been confirmed dead but the death toll may yet be as high as 100,000 in the worst natural disaster to hit Southeast Asia since the Tsunami of December 2004. Aid agencies are rallying to help Myanmar's stricken people, particularly in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta, which was worst-affected by Cyclone Nargis.

The situation for many is desperate; up to a million people are now homeless and large areas of land remain under water, sparking fears of disease. But relief efforts have so far been hampered by the reluctance of the Burmese state to open up its borders.

The devastation of Irrawaddy delta, a rice bowl for the region, will undoubtedly heighten concerns over regional rice shortages. Prices of wheat, maize and rice worldwide continue to rise and the ability to provide food aid to an increasing number of people, particularly now in the light of Cyclone Nargis, will stretch already constrained resources.

"The time for talk is over," said Kofi Annan, in response to spiralling food prices, at a recent conference held in Salzburg. "We must implement solutions for today's crisis, and do so in the context of a long-term, concerted effort to transform smallholders' agriculture, to increase productivity and sustainability, and end poverty and hunger."

The call for a farming revolution and further investment in agriculture was also echoed in the launch of a UN-backed report on agricultural knowledge, science and technology. And, in recent press briefings, the CGIAR has called for "policymakers to ensure long-term food availability and security, as well as short-term relief."

Neglected crops can provide food security and incomes for poor farmers (Peter Cunningham)
Neglected crops can provide food security and incomes for poor farmers
Peter Cunningham

Despite concerns over how the food crisis might be resolved, there is perhaps a silver lining reflected by those that see the current economic climate as a time of opportunity. In this edition, we Focus on efforts to promote neglected and underutilised crops that have the potential to provide valuable nutrition and income-generating opportunities, particularly for the poor. And, in Points of view, experts provide their opinions on how this might be achieved.

Smallholder livestock producers are also able to benefit from the increased demand for milk and meat as featured in an interview on the Listen in page, and in Perspective by Babagana Ahmadu from the Africa Union in Ethiopia. But, he warns, policy reform is essential if poor livestock keepers are to truly benefit from the increased demand for milk and meat, something highlighted in Developments by the work of FAO's Pro-Poor Livestock Policy Initiative (PPLPI). More on livestock and livelihoods can be viewed in our Picture feature from Burkina Faso.

The future of agriculture, particularly in marginal areas, is demonstrated by the challenges that Iran faces in Country profile. And, despite the optimism of the author of our lead book, Jeffrey Sachs in Common Wealth - economics for a crowded planet, there are unfortunately no silver bullet solutions to revitalising agriculture and improving productivity in areas where it is most needed.

But as Robert Watson, lead author of the IAASTD report states, "Business as usual will not succeed" and it is time for farming to become 'multi-functional' as he explains in this edition's Podcast. In the next edition of New Agriculturist, we will return to this subject and how it might be achieved by featuring more of the recent discussions from the Salzburg Global Seminar and the forthcoming Agribusiness Forum, which is to be held in June.

In the meantime, we hope we have provided you with some food for thought as we contemplate the coming weeks and months and what they might have in store for those who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Date published: May 2008


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