Inter Press Service » TerraViva FAO38 News and Views from the Global South Mon, 29 May 2017 18:23:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 India’s Food Security Rots in Storage Fri, 21 Jun 2013 14:34:09 +0000 Manipadma Jena Paddy stock being salvaged from open space storage in Bhubaneswar as monsoons arrive early this year. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Paddy stock being salvaged from open space storage in Bhubaneswar as monsoons arrive early this year. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Manipadma Jena
BHUBANESWAR, India, Jun 21 2013 (IPS)

Shooing off a quartet of hens that come pecking, 24-year-old Kamala Batra sits guard over a sack of coarse rice spread out on the courtyard. After small black insects slowly crawl away in the sun’s heat, she gathers it to cook for the day’s free midday meal – a pan-India government food security scheme for students.

Batra, a member of the women’s collective that cooks school meals in Kosagumuda village, in the tribal Nabrangpur district of the eastern state Odisha, says government supplies of old and almost inedible food grains under the subsidised public distribution system are not uncommon.

A recent report from the national auditor, tabled in parliament, found that India did not have space to store 33 million tonnes of foodgrain worth 12 billion dollars, which it had bought from farmers for various government food security schemes.“Thirteen percent of [India's] gross domestic product (GDP) is wasted every year due to wastage of food grains in the supply chain.” -- Dinesh Rai, India's Warehousing Development and Regulatory Authority.

This constituted a 40-percent shortage in storage space, for a total stock of  82 million tonnes that was held by the Food Corporation Of India (FCI) in June last year.

A 1964-born monolith under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, FCI procures, disburses and maintains buffer food grains, mainly rice, wheat and coarse grains, countrywide.

FCI has recently resorted to wheat export to ease the storage problem.

“How will it handle additional quantities that will have to be mandatorily procured when India formalises the National Food Security Bill (NFSB)”, asked food security activist Badal Tah from tribal populated Rayagada distric, which in 2002 saw a national uproar over deaths due to starvation.

Malnourishment and inequitable access to food are unwieldy issues India is currently grappling with as the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) reach closure in 2015.

The NFSB will provide legal entitlement to subsidised food grains to around 67 percent of India’s over-two-billion population. It is likely to cost the exchequer about 21 billion dollars.

Tah is joined by a strong section that says India may well be comfortably placed in regard to the availability of food grains, but its present infrastructure and approach to crop management need structural changes before it can implement the food security law.  The bill has been debated in parliament since December 2011.

Assessing a five-year period from 2007 to 2012, a recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) tabled in parliament in May of this year, severely indicts the FCI for colossal mismanagement in food procurement, storage and evacuation.

According to the report, FCI has gone on procuring, even though last summer about nine million tonnes of grain lay around in open spaces to deteriorate in monsoon rains. What’s more, grains from 2007 were still unused and rotting in 2012, because the first-in-first-out policy of supplying older grains before newly procured ones was not observed. Old grain was left to deteriorate in storage – infested supplies like the ones Kamala Batra was sun-cleansing in the courtyard.

While a volley of recent studies reiterates colossal food wastage owing to inadequate and unscientific storage infrastructure, up to 20 percent of India’s population live on 1.25 dollars a day.

A 2013 report from the London-based Institution of Mechanical Researchers, “Global food: waste not, want not”, finds India wastes a quantity of wheat equivalent to the entire production of Australia every year, of which 21 million tonnes perishes every year due to a lack of inadequate storage and distribution.

FCI itself admits India lost 79 million tonnes, or nine percent of total wheat produced over a four-year period from 2009 to 2013.

“Thirteen percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) is wasted every year due to wastage of food grains in the supply chain,” said Dinesh Rai, a senior official of the federal government’s Warehousing Development and Regulatory Authority.

Aside from food grains, India loses 12 million tonnes of fruits and 21 million tonnes of vegetables every year due to a lack of cold storage facility, according to a 2009 study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

In India’s remote areas, in a bumper harvest year, fast perishable vegetables like tomatoes are sold at dump prices for two rupees, or 25 cents, per kilogramme.

Lack of storage is a major tool in the middleman’s hands to exploit the small farmers.

“We wait for government procurement officials to get the minimum support price (MSP), but they have delayed these last two years,” Raju Jani told IPS from Odisha’s Koraput district.

They are heavily in debt, he said, for things like seeds and fertilisers, “So we give our harvest to the rice miller’s agent for whatever price he offers”.

With storage space shortfall and a go-slow government procurement, farmers are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea – the loan shark and the middleman.

The CAG report has questioned the basis for high a MSP, which is being viewed increasingly as a political sop to voters. According to current rules, if farmers come forth to sell at MSP, the government cannot decline to buy or set a cut-off procurement quantity.

This is yet another reason for excessive procurement of food grains over the last few years. It however benefits the large landholders more, say a section of political observers.

In 2012, it cost the federal government 16 billion dollars to overall handle the grain it bought at MSP, including transportation, storage and other overheads; its subsidised disbursement, in turn, fetched 4.7 billion dollars.

With the food security law, the government would procure much larger quantities for distribution, at subsidised prices of one to three rupees (about 0.02 to 0.05 dollars).

Amid the losses, many NGOs are calling for the reinstitution of  village level grain banks.

“Farmers lost their self reliance, all because of the centralized food production of wheat and paddy. Multi-cropping should be brought back,” Thooran Nambi, of the Tamil Nadu Farmers Association, told IPS from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu State.

He’s in favour of abolishing subsidised food for rural people, saying it should be given during emergencies only, he added.

In its study, the Institute of Mechanical Researchers recommends developed nations transfer their engineering knowledge, technology and design know-how to developing countries.

Meanwhile, “The storage and warehousing sector should get infrastructure status,” Suman Jyoti Khaitan, who heads a policy advocacy group, told IPS. “So that finances are availabe and the private sector can get in, too.”



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Q&A: “Do Not Fear Small Farmers” Fri, 21 Jun 2013 12:46:20 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu Antonio Onorati. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Antonio Onorati. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Claudia Ciobanu
ROME, Jun 21 2013 (IPS)

The International Planning Committee for Food Security (IPC) is the largest organisation of small food producers in the world, representing 300 million people, including La Via Campesina with its 200 million members.

It has been keeping an eye on FAO for over two decades. According to Onorati, the U.N. body has made significant progress in this period.

“In the 1980s, you couldn’t have imagined entering to the conference of FAO as civil society unless you maybe knew someone who brought you to a reception,” he tells TerraViva. “Now we are participants in the World Committee on Food Security and we are starting to have a say in the FAO technical committees. It is another world.”

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Why did IPC focus its work on FAO?

A: At FAO, the decision is made according to one state – one vote rule, which is very important, because in other places, such as the World Bank, the rule is one dollar – one vote.

In places like the World Bank or the World Trade Organisation, if you are a small producer, you have no chance: you can be an expert, you can be an observer, but when it comes to deciding you have no chance. Here, at least, you have a voice, you have the opportunity for conflict, because our members from organisations all over the world get to speak to their elected representatives.

Q: What important changes do you note in the organisation?

A: One interesting change we are seeing now is the increase in financial contributions from BRICS countries [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa]. More important than the money they put into FAO is the fact that large developing countries are breaking the powerful dominant position of the OECD countries.

And this is important because the model of OECD countries is not able to bring new solutions, while we are seeing interesting things coming from developing countries: Brazil’s Fome Zero programme is famous, but what is less known is that China too has managed to cut the number of its food insecure people to half.

Another welcome change is that regional conferences are coming before the international one in Rome, so regions have a bigger word to say in setting priorities.

Q: What do you think of Da Silva’s programme for reforming FAO?

A: The reform is a necessity. Reducing staff and establishing clear chains of command was welcome. The food systems approach proposed by FAO is something we very much favour but might be resisted by some of the member states.

When it comes to the money, it is important to pay attention to the distinction between the regular budget made up of obligatory contributions, and the voluntary contributions, or the trust funds. The regular budget is the only money whose use is decided by the plenary, that is, democratically.

Trust funds, on the other hand, are a way for governments to condition FAO’s work: when a donor gives an amount, that donor can indicate the use of the money [the regular budget was 1.005 billion U.S. dollars for 2012/13 and voluntary contributions stood at a similar level]. It would be important to break the conditionality between the donor money and FAO’s work, but we are far from that step.

Q: How substantial do you feel is FAO’s engagement with civil society?

A: The real breakthrough was becoming participants in the World Committee on Food Security [the Committee is the part of the FAO structure focused on food security policies]. When it comes to FAO itself, the technical committees represent the essence of the work and there is where we have to have more space. In the biennial conference, we get to speak at the end of the end of the end and as NGOs.

FAO was set up after Yalta, which was a deal between big powers and big men, and in the spirit that peasants do not understand anything. But the reality is different and there is an increased recognition now that we have to be a part of the decision-making process because we are a part of the solution. If you don’t speak to the peasant, with whom do you speak?

The current DG and the previous one have been very supportive of this change. Governments too must understand that they should not be afraid of the small food producers, who are their citizens.

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Food Disparities Are Scandalous, Says Pope Francis Fri, 21 Jun 2013 11:20:15 +0000 Busani Bafana By Busani Bafana
ROME, Jun 21 2013 (IPS)

Pope Francis has challenged the Food and Agriculture Organisation to end global food disparities, describing it as scandalous that despite food abundance, millions of people still die of hunger.

