Lightweight kit for small farmers

Posted on 20 April 2010. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security |

All you need to farm...a backpack may contain farming tools, a training manual, even a collapsible water tank

A new piece of kit in the form of a backpack could help small farmers in Kenya increase yields, profits and agricultural know-how in a sustainable way.

The backpacks, weighing 15-42 kg, contain things which help farmers bring a crop to harvest, including tools, a training manual and, in some versions, a collapsible water tank. They are designed for small plots of land and are currently being used in the Mau Forest region.

“The nine month supply for a half acre [0.2 hectares] of land I bought, includes seeds, a plant nutrition system and water drip and it is light enough to be transported on my back” Rosemary Muthomi, one of the users of the system in Meru Green, told IRIN.

Small-scale farms are widespread in Kenya, where the great majority of the population depends on agriculture or fishing. But much of the farming takes place only on a subsistence level on small plots or `shambas’, and even in such households, food insecurity is common.

An April 2010 report by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) said that although short rains at the end of 2009 improved food security in several areas of Kenya, “ recurrent seasons of failed or poor rains, sustained high food prices, environmental degradation, disease outbreaks, and flooding led to deteriorating food security conditions throughout Kenya, straining coping mechanisms, exacerbating pre-existing chronic poverty, and contributing to increased inter-ethnic conflict regarding access to limited land and water resources.”

The Backpack Farm Agricultural Programme (BPF),  brainchild of Rachel Zedeck and launched in late 2009, also aims to encourage small-scale farmers to form cooperatives so as to increase production and improve marketing.

“Our idea was to enable users to immediately start growing their own food. But the final goal is to ensure small-scale farmers increase their harvests and improve their quality of life and also to give them the technology, at a fraction of commercial costs, for opening up to markets.”

“As well as drought-resistant seeds of local crop varieties, we provide fertilizers that do not damage soil and water tables, a cost effective drip irrigation system, and training on green water management [rainwater collection] techniques,” she added.

The high cost of most ecologically friendly farm products has limited their use to around 10 percent of Kenyan farmers, according to John W. Njoroge, director of the Kenyan Institute of Organic Farming.

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Kenyan Bumper Maize Harvest in Coast and Southeast

Posted on 9 February 2010. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security |

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that about 540,000 metric tons of maize will be harvested from the short-rains season (file photo)

NAIROBI,  (IRIN) – Kenya’s coastal and southeastern regions will harvest a bumper maize crop from mid-February following El Nino-enhanced rains that fell in December, according to experts.

“The most likely situation between January and March points to significant improvements in food security, especially in the southeastern marginal agricultural livelihood areas,” the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG) said in a report.

An agricultural officer who requested anonymity said the anticipated bumper harvest will help boost the nation’s grain reserves, which had been severely depleted due to low production in the country’s grain basket, Rift Valley Province.

The Kenya National Cereal and Produce Board would purchase at least four million 90kg maize bags from farmers in the coastal and southeastern lowlands, he said.

The KFSSG report contains inputs from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, the UN World Food Programme, the Ministry of Agriculture and the government’s Arid Lands Resource Management Project.

Current national stocks of maize are estimated at about one million tons. This will be boosted by an additional 100,000 tons to be harvested after the short rains in April.

“The Ministry of Agriculture also estimates that about 540,000 MT [metric tons] will be harvested from the short-rains season [April], subject to rains continuing through January, as projected by the Kenya Meteorological Department,” the report, covering January to June, noted.

Some maize was planted in non-traditional short-rains areas, such as South Rift, because farmers rightly anticipated heavier than normal rains during the October-January period, it said.

However, despite the expected improvement in household food security, the national indicators were yet to recover. An estimated 3.8 million people still do not have enough to eat, the report said.

Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
A bumper maize harvest