Delegates to the 38th FAO conference have a brief session with Pope Francis in the Vatican. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Delegates to the 38th FAO conference have a brief session with Pope Francis in the Vatican. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

“It is a well-known fact that current levels of production are sufficient, yet millions of people are still suffering and dying of starvation,” the head of the Roman Catholic Church said during a special meeting with delegates to the 38th Biennial FAO Conference at the Vatican’s Sale Clementina within the Basilica.

“This is truly scandalous. A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table.”

Pope Francis said the world can no longer hide behind goodwill and unmet promises, nor use the current global crisis as a pretext for failing to act on accessing food to everyone. He lamented that human dignity risked turning into a vague abstraction in the face of issues like war, malnutrition, marginalisation and financial speculation which affected the price of food, which was being treated like any other market product.

Praising the reforms initiated by FAO as a positive development for functional, transparent and impartial operations, the Pope said the fight against hunger means dialogue and fraternity for the world food body.

“What is demanded of the FAO, its member states and every institution of the international community is openness of heart,” said Pope Francis. “There is need to move beyond indifference or a tendency to look the other way and urgently to attend to immediate needs, confident that the fruits of today’s work will mature in future.”

Award-winning farmer from Ghana Lemuel Martey Quarshie, one of the delegates who met the Pope, tells TerraViva, “I was happy to meet the Pope because for me this was a once in a lifetime experience. If I had the chance to ask the Pope something, I would have asked him if his role is only pastoral intervention or he can also foster dialogue on food issues.”

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Biofortification May Hold Keys to “Hidden Hunger” Fri, 21 Jun 2013 11:09:55 +0000 Thalif Deen By Thalif Deen
ROME, Jun 21 2013 (IPS)

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which works to end malnutrition among more than two billion people worldwide, is expressing strong support  for enriching the micronutrient content of plants.

Cassava is a staple crop in Africa. The new variety promoted by CGIAR is more nutritious, contaning higher amounts of vitamin A, zinc, or iron. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Cassava is a staple crop in Africa. The new variety promoted by CGIAR is more nutritious, contaning higher amounts of vitamin A, zinc, or iron. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

In technical terms, it is called biofortification: a nutrition-specific intervention designed to enhance the micronutrient content of foods through the use of agronomic practices and plant breeding.

The breeding is taking place at HarvestPlus, an international programme supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and at national agricultural research centres, mostly in developing countries.

The first nutritious crop, developed by African scientists and released in partnership with the Internal Potato Center (CIP), was the orange sweet potato, which has been effective in providing up to 100 percent of daily vitamin A needs for young children, according to CGIAR.

Six additional nutritious crops are now being developed through the use of conventional breeding methods: vitamin A-rich cassava and maize, iron-rich beans and pearl millet, and zinc-rich wheat and rice.

The first three crops are targeted to Africa and the rest to South Asia.

New varieties of the first four crops were launched in 2012, says CGIAR, with wheat and rice expected to follow later this year.

While it takes time to produce the amount of seed necessary to meet demand, up to half a million farmers will be growing these nutritious crops by year end, it predicts.

Asked how far plant breeding can go in resolving hunger and nutrition problems worldwide, Dr. Erick Boy, head of nutrition at HarvestPlus, told IPS, “Our focus is on hidden hunger, caused by not getting enough minerals and vitamins in the diet – that is the major hunger problem the world faces today.

“The six new varieties of staple crops we are developing are more nutritious—they contain higher amounts of vitamin A, zinc, or iron,” he added.

Lack of these nutrients is what causes widespread suffering and health problems, especially for women and children.

Boy said these crops will be distributed to more than three million farming households in seven countries in Africa and Asia by 2015.

“Not bad for a programme that started from scratch to develop these crops beginning only in 2003,” he noted.

When eaten regularly, these nutritious crops could provide on average 50 percent of vitamin A, zinc, or iron requirements. According to CGIAR, more than two billion people worldwide do not get enough of these crucial nutrients in their diets.

Deficiencies can lead to lower IQ, stunting, and blindness in children; increased susceptibility to disease for both children and adults; and higher health risks to mothers – and their infants – during childbirth.

According to the World Bank, malnourished children are more likely to drop out of school and have lower incomes as adults, thus reducing overall economic growth.

In its latest annual flagship publication The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) released here, FAO explains that unlike food fortification, which occurs during food processing, biofortification involves enriching the micronutrient content of plants.

Questions remain about the readiness of consumers to purchase biofortified foods, especially when they look or taste different from traditional varieties. But, FAO says, early evidence suggests that consumers are willing to buy them and may even pay a premium.

In Uganda, FAO discovered consumers were willing to pay as much for the orange-fleshed varieties of sweet potato as for the white varieties, even in the absence of a promotional campaign.

Similar results were found for nutritionally-enhanced orange maize in Zambia, where consumers did not confuse it with ordinary yellow or white maize. They were also willing to pay a premium when its introduction was accompanied by nutrition information.

Asked why the project targets Asia and Africa and not Latin America, CGIAR’s Dr. Boy said, “Our focus is on subSaharan Africa and South Asia because if you look at any map of hidden hunger, these are the regions marked in red.”

Latin American countries have done a better job of improving nutrition over the past two decades, he added. There are still, however, pockets where hidden hunger is a problem.

“So we are also working in this region. In fact, I am in Guatemala now to work with stakeholders to buy in to our high-iron beans and high zinc-maize initiative there. We anticipate that we could have varieties of two to three crops that are rich in iron and zinc to LAC farmers by 2015,” Boy added.

Meanwhile, in early June, the UK government granted £30 million [46.4 million dollars] to HarvestPlus to develop and deliver six nutritious crops to several million farming households in Africa and Asia.

The grant was announced at a high-level international meeting in London that brought together a range of partners to make strong political and financial commitments to improve nutrition globally.

In his opening remarks, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “It has to be about doing things differently…For science, it’s about harnessing the power of innovation to develop better seeds, [and] more productive and nutritious crops.”

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Q&A: Family Farms Hold the Future of Food Fri, 21 Jun 2013 10:19:26 +0000 Busani Bafana

Busani Bafana interviews JOSÉ ANTONIO OSABA GARCÍA, coordinator of the International Year of Family Farming

By Busani Bafana
ROME, Jun 21 2013 (IPS)

A spirited campaign by the World Rural Forum (WRF) – a grouping of civil society organisations – led to the declaration of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming by the U.N. General Assembly at its 66th session in 2011.

José Antonio Osaba García, World Rural Forum (WRF) and Coordinator of the International Year of the Family Farm. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

José Antonio Osaba García, World Rural Forum (WRF) and Coordinator of the International Year of the Family Farm. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

The IYFF seeks to highlight the importance of family farms in reducing poverty and attaining food security. Key to the sustainability of family farms is the security of land tenure.

José Antonio Osaba García, coordinator of the IYFF, tells TerraViva that the declaration of the IYFF was a major victory in the fight for the rights of farmers to own land.

More importantly, it coincided with a shift within FAO – increasingly criticised for its focus on industrial farming – to include more civil society participation and family farming in discussions and decisions on global food security. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Why the Year of Family Farming?

A: Who feeds the world? Family farms. We have pushed for this year to honour family farmers. We are using the year to push for better policies for family faming because in Africa, Asia and Latin America, many millions of women and men farmers keep the world fed. They do not have an alternative source of livelihood but farming.

We should develop the rural world in Africa but with women and men farmers as the head the movement and not for them to be pushed aside like the tendency now by huge investments from abroad. Women and men farmers should be supported with access to infrastructure and access to credit. So the year is centered on dialogue in favour of family farming as the real model for sustainable agriculture.

Q: Was it easy to get the declaration?

A: Yes. It was easy because family farming is an important theme, it is not the theme of cereal, which is also relevant. We are promoting the rights of billions of the people and that is why this year is different. It is not the year of the mountain, which is extremely important, it is not the year of the rice, which is also extremely important, but the year of billions of farmers. We will launch the year next November and celebrations will start all over the world.

Q: As a civil society organisation (CSO), do you consider this your major victory?

A: Oh yes. We have been working on regional issues affecting farmers but this is the first major worldwide campaign and that is why it is so important because farmers may be in different continents with different situations, [but] they have common issues: access to land, accessing markets, challenges faced by women and youths, and we are using this year to articulate these issues.

Q: What does this mean about the participation of CSOs within the FAO?

A: This is the first time in history that a year has been declared by a social movement, not by governments. The voice of civil society has been heard and civil society can make a big difference in the global food security debate. We have more than 370 organisations in five continents in more than 65 countries working together.

We have a world consultative committee with representatives from each continent plus Oxfam International, IFAM, Slow Food and others. The World Rural Forum is just doing the coordination to keep the initiative together. The U.N. system needs civil society and civil society needs the U.N. so we are complimentary.

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Dams Threaten Mekong Basin Food Supply Thu, 20 Jun 2013 20:59:14 +0000 Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau A farmer looks out at a flooded paddy field in Laos. Credit: E Souk/IPS

A farmer looks out at a flooded paddy field in Laos. Credit: E Souk/IPS

By Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau
BANGKOK, Jun 20 2013 (IPS)

The future of food security in the Mekong region lies at a crossroads, as several development ventures, including the Xayaburi Hydropower Project, threaten to alter fish migration routes, disrupt the flow of sediments and nutrients downstream, and endanger millions whose livelihoods depend on the Mekong River basin’s resources.

Running through China, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, this is Asia’s seventh longest transboundary river.

An estimated 60 million people live within the lush river basin, and nearly 80 percent depend on the Lower Mekong’s waters and intricate network of tributaries as a major source of food.

But if all goes according to plan, 88 dams will obstruct the river’s natural course by 2030. Seven have already been completed in the Upper Mekong basin in China, with an estimated twenty more either planned or underway in the northwest Qinghai province, the southwestern region of Yunnan and Tibet.

Construction of the 3.5-billion-dollar Xayaburi Dam on the Lower Mekong in northern Laos is the first of eleven planned dam projects on the main stem of the Mekong River, with nine allocated for Laos and two in Cambodia.

Construction began in 2010 and as of last month the project was 10 percent complete.

At best these development projects will alter the traditional patterns of life here; at worst, they will devastate ecosystems that have thrived for centuries.

Over 850 freshwater fish species call the Mekong home, and several times a year this rich water channel is transformed into a major migration route, with one third of the species travelling over 1,000 kilometres to feed and breed, making the Mekong River basin one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries.

Large-scale water infrastructure development projects such as hydropower dams have already damaged the floodplains in the Lower Mekong and in the Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia, affecting water quality and quantity, lowering aquatic productivity, causing agricultural land loss and a 42-percent decline in fish supplies.

This spells danger in a region where fish accounts for 50 to 80 percent of daily consumption and micronutrient intake, Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme director for the non-profit International Rivers, told IPS.

Locating alternative protein sources such as livestock and poultry is no easy task and would require 63 percent more pasture lands and more than 17 percent more water.

“Cambodia is the largest fish eating country in the world. Get rid of the fish and you’re going to have serious problems because there is not enough livestock in Cambodia and Laos to compensate for the loss,” Trandem said.

With a total population of over 16 million, the Mekong Delta is known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam. It nurtures vast paddy fields that are responsible for 50 percent of national rice production and 70 percent of exports.

This low-lying delta depends on a natural cycle of floods and tides, with which Vietnamese farmers have long synchronised their planting and harvesting calendars.

Now, experts like Geoffrey Blate, senior advisor of landscape conservation and climate change for the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Greater Mekong Programme in Thailand, say this delicate ecosystem is vulnerable to changes brought on by global warming and mega development projects.

Rising sea levels and salt water intrusion have already put Vietnamese communities in the Mekong Delta on red alert, “while sediment losses caused by upstream dams will exacerbate these problems. In addition, the increased precipitation and heavier downpours anticipated from climate change may also substantially alter flood regimes in the Delta,” Blate told IPS.

If all the dams are built, experts estimate that 220,000 to 440,000 tonnes of white fish would disappear from the local diet, causing hunger and leading to a rapid decline in rice production.

Electricity over sustainability?

Citing a shortage of energy, Thailand’s leading state-owned utility corporation, EGAT, signed an agreement to purchase 95 percent of the Xayaburi dam’s anticipated 1,285 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

Six Thai commercial banks comprise the financial muscle of the project, while construction is in the hands of Thailand’s CH. Karnchang Public Company Limited, with some support from the Laotian government.

But energy experts like Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen, author of Thailand’s Alternative Power Development Plan, have poked holes in the claim that the dam is required to meet growing energy needs.

Thailand is a net importer of electricity, but a lot of it is utilised wastefully, she told IPS, adding that countries like Laos and Cambodia have a much more immediate need for electricity: the World Bank estimates that only 84 percent of the population in Laos and 26 percent in Cambodia have access to electricity, compared to 99.3 percent in Thailand.

But instead of developing their own generation capacities, these governments have chosen export projects that profit corporations over people.

“Thailand is creating a lot of environmental, social and food issues for local communities by extending its grid to draw power from beyond our borders,” Greacen said.

Already, 333 families from villages like Houay Souy in north-central Laos, who were moved to make way for the dam, are feeling the first hints of greater suffering to come.

Once a self-sufficient community that generated revenues via gold panning and cultivated their own riverbank gardens to produce rice, fruits and vegetables, villagers are now finding themselves without jobs, very little money and not enough food.

“The villagers’ primary source of food was fishing and agriculture. In their new location, about 17 km away from their old homes, they were given small plots of agricultural land but not enough for their daily consumption needs,” said Trandem.

“Ch. Karnchang never compensated them for lost fisheries, fruit trees or the riverbank gardens that were washed away. Their new homes were built with poor quality wood, which was quickly eaten into by termites, so what little compensation they did receive went to fixing their new homes,” she added.

These families, numbering about five members per household, are now barely surviving on 10 dollars per month and symbolise the gap between so-called poverty alleviation programmes and their impact on the ground.

“The Laos government claims that dams will generate revenue but in reality…projects like Xayaburi basically export benefits and profits away from the host country while smaller projects that are more economically sustainable are being ignored,” says Greacen.

She believes the Laotian government should explore small-scale renewable energy projects like biomass and micro-hydro plants that would attract local investment and directly serve local populations.

Blate also suggested building diversion canals for smaller dams, rather than obstructing the main stem of the Mekong River.

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No Food Security Without Land Security Thu, 20 Jun 2013 18:23:17 +0000 Busani Bafana Tribal women converge at the Boipariguda weekly market to sell and buy farm produce. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Tribal women converge at the Boipariguda weekly market to sell and buy farm produce. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Busani Bafana
Jun 20 2013 (IPS)

If slavery was a scourge to humanity, denying legitimate tenure rights is the cancer eating away the future of smallholder farmers who feed the world, often under trying conditions, say civil society organisations.

“The developed countries succeeded by developing their agriculture and the capital from agriculture was the basis for the industrial development thanks to the rights to land,” José Antonio Osaba Garcia from the World Rural Forum (WRF) and coordinator of the International Year of Family Farming (ITFF) tells TerraViva.

“Why is Africa and other countries not being allowed to develop their agriculture rooted in family farms as the basis for developing their countries? It is because land tenure is the heart of this.”"In many cases, national states consider under-used land as being available for disposal to outside investors." - Harold Liversage, IFAD

Hundreds of millions of small landholders, pastoralists and indigenous people do not hold formal land titles. And when it suits governments, they ignore this customary land holding and sell or lease the land to private companies.

Garcia says the global land rush, particularly in Africa, has exposed the extent to which smallholder farmers are being disposed of their ancestral lands that supported food security.

“Agriculture is the basis of development and we see that the pressure is strong in favour of big investors, many times at the expense of family farming, particularly in Africa and Latin America. I cannot single out models where land tenure is working, but we have heard about some success of land tenure in Brazil. But that too has had some problems.”

According to data compiled by the International Land Coalition, some 45 million hectares of land has been or is about to be signed over to foreign investors in Africa, Southern Asia and Latin America.

“It would seem that most land is already owned de facto by rural communities under a range of diverse tenure systems, although in many cases these rights are not registered,” Harold Liversage, a land tenure adviser for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), writes in an independent analysis on the issue.

“Also, in many cases, national states consider under-used land as being available for disposal to outside investors.”

Liversage says, however, that this perception is starting to change in many developing countries with the recognition that, while some land may be under-used, very little is not owned, vacant or unused.

In an effort to safeguard land tenure rights, FAO developed the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure, which has been endorsed by the Committee on World Food Security. The Guidelines seek the promotion and protection of land tenure, especially for vulnerable groups, through specific legislation.

At a side event to discuss the International Year of Family Farming and the Voluntary Guidelines, Francisca Rodrigues from La Vía Campesina expressed concern that the voluntary nature of the guidelines meant they were not enforceable.

“The application of the guidelines relies on the countries’ willingness and readiness to work on them and the commitment of government is crucial,” says FAO land tenure officer in the National Resources Management and Environment Department Francesca Romano.

“That is what they are made for: countries where tenure is insecure and where the governance of tenure is weak and where there are problems related to tenure of land, forests and fisheries. This is where they have to work,” she says.

Garcia tells TerraViva that while international investment in agriculture is welcome, it should not come at the expense of local family farmers through land grabs.

The Global Alliance Against Land Grabbing convened by La Vía Campesina and its allies in Mali in 2011 noted that land grabbing dislocated communities and endangered their identity.

“Those who dare stand up to defend their legitimate rights and survival of their families and communities are beaten, imprisoned and killed… The struggle against land grabbing is a struggle against capitalism,” La Via Campesina says.

A report titled Land Concentration, Land Grabbing and People’s Struggles In Europe, by European Coordination Via Campesina and Hands off the Land alliance published in April argues that land concentration and land grabbing do not occur only in developing countries in the South, but are happening in the North, too.

The report says, for instance, that just three percent of landowners in Europe have come to control half of all farmed land, with massive concentration of land ownership and wealth on a par with Brazil, Colombia and the Philippines.



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Q&A: “The Real Target Is Zero Hunger” Thu, 20 Jun 2013 16:47:40 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu Marcela Villareal, Director of the Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy, FAO. Credit: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Marcela Villareal, Director of the Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy, FAO. Credit: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

By Claudia Ciobanu
ROME, Jun 20 2013 (IPS)

Under the leadership of Brazilian Director General (DG) José Graziano da Silva, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has been engaged in a process of deep reform meant to make the organisation leaner and more effective in the fight against hunger. 

“One transformational element in the vision of the new DG is to seek  synergies among the various aspects of our work, so that we can be more focused and efficient in eliminating hunger,” explains FAO’s Marcela Villarreal, director of the Office for Communication, Partnerships and Advocacy. “I have been working for this organisation for 16 years and I can say that we are best when we take a multi-sector and multi-disciplinary approach: it is this kind of approach that will allow us to find innovative ways to solve age-old problems.” Excerpts from the interview follow:

Q: What are the core elements of the programme of work proposed by Graziano da Silva for FAO?

A: We are proposing five strategic objectives, the first of which is the elimination of hunger – we are no longer speaking just about reducing it. It is important to note here that, if years ago we thought that by increasing food production we could eradicate hunger, today we know that it is not only about production levels but also about access to food.

The second objective refers to increasing food production in a sustainable manner and the third calls for the eradication of rural poverty.

A strategic thinking process laid down the foundations of the current programme of work.  The MDG targets and indicators are very much focused on urban areas, despite rural poverty being one of the main challenges today.

In FAO’s work on rural poverty, we will focus on three rural populations at risk of poverty: the smallholders, whom we will help become more productive; those who sell their labour in rural areas, for the benefit of whom we will help countries generate decent employment increasing incomes and  access food; and, finally, for those who get left out altogether we need to advise countries on the creation of social safety nets, but in a way that is not just giving out of money but that eventually supports production and /or employment."If we in the U.N. systems can make [big corporations] be more mindful of their impact on the environment, labour, on issues around gender, then we have come a long way." -- Marcela Villarreal

Finally, last two strategic objectives refer to offering farmers better and more equitable access to markets and, respectively, building people’s resilience, thus lowering vulnerability to threats and crises.

It is our member states that will have to meet these objectives. Our role will be to contribute in a strategic and measurable way to their meeting of these objectives.

Q: How much leverage does FAO actually have on member states that might not be fully behind this vision of sustainable food systems proposed by the organisation?

A: We are very optimistic that we can implement this vision. We already see big progress happening: on Sunday, 38 countries were awarded for halving hunger levels, so the fact that we already got halfway gives us a good indication that we can work to achieve the real target, which is zero hunger.

At this conference, it is clear that governments across the board support the vision and the programme of work of the DG. Of course, a good measure of political will is to see budget allocated to these issues.

Q: Over the past years, FAO has expressed an increased willingness to engage with civil society. Have they been involved in the drafting of the five strategic objectives?

A: We cannot achieve any of these objectives without partnerships with civil society, the private sector, farmer’s organisations, cooperatives, research institutes and others.

The involvement of civil society is crucial in national policy dialogue processes, where their voices need to be heard and we are helping to facilitate their participation.

When it comes to the international level, civil society has been fully  involved in the World Committee on Food Security [the Committee is the part of the FAO structure focused on food security policies].

If we speak about partnerships, it is important to say that the private sector is also very important to us, from the smaller producers to the bigger ones, as they are the biggest investors in agriculture in the world, bigger than governments, international development aid, or foreign investors. Private actors can bring to the table a lot of knowledge and innovation.

Q: When it comes to the private companies, are you selective in choosing the ones you deal with, to make sure you avoid those whose business models hurt small farmers or the poor for example?

A: Yes! We have very clear mechanisms for assessing risk and dealing with it. When it comes to companies, we first run a due diligence process to see whether they have had problems with labour, human rights issues, environmental protection or other issues. Then we have a subcommittee on partnerships that analyses all the possible risks, and finally we have a committee on partnerships headed by the DG in person. So we take this issue very seriously.

We cannot ignore big corporations, they are big players in the world, but if we in the U.N. systems can make them be more mindful of their impact on the environment, labour, on issues around gender, then we have come a long way.

Q: When it comes to governments and national policies then, how can we expect FAO to react when a government allows for problematic practices to take place on its territory (e.g., land grabbing) or when it engages in problematic practices itself?

A: We are an intergovernmental organisation belonging to the U.N. system, so we work with governments who are our members. Our role is to ensure that they have the best knowledge and the best technical assistance so that they can meet the objectives set out above.

We promote good governance, which involves transparency, participation and accountability. Here, let me quote the words of Amartya Sen, who said that “by generating a public discussion, we have a part of the solution”.

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A Catch for Stressed Ecosystems Thu, 20 Jun 2013 11:56:42 +0000 Stella Paul Integrated management considers the environmental impact of a particular activity on the whole ecosystem, rather than just one particular resource. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS

Integrated management considers the environmental impact of a particular activity on the whole ecosystem, rather than just one particular resource. Credit: Christopher Pala/IPS

By Stella Paul
ROME, Jun 20 2013 (IPS)

The key to sustainable economic growth with an eye on fragile ecosystems is integrated management, FAO experts said here on Wednesday.

The holistic process – which considers the environmental impact of a particular activity on the whole ecosystem, rather than just one particular resource – is being implemented in partnership with communities and local governments in several of the organisation’s projects worldwide that aim to help millions achieve food security and overcome poverty.

In Vietnam, where 3.4 million people are dependent on lagoons for their livelihood through fishing and aquaculture, Integrated Management of Lagoon Activities (IMOLA) has become one of FAO’s most successful integrated management projects, according to Árni Mathiesen, assistant director general of the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department.

It decreased ecological degradation of Gian Tam – Cau Hai, the largest lagoon in the country, and triggered growth across multiple sectors including fisheries, aquaculture, sustainable resources and food and nutrition security, he said.

Livelihood activities over the years have created high pressure on the lagoon’s ecosystem and its natural resources. Reclamation of land for agriculture and poorly planned aquaculture development has further led to excessive fishing and the loss of nursery areas, according to Mathiesen.

Launched in 2005, FAO-IMOLA was designed to deal with these challenges and improve the livelihoods of the people dependent on the lagoon system. It worked alongside the government of Vietnam, the local provincial government agencies and its fisheries department to formulate a strategy for sustainable lagoon management through the Integrated Lagoon Management plan. The strategy included understanding the ecology of the lagoon and the various ways that people living around it used the water body for their livelihoods.

According to Gianni Ghisi, ambassador and permanent representative of Italy to the United Nations, it was the building of this partnership with local agencies that contributed greatly to the success of the project.

“Working with different communities has been very beneficial: it helped us build a decentralised corporation. The success of this project shows that it is possible to include so many actors,” he said. With an investment of 300 million dollars, Italy was the main funder of the project.

The project adopted a participatory methodology aimed at strengthening provincial institutional capacity, underlined Mathiesen. Further emphasis is put on sustainable use of hydro-biological resources and the improvement of the livelihoods of the poor in the area.

While the local communities were asked to stop certain fishing practices, such as use of the electric shock method and mesh wire nets, they were also educated about the fragility of the lagoon, which triggered their active participation in its preservation and that of their livelihoods.

Designed in three phases – a survey, the formulation of the management plan and the preparation of the plan – the project is now expected to be a model of integrated lagoon management plans that can later be replicated by other areas of Vietnam.

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Feeding the World in Harmony with Nature Thu, 20 Jun 2013 11:17:03 +0000 Busani Bafana Soil degradation, climate change, heavy tropical monsoonal rains and pests are some of the challenges faced by young farmers in the Solomon Islands. The Kastom Garden Association, a local NGO, has helped implement composting and organic farming methods. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Soil degradation, climate change, heavy tropical monsoonal rains and pests are some of the challenges faced by young farmers in the Solomon Islands. The Kastom Garden Association, a local NGO, has helped implement composting and organic farming methods. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Busani Bafana
ROME, Jun 20 2013 (IPS)

The world needs a more sustainable food production system based on knowledge that prioritises the conservation of natural resources to boost agricultural yields over the heavy use of pesticides and other chemical inputs, say experts promoting the concept of agroecology.

A holistic study of agroecosystems focusing on environmental and human interrelationships, agroecology has been practised since the advent of agriculture thousands of years ago, and could offer answers to the challenge of producing food safely and sustainably for a rapidly growing global population.

“This practise is critical now because agriculture took a different pathway through the Green Revolution, so intensification was done based on inputs which caused a lot of consequences to natural resources, and therefore it is important to readjust those damages to environmental resources and produce  food in a different way,” FAO senior officer in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection Caterina Batello told TerraViva at a side event discussing agroecology as a path to the future.

“If we want to continue producing and increase production and maintain natural resources, this is the only way to go,” she said.

Batello said agroecology is being taken more seriously now because there is a growing body of scientific evidence that it works to sustain agricultural production and ensure resilience to climate change.

One recent report by the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food cites evidence showing agroecology techniques increased crop yields by 80 percent in 57 developing countries, with an average of 116 percent for all African projects.

“This is absolutely an important opportunity for developing countries, because it values existing traditional practises and can help farmers by increasing their knowledge to adopt new practises, but always based on their local ecosystems and the capacity of that system to produce.”

Agroecology developed as a response to concerns about the decline of natural resources, including biodiversity loss, as a result of modern agricultural practises.

FAO launched the concept in 2011 and seven developing countries – Senegal, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Mozambique, Chad, Angola and Niger – are now participating in nine projects being implemented through farmer field schools involving local communities.

Fattoum Lakhdari, director of the Centre of Scientific Research and technical of Arid Regions (CRSTRA) in Algeria, says the world of science and agriculture needs to embrace local knowledge and academic knowledge for sustainable agriculture.

“Throughout the world, we need to converge more the scientific and the agricultural research. We need to work on the idea of involving communities in the development of academic best knowledge and not to neglect community knowledge.”

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Dirt Isn’t So Cheap After All Wed, 19 Jun 2013 16:38:33 +0000 Mantoe Phakathi Healthy soil looks dark, crumbly, and porous, and is home to worms and other organisms. It feels soft, moist, and friable, and allows plant roots to grow unimpeded. Credit: Colette Kessler, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Healthy soil looks dark, crumbly, and porous, and is home to worms and other organisms. It feels soft, moist, and friable, and allows plant roots to grow unimpeded. Credit: Colette Kessler, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

By Mantoe Phakathi
ROME, Jun 19 2013 (IPS)

Each year, 12 million hectares of land – where 20 million tonnes of grain could have been grown – are lost to degradation.

In fact, over the past four decades, one-third of the planet’s food-producing land has become unproductive due to erosion.

Here at the 38th conference of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome, countries led by the Kingdom of Thailand are calling for an International Year of Soils (IYS) in 2015 to raise the profile of this critical yet endangered resource.

Soil degradation is estimated to cost the global economy 70 dollars per person every year, according to Arni Mathiesen, FAO assistant director-general for aquaculture and fisheries.

Meanwhile, healthy soils provide an estimated 1.5 to 13 trillion dollars in ecosystem services annually.

But with a necessary 60-percent rise in global food production in coming decades, Mathiesen says there will be “further pressure on soils”. This can also worsen global warming, as erosion puts carbon back into the atmosphere.

Supporting the call for an IYS is Namibia’s director of Aquaculture and Inland Fisheries Dr. Moses Maurihungirire, who says soil conservation does not get the attention it deserves.

“There aren’t many experts working on soil compared to water and other natural resources,” Maurihungirire tells TerraViva. “This is part of the reason why soil is marginalised compared to other natural resources.”

Coming from a semi-arid country where a vast amount of land area is desert, Maurihungirire says extreme weather patterns driven by climate change are stripping the scarce topsoil that exists, leading to further desertification.

Also throwing its weight behind Thailand’s proposal is Brazil, which is taking the lead in the preservation of soil and creating awareness in the Latin American region as the founder of the Global Soil Partnership.

Luiz Maria Pio Corrba, the alternate representative of Brazil to FAO, says creating awareness on soil is critical to promote agricultural production.

“Without soil, there is no agriculture because soil provides the link to all natural resources,” he tells TerraViva.

Thaliland and FAO are also asking the United Nations system to officially recognise a World Soil Day on Dec. 5 to coincide with the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is a soil scientist and has initiated programmes in his country aimed at soil preservation and rehabilitation.

Both proposals ultimately will have to be voted on by the U.N. General Assembly.

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A Closer Look at Nutrition Wed, 19 Jun 2013 16:32:08 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu Nepal has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. Over 41 percent of the country’s children suffer from chronic malnutrition, predominantly in rural areas. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Nepal has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world. Over 41 percent of the country’s children suffer from chronic malnutrition, predominantly in rural areas. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

By Claudia Ciobanu
ROME, Jun 19 2013 (IPS)

In addition to the world’s 870 million hungry, many others are suffering from inadequate nutrition that does not allow them to live full lives, or find their fates highly vulnerable to price shifts on global food markets.

Published during FAO’s 38th biennial conference taking place Jun. 15-22 in Rome, Italy, the FAO Statistical Yearbook 2013 combines national statistics from all over the world to paint a global picture of food security and nutrition.

It is already well known that 12.5 percent of the world population, or 870 million people, were undernourished in 2010-2012, 852 million of whom live in developing countries.

Even though significant progress has been made in combating hunger over the past decade, the global economic crisis has put a break on this positive transformation in many places around the world.

While the focus of the first Millenium Development Goal is halving world hunger by 2015, FAO’s Yearbook draws attention to the need to look beyond the number of undernourished, to the number of those who suffer from “food inadequacy”. These are people who might not be considered undernourished under normal circumstances, but do live on a diet that prevents them from adequately conducting physical activities that require significant effort.

Countries such as Bangladesh, India, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Swaziland or Kenya have large populations suffering from food inadequacy while not being on the list of states where chronic undernourishment is widespread.

To take India as a case in point, undernourishment reached 17.4 percent in 2010-2012, or 217 million people, while the food inadequacy rate was 27.5 percent in the same period.

As many of the less-well-off people rely on physical work for survival, governments need to pay attention to this additional indicator, argues FAO.

The statistics compilation also makes it clear that increasing food production will not necessarily bring about a decrease in hunger, unless accompanied by other policies, as Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen stressed in his lecture kicking off the FAO Conference.

While in many countries and regions high food availability is positively correlated with proper nourishment, this is not necessarily the case everywhere. For instance, Egypt’s dietary supply adequacy (indicative of the caloric value of the food available in the country) is 45 percent more than what is deemed necessary for proper nutrition. Yet 31 percent of children under the age of five suffer from stunting, often the result of prolonged periods of inadequate nutrition.

Similar situations occur in Benin, Malawi, the Niger, Kazakhstan or Nicaragua, proving that ensuring adequate nutrition depends significantly on the ability to distribute available resources equitably, without allowing for pockets of poverty to be created.

The world’s poor are not only constantly struggling to meet their nutrition needs, but they are also the most likely to be affected by fluctuations of food prices. This is because the poor spend the highest share of their disposable incomes on food, making them very vulnerable to sudden food price increases or decreases in revenues.

The FAO Yearbook notes several countries around the world are particularly exposed to world food markets: Mexico when it comes to maize, the Philippines for rice, Egypt for wheat and bread.

In many places, food price increases have led to increased hunger rates over the past years: for instance, in Uganda, food prices increased by 25 percent between 2003-2005 and 2010-2012, which came together with a rise in undernourishment rates of 30 percent.

But this is not always the case: rising food prices brought reductions in hunger rates in countries such as China, Nepal and Pakistan. The difference is made by the extent to which the vulnerable populations are net food producers or consumers, and by national policies which may buffer domestic markets from price changes on international markets.

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Nigeria’s Recipe for Hunger Reduction Wed, 19 Jun 2013 15:40:23 +0000 Busani Bafana By Busani Bafana
Jun 19 2013 (IPS)

Nigeria -one of Africa’s most populous states and a major oil producer – learned hard lessons about under-investing in food security for its people: malnutrition went up; so did prices and corruption in the voucher system for farming inputs.

That is all in the past now, says Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Akinwumi Adesina, who credits political support for helping Nigeria halve the number of hungry people in the last two years. The country was one of the 38 nations recently awarded by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) for meeting Millennium Development Goal One on reducing hunger and extreme poverty, from 19.3 percent in 1990-1992 to 8.5 percent today, according to Adesina, who became agriculture minister in 2011.

Akinwumi Adesina, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Nigeria. Credit: Busani Bafana/

Akinwumi Adesina, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Nigeria. Credit: Busani Bafana/

“That means we have achieved the goal three years ahead of the schedule set for us,” he says. “Agriculture is the basis for making sure you have diversified and nutritious food.”

IPS’ Busani Bafana, asked Adesina –a trained economist and decorated food security advocate – about Nigeria’s new food fortunes. Excerpts from the interview follow:

BB: So what is your secret for turning the tide?

AA: We are using quite a lot of private sector investments to drive agriculture. Because at the end of the day, if you are a farmer and you have a lot of money, you cannot only buy supplementary food that you need but can also invest in housing, in sanitation and better nutrition for your kids.

BB: Political will comes with financial resources. Has Nigeria invested adequately in its agricultural productivity?

We made one fundamental paradigm shift on agriculture. Agriculture is not just a quantum of public sector funds that you put into agriculture, but agriculture is a business. In the last 18 months, we have been able to leverage about 8 billion dollars of private sector investment commitments in this. We are not looking at just increasing public finance, but also looking at leveraging a lot of private sector into agriculture, because agriculture is not a development programme.

BB: What challenges have you faced?

As minister of agriculture, my goal is to make sure that we are a net exporter of food. I am not satisfied that Nigeria has been importing food for a long time. We are already turning that around. We have produced 1.9 million metric tonne of rice in just one year. That is about 55 percent of what we need to be self-sufficient in rice by 2015. The secret: making sure that farmers get the inputs.

The challenge remains making sure that all farmers today get inputs and finance at affordable interest rates. Our President has approved that we recapitalise our Bank of Agriculture. We are using our own funds, not development funds, to leverage 3,5 billion dollars off the balance sheet of our banks for agriculture. Another thing is infrastructure, whether it is rural roads or making sure our irrigation facilities are well done.

BB: You launched a mobile facility for farmers to access vouchers. One of the reasons for this was to curb corruption. What impact has this made?

For 40 years fertilisers in Nigeria were bought and sold by government. As that happened, no more that 11 percent of the farmers were actually getting fertilizers and sometimes they were getting sand as fertiliser. This was creating a lot of disincentives for farmers.

At the start of his administration, and with Mr. President’s support, it actually took 90 days to end corruption of 40 years. We decided to reach our farmers directly with inputs and that is why we did the electronic wallet: farmers could get their inputs on time and we could target them.

Some people said farmers will not be able to use the mobile phones, but the fact that you do not speak English does not mean you are illiterate. Out of the 4.9 million transactions that were done by mobile phone last year, 2.2 million were done in Hausa and 1.8 million of them were actually done in the Pidgin language.

The impact has been massive. We cut out the corruption and cut out the middle men and saved government money. We saved 29 billion Naira [about 180 million dollars] just last year and that is money I would have [otherwise] signed away [to input suppliers] as Agriculture Minister.



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Leasehold Forestry Brings a New Lease on Life Wed, 19 Jun 2013 12:57:50 +0000 Naresh Newar Women farmers are taking the lead in managing leasehold forestry programmes in rural Nepal. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

Women farmers are taking the lead in managing leasehold forestry programmes in rural Nepal. Credit: Naresh Newar/IPS

By Naresh Newar
JHIRUBAS, Nepal, Jun 19 2013 (IPS)

Nearly 300 km from Nepal’s teeming capital, Kathmandu, in a small village dug into the steep slopes of the mountainous Palpa district, 35-year-old Dhanmaya Pata goes about her daily chores in much the same way that her ancestors did centuries ago.

Pata and the roughly 200 other residents in the scenic yet sparse Dharkesingh village, part of the Jhirubas village development committee (VDC), live off the surrounding forests, in bright red, thatched-roof mud huts.

Jhirubas is the most remote of the 3,913 VDCs scattered across 75 districts in Nepal, but it shares with its counterparts a high level of underdevelopment, food insecurity and poverty.

The road infrastructure is very weak and often gets washed away in the monsoon rains, making transportation of food very difficult – in fact, over half the population suffers from inadequate food consumption. The nearest water source is a three-hour walk away.

These villagers have no illusions of living in grand circumstances; their humble dreams consist only of ensuring a decent future for their children. And with the help of a massive leasehold forestry programme, they are doing just that.

Great swathes of the forests that cover 40 percent of Nepal’s territory have been degraded, prompting the government to embark on a project in collaboration with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to convert wasted land into economic opportunities, officials at the Department of Forests (DoF) told IPS in the capital.

In 2005, a 12.7-million-dollar Leasehold Forestry and Livestock Programme (LFLP) took flight in 22 mid-hill districts, stretching from the country’s easternmost extremity to its western border, covering 28,000 hectares of forest land managed by nearly 6,000 forestry leasehold groups involving 58,000 households.

Four years later the government began pilot projects – led by the DoF, with technical inputs from the FAO and financial assistance from IFAD – in five districts including Jhirubas, where locals have converted degraded forest areas into the country’s largest broom grass plantations.

Locally known as ‘amresu’, the grass now covers 246 hectares of the 350-hectare region. The grass requires little water and thrives on steep slopes, preventing landslides and helping to remediate the soil.

By turning the flowers of the plant into traditional brooms, which are then sold to a local retailer, villagers earn the money required to stock up on food for the monsoon months when the roads in their landslide-prone village become impassable.

“In the last 12 months we earned about 3.5 million rupees (roughly 37,000 dollars) and the income is growing every year,” Navindra Thapa Magar, a local farmer and secretary of a leasehold forestry cooperative in the Kauledanda village of the Jhirubas VDC told IPS.

Each of the 246 households in the village earned about 150 dollars in 2012, income that has proved to be indispensable in supplementing villagers’ diets during the nine months out of the year when production of maize, wheat, potatoes, millet and green vegetables comes to a standstill.

Amresu leaves also provide fodder for livestock, and the stems provide fuel.

Women run the show

Households surviving on less than 80 dollars per year quickly stood out as the target population for the project, which promised each family a 40-year free lease of one hectare of land.

DoF and FAO officials provided support by training farmers and initiating a shift away from slash-and-burn practices, known locally as ‘khoriya farming’, towards more sustainable agro-forestry techniques, in which crops are interspersed with trees and other plants, ensuring a longer and healthier life for the entire ecosystem.

What officials had not anticipated, however, was the level of women’s participation in the project.

A wave of male migration out of Jhirubas over the last few decades had pushed women into the dual role of labourer-housekeeper.

Daman Singh Thapa, chairman of the Kaule leasehold forestry cooperative, told IPS that when the scheme spread to their remote village, women quickly took up the challenge of planting and harvesting the grass, working long hours on the steep slopes.

DoF Official Govinda Prasad Kafley added that every participating household now involves equal numbers of trained men and women, who share decision-making power.

While FAO experts say income generation has led to developments like the installation of water pipes, which relieve women of having to walk several kilometres each day in search of water, others worry that the burden of farming and business operations heaped on top of household chores and care of livestock might end up hurting rather than helping the community.

Forty-year-old Bom Bahadur Thapa told IPS that the work, which includes hand-clearing shrubs in order to plant the grass, and then hand-picking the flowers for the brooms, is backbreaking.

“Let’s hope that men become more involved, instead of leaving to look for work elsewhere,” she said.

Indeed, news of the project’s success has already gone viral, prompting migrant workers to return to their village after pictures of thriving broom grass plantations and the smiling faces of their families replaced images of hardship.

Leasehold Forestry Brings a New Lease on Life from IPS Inter Press Service on Vimeo.

To reduce the drudgery of harvesting and carrying brooms on their backs to the local collection centre, several farmers in the community recently pooled their resources to purchase a tractor, becoming the first leasehold forestry group in the country to do so.

With the grass providing plenty of fodder, livestock herds have increased four-fold from roughly two to three goats to an average of 12 goats per family, said Hasti Maya Bayambu, chairperson of a leasehold forestry group in Dharkesingh. The community is even considering selling the excess fodder to markets outside their village.

Following the success of broom grass plantations, impoverished families from the traditionally marginalised janjatis (indigenous) and dalit (low caste) groups have also embarked on commercial ventures, producing cardamom and ginger using agro-forestry techniques, according to Palpa District Forest Officer Suresh Singh.

But even while celebrating the project’s success, government officials are gearing up for the next big challenge: what to do when aid from the FAO and IFAD expires at the end of 2013, leaving farmers without technical inputs like free seeds, savings schemes and marketing trainings that are integral to the proper functioning of the micro-economy that has developed around the programme.

Narayan Bhattarai, the hub officer and key field officer of the pilot districts, told IPS that farmers rely greatly on the presence of fulltime field officers, who, in addition to arranging trips for officials and donor representatives, boost locals’ confidence in the project.

By the farmers’ own admission, it will take at least five years to attain full self-sufficiency. Unless donor agencies step up their efforts, the future of one of Nepal’s most successful rural development programmes hangs in the balance.

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FAO Highlights Inseparable Links Between Food and Water Wed, 19 Jun 2013 12:29:11 +0000 Thalif Deen Irrigation canal, Mchinji. Credit: FISD/IPS

Irrigation canal, Mchinji. Credit: FISD/IPS

By Thalif Deen
ROME, Jun 19 2013 (IPS)

Since food and water are so closely interlinked, there is a lingering fear based on the assumption, if there is no water, there will be no food.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) underlines the strong links between the two when it declares that agriculture accounts for over 70 percent of global water use.

Meanwhile, the share of water available for agriculture is expected to decline to 40 percent by 2050, warns an FAO report released here for the agency’s 38thsession, currently underway. “Water is becoming scarce not because the volume of water is reduced but because demand from society is increasing.” - Prof. Jan Lundqvist, Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)

The figures are based on statistics released by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The availability of fresh water resources shows a similar picture to that of land: sufficient resources at the global level are unevenly distributed, and an increasing number of countries, or parts of countries, are reaching critical levels of water scarcity, according to FAO.

The FAO also says many of the water-scarce countries in the Near East and North Africa, and in South Asia, further lack land resources.

Due to their vulnerability, coastal areas, the Mediterranean basin, the North East and North African countries and dry Central Asia appear as locations where investment in water management techniques should be considered a priority when promoting agricultural productivity growth.

Asked if the link between agricultural productivity and water scarcity is real, Prof. Jan Lundqvist, senior scientific advisor at Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), told IPS, “Yes and No”.

If there is no water (e.g. in deserts), food cannot be produced, he pointed out. But water is a renewable resource and the hydrological cycle, which is driven by the sun, will continue also in the future.

The amount of renewable freshwater in terms of precipitation falling over the continents is about 110,000 km3 per year, he said. But with an increasing population, the amount of water per capita is inevitably reduced.

It is increasingly difficult, costly and dangerous, according to Lundqvist, to divert more water from rivers and lakes and to pump water from groundwater reserves.

“At the same time, with economic development, the per-capita demand increases. It is, indeed, a tricky equation,” he noted.

Since everything humans eat requires water to be produced, the paradox of the “water we eat” was best illustrated by an exhibition at a SIWI conference last year, which pointed out that the production of an average hamburger – two slices of bread, beef, tomato, lettuce, onions and cheese – consumes about 2,389 litres of water, compared to 140 litres for a cup of coffee and 135 for a single egg.

An average meal of rice, beef and vegetables requires about 4,230 litres of water while a chunky, succulent beef steak, a staple among the rich in the world’s industrial countries, consumes one of the largest quantum of water: about 7,000 litres.

Vincent Casey, technical support manager at the London-based WaterAid, told IPS that irrigated agriculture accounts for the vast majority of water withdrawals in many countries.

A great deal can be done to prevent water scarcity through changes to thirsty agricultural practices.

Crop types, irrigation methods and water tariffs can be changed to reduce demand. These actions require political commitment, which can be difficult to get, he noted.

Two things are required for water security: well-managed water resources and well-managed water supply services (pumps, pipes taps, storage tanks).

Water scarcity is already a daily reality for over 760 million people right now – not because irrigation farmers are drinking all of their water, Casey said, but because of a lack of the water supply services required to make use of available water.

“If we didn’t have reservoirs, pipes and taps in the UK, we would be water scarce too”.

Management of the water supply crisis will involve demand management in areas where there is pressure on the resource, he added, and supply management where people lack any kind of access to water — not because it isn’t there but because it requires investment to develop it.

If there is a scarcity of water, Lundqvist told IPS, food production will be a victim for two main reasons.

Firstly, other sectors will require a large share of water supply. With urbanization both industry and households will be able to articulate their demands and they are in a better position to pay for additional water.

“Water is becoming scarce not because the volume of water is reduced but because demand from society is increasing,” he said.

A second reason is that precipitation pattern will be more stochastic as a result of global warming. Risk will increase for farmers, since uncertainty will increase.

This is particularly problematic, he pointed out, for rain-fed agriculture. But with an increasing frequency and amplitude of droughts and floods, and with the increasing demands from other sectors, the timing of supplies for irrigation during the agricultural seasons will be more tricky.

Higher temperature will speed up the return flow of water back to atmosphere with complications for the farmers.

Under these circumstances –and considering the fact that enough food is produced to feed the entire world population properly– it will be crucial, he said, to make sure that the food produced is beneficially used to the degree feasible and reaches the consumers, including the poor.

Between one-third and half of the food produced is lost, wasted or converted. This means a tremendous waste of resources.

“We must walk on two legs into the future, ensure that enough is produced and make sure that the produce is accessed and used in a most worthwhile manner,” he declared.

The real predicament is regional. The population continues to increase in many areas where water availability is already quite limited.

Even more challenging: the rainfall pattern is becoming more unreliable, while temperature is increasing, he noted.

There will thus be seasons and periods when a growing number of people will experience prolonged droughts (they may last over several years) while in other places, floods will have devastating consequences, he warned.

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The Great Water Challenge Wed, 19 Jun 2013 12:09:32 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu Water scarcity features among FAO's five new strategic objectives. Credit: Bigstock

Water scarcity features among FAO's five new strategic objectives. Credit: Bigstock

By Claudia Ciobanu
ROME, Jun 19 2013 (IPS)

The Middle East and North Africa is the region most affected by water scarcity in the world, and for the moment, the situation seems set to worsen.

“In Yemen, we do not have many sources of fresh water and rain water is certainly not enough for our needs,” Gunid Ali Abdullah, planning director at Yemen’s Ministry of Agriculture, tells TerraViva in Rome. “We are all the time having to dig deeper and deeper to get water from aquifers.”"The potential of the region is not being met." -- FAO's Mohamed Bazza

In Yemen’s capital Sana’a, tap water is rationed, and farmers close to the city have deepened their wells by tens of metres over the past decade but are nevertheless extracting less water than before.

Yemen is certainly not unique in a region where per capita water consumption in many countries stands well below the U.N.’s water scarcity mark of 1,000 cubic metres yearly. To compare, the global water consumption average is above 6,000 cubic metres.

Countries in the region are already tapping non-replenishable water resources, or fossil aquifers.

“At the end of this year, we should be able to start using water coming from the Al-Disi Basin, at the border with Saudi Arabia, which we hope will come a long way in meeting the needs of our capital, Amman, which hosts 3.5 million people, almost half of our total population,” Feisal Alargan, deputy permanent representative of Jordan to FAO, tells TerraViva.

The Al-Disi aquifer is thought to be about 320 kilometres long, the largest of its type in the Arabian peninsula. It has already been exploited by Saudi Arabia, and its resources are thought to be non-renewable.

Jordan is ranked third in the world when it comes to water scarcity, relying mostly on rain and underground water as well as on a supply quota of the river Jordan agreed with Israel.

In such conditions, figuring out how to use non-replenishable water resources, despite the unsustainability of the solution and despite some doubts over the quality of the water, seems like a miraculous way out for Jordanian leaders and others in the region.

Yet such approaches resemble a race to the bottom: a NASA report published in March this year showed that, between 2003 and 2009, the Middle East lost a quantity of water equivalent to the volume of the Dead Sea.

And things might get worse: the World Bank predicts that water demand in the region is expected to grow by 60 percent by 2045.

The region’s water problems are caused by a natural lack of water resources combined, according to experts, with poor management of the existing resources at both the national level and regionally.

The lack of intra-regional cooperation is most noticeable when it comes to sharing water from transboundary rivers: outdated accords make it so that Egypt uses most of the Nile’s potential; Turkey, upstream from other countries on the course of the Euphrates and the Tigris, is sucking up most valuable resources via its intensive use of dams; the use of river Jordan remains an issue of controversy between Israel and neighbouring Arab countries.

Governments in the region are of course struggling to find solutions to the problem of water scarcity.

“We’re working on the construction of small dams in the highlands in order to harvest water,” explains Yemen’s Gunid Ali Abdullah. “We’re also trying to modernise irrigation methods in order to use less water for agriculture, which currently takes up about 90 percent of our precious water resources.”

But the challenges are high and cooperation is key to overcoming water scarcity in the region.

International organisations have been trying to tackle water issues in the region in the past with technical assistance programmes and grants, with limited success.

This year, the U.N. FAO is attempting to change the approach to the issue: throughout 2013, it is conducting a thorough assessment of water resources and use in the whole region, trying both to treat the region as a whole and to pay close attention to the multiple interactions between water and all other aspects of human life.

“The Near East region has to meet half of its food needs via imports because of lack of water to produce enough food itself,” explains Mohamed Bazza, FAO’s focal point for national drought policies.

Bazza stresses that the central role of water for achieving food security makes water scarcity issues crucial for FAO, which explains why water scarcity features among the five new strategic objectives to be pursued by the institution.

“Numerous efforts have been made in the past to improve food security in the region on different aspects, including water use, but something has not been working, meaning that the potential of the region is not being met,” Bazza says.

FAO’s comprehensive assessment will this year look for the reasons behind the region’s water crisis, as well as try to identify what should be priority areas of action to address these problems.

Solutions not emphasised much until now could become more prominent: for instance, shifting  agricultural production towards less water-intensive crops or even reducing food waste on the fields as wasted crops also mean wasted water.

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Hunger Persists in Latin America’s Bread Basket Tue, 18 Jun 2013 21:49:25 +0000 Julio Godoy Argentine economist Raúl Benítez highlights continuing inequality in Latin America. Credit: FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Argentine economist Raúl Benítez highlights continuing inequality in Latin America. Credit: FAO/Giulio Napolitano

By Julio Godoy
ROME, Jun 18 2013 (IPS)

Judging by the accolades and diplomas handed out to 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries by FAO, it would be easy to conclude that the region has taken a giant leap towards eradicating hunger.

This is the benign face of the fight against hunger in Latin America, together with the strong economic growth experienced by many countries in the region.

But a closer look at the food and agriculture scenario reveals another side: lingering inequality, marked by the increasing influence of agribusiness, in which a few giant corporations wield enormous control and power.

Argentine economist Raúl Benítez, head of the FAO office for Latin America and the Caribbean, said that “although our continent has made great strides against hunger, it is still the most unequal region in the world.”

“Of the nearly 900 million hungry people in the world, 50 million are in Latin America or the Caribbean,” Benítez told IPS at the 38th FAO Conference meeting in Rome Jun. 15-22.

Hunger has even reared its head once again in countries like Argentina, whose population was among the best-fed on the planet for a considerable part of the 20th century.

“Today in Argentina there are many children suffering from malnutrition caused by the soy boom,” complained Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), referring to Argentina’s top export.

“For more than 20 years, with the support of every administration, Argentina has allowed massive expansion of soy cultivation, displacing cattle as well as other crops, and even transforming the local diet,” said Ribeiro, whose organisation monitors the impact of emerging technologies and corporations on biodiversity, agriculture and human rights.

Today, “the poor in Argentina don’t drink cow’s milk but soy milk, and they don’t eat beef but soy substitutes, a monotonous diet that causes malnutrition,” she said.

According to Ribeiro, who is also at the Rome conference, FAO’s praise for Latin America’s achievements against hunger “is based on a biased and misleading analysis.”

“It’s as if FAO only saw GDP, which does reflect greater agricultural production, but closed its eyes to the fact that this production is socially excluding and ecologically unsustainable, and only benefits big multinational corporations that produce for export,” she said.

But Benítez said “FAO can only call attention to these phenomena and propose corrective measures; states are sovereign, and they may or may not adopt policies in line with our proposals.”

Ribeiro also highlighted the increasing use of genetically modified crops. “The most serious case is that of Mexican maize, because the government has approved (experimental plots) of transgenic maize seeds by companies like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer,” the activist said.

Maize is an essential staple in the diet of the people of Mesoamerica, the region encompassing southern Mexico and Central America. Moreover, Mexico “is the birthplace” of maize, Ribeiro noted. In this country, “maize is more than food, it is an essential pillar of national identity and tradition,” she added.

Countries in similar positions, such as China in the case of soy, and parts of southeast Asia in the case of rice, prohibit the cultivation of transgenic varieties to safeguard their biological heritage, said Ribeiro. “Mexico should follow their lead with maize,” she argued.

Recent research has found that transgenic maize may be harmful to health. “A group of French scientists has shown that transgenic maize causes cancer in rats,” said Ribeiro.

“Another study, for the European Food Safety Authority, discovered that most of the transgenic varieties approved for commercial use in the United States (54 out of 86) contain virus genetic material that was not observed when they were approved, and may have harmful effects in plants, animals and people,” she said.

“At FAO we are aware that land grabbing and large agribusiness concerns can cause social exclusion and be environmentally unsustainable,” said Benítez. “Governments must weigh the short-term benefits against the long-term costs, which may be much higher, and make decisions accordingly.”

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No Hunger in Brazil by 2015 Tue, 18 Jun 2013 19:04:27 +0000 Claudia Ciobanu Soybean field near Eldorado in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Credit: Gerson Sobreira/IPS

Soybean field near Eldorado in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Credit: Gerson Sobreira/IPS

By Claudia Ciobanu
ROME, Jun 18 2013 (IPS)

“We do believe that it’s perfectly possible to end extreme poverty in Brazil by 2015,” Antonino Marques Porto, Brazil’s ambassador to FAO, tells TerraViva in Rome.

Brazil is currently implementing the Brasil Sem Miséria programme — a continuation of the successful Fome Zero– which aims to do just that, Marques Porto says. Initiated in 2003 by former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Fome Zero is credited with having taken 30 to 40 million Brazilians out of poverty.

“It involved among others cash transfers to the poorest families, conditioned on children going to school and getting vaccines,” the ambassador says,” but also rural credits and investments in small farms.”

One of the core actions of the programme was providing poor children with free school lunches, which were purchased by the state from family farms. In this way, support to local small farmers was provided at the same time as offering quality nutrition to children from low-income families.

According to Marques Porto, supporting family farms – which currently provide 70 percent of the food eaten by Brazilians – is central to poverty alleviation.

The success of Fome Zero was due to three elements, thinks Oxfam International’s Luca Chinotti: the strong leadership provided by President Lula; the broad partnership involved in devising and implementing the platform, which included ministries, civil society, representatives of small farmers and rural workers; and shifting most public sector food purchases to family farm suppliers.

Brazil is sharing its experience with family farm produce purchases for poverty alleviation with other countries around the world, as part of the World Food Programme’s Purchase for Progress framework, says Marques Porto.

Over the past decade, Brazil has been deriving much of its wealth from food exports. Yet its large-scale soy and beef production for export are also responsible for deforestation and biodiversity loss in the Amazonian region. Furthermore, clearing of land for industrial agriculture is threatening livelihoods of local communities.

“Across the world, rural communities rely on land, forests and fisheries for their food security,” says Oxfam’s Chinotti. “If policies and projects reduce their access to those natural resources, the outcome will be more hunger.”

Last year, FAO published a set of “Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests in the Context of National Food Security”, offering guidance to countries around the world on just systems of tenure, that are compatible with every person’s right to adequate food

Oxfam and other NGOs are now calling on all countries around the world to implement those guidelines in order to secure smallholders’ access to land and natural resources.

This year, the U.N.’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda proposed that clear targets on land tenure are included in the development framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. If adopted, such targets could play an important role in preventing land grabbing and protecting the food security of local communities.

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Eradicating Hunger in a World of Plenty Tue, 18 Jun 2013 12:47:53 +0000 Mantoe Phakathi By Mantoe Phakathi
ROME, Jun 18 2013 (IPS)

The world today faces a rather stunning paradox. We produce enough to feed seven billion people, but high prices and other factors have pushed adequate nutrition out of reach for more than one in 10, says Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director general-knowledge at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). 

Speaking during the 38th conference of FAO in Rome on Monday, Semedo also points out that between 30 and 50 percent of the food produced globally is not consumed.

As FAO member states ponder the next move after the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MGD) come to an end in 2015, Semedo believes that hunger can indeed be eradicated in the coming decade – by 2025.

“The challenge is to ensure that the poor have the means to obtain the food they need at reasonable cost and in times of crisis,” she says.

Linda Collette, Secretary, Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Linda Collette, Secretary, Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

One of the first MDG targets is to halve the proportion of people suffering from hunger by 2015, an achievement many developing countries will not realise, according to the 2012 FAO report, the State of Food Insecurity in the World.

Semedo says there is a need to shift to more sustainable food production and consumption patterns because some countries, in Africa, for instance, produce little of what they eat, instead relying on pricier, more volatile imports.

In the end, smallholder farmers, women and youth will be the critical agents of change in achieving MDG One and economic development, Semedo says. “They are not the problem but the solution.”

As the continent with the highest proportion of malnourished people – 23 percent – Africa has come up with a clear strategy through its New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Two-thirds of the continent’s population is also under the age of 35, and NEPAD’s CEO Dr. Ibrahim Mayaki says agriculture can drive economic development to help create employment opportunities.

But there is a need to create stronger linkages among various sectors, including health, education, science and technology, to drive the post-2015 development agenda, he says.

“The main single message from Africa is that the post-2015 agenda is structural economic transformation,” says Mayaki.

NEPAD provides the critical framework and context to structure the thinking, strategies and priorities for Africa’s thrust on the post-MDG era, he says.

“It can’t be done without agriculture and food security,” Mayaki adds.

Africa’s message seems to be in line with FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva’s vision “of an interconnected and yet peaceful, fair and culturally diverse world,”  that guarantees all human beings their fundamental right to food and a life free from hunger and malnutrition.

To realise this vision, he urges member states to ensure that sustainable agriculture and food security nourishes people and nurtures the planet.

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No Till, More Yields Tue, 18 Jun 2013 10:42:59 +0000 Busani Bafana Conservation agriculture has improved Zimbabwean farmer Catherine Dube's maize yields. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

Conservation agriculture has improved Zimbabwean farmer Catherine Dube's maize yields. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Busani Bafana
HWANGE, Zimbabwe, Jun 18 2013 (IPS)

For Catherine Dube, it is a good time to catch up on village happenings and sing-alongs when she meets with neighbours to dig basins in each other’s fields in preparation for the planting season.

The camaraderie of sharing the labour and sometimes seeds characterises the annual hoeing of neatly spaced deep basins, a technique Dube says has improved her crop yields since she adopted it four years ago.

Though the holes dug 15 cm deep by 15 cm wide look ordinary, they are not. Dube sprinkles fertiliser, using a soft drink bottle top as a measure. She throws three hybrid maize seeds into each basin, then covers it halfway with dry soil.

When the first rains fall, water collects in the basin, providing moisture for the plant for many weeks until the next rains come.

The practise of digging such basins is known as conservation agriculture — others call it “farming God’s way”.

The Zimbabwe station of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Matopos, about 30 km south of Bulawayo, actively promotes conservation farming.

The technique is helping an estimated 300,000 Zimbabwean farmers like Dube feed their families and even have surplus grain to sell.

“Conservation agriculture has improved my crop production,” Dube tells TerraViva during a walk around her plot in Jambezi ward in Hwange District, 300 kms north of Bulawayo.

Adopted by thousands of farmers in Zimbabwe to boost yields and save their soils from erosion, conservation agriculture involves three main principles: planting crops with minimum disturbance of the soil; mulching with crop wastes, cover crops or other organic matter; and growing crops such as cereals and legumes in rotation.

The process entails zero ploughing and massive carting in of manure, and farmers say making the basins is hard work when the soil is dry.

Dr. Kizito Mazvimavi, a scientist with ICRISAT, says preparing planting basins using hand hoes before the onset of the rainy season allowed smallholder farmers without access to draft power to plant with the first rains.

“The basins also allow for precision application of the often limited fertiliser and harvesting of rain water early in the season,” Mazvimavi says.

ICRISAT has promoted conservation agriculture and micro-dosing techniques in semi-arid regions of the world, including Zimbabwe, with funding from the UK Department for International Development ‘s Protracted Relief Programme.

According to Mazvimavi, farmers adopting the technology have realised yield gains of 15 to 100 percent across different agro-ecological regions.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) profiles conservation agriculture in a report titled “Partnering for Results”. It details 29 stories from member countries around the world, and was released at the 38th session of the FAO biennial conference in Rome this week.

“While only five percent of Zimbabwe’s maize-growing area is currently under conservation agriculture, those farmers who have adopted it have been able to harvest more from their small plots, averaging about two tonnes per hectare of maize, which is nearly triple what they produced under conventional agriculture,” the report says.

In its initial stages, conservation agriculture is more labour-intensive than conventional methods, so the FAO launched a programme of training and demonstration. It also introduced labour-saving mechanical planters to win over sceptical farmers.

“Once farmers pass the initial labour-intensive, start-up seasons, their conservation agriculture techniques cut down on waste of inputs and thus reduce their costs,” the report says.

But critics like researcher and agricultural ecologist Ian Scoones warn that conservation agriculture may not be appropriate for every area. For example, although 90 percent of Zimbabwe’s farmers are smallholders, some of the new resettlements involve farms averaging five to 10 ha, where such a labour-intensive technique would not be a good fit.

“In a new agrarian setting, there are some real technological challenges, but these will have to be met together with inputs from farmers and a much better sense of scale requirements and farmer needs and priorities,” he concludes.

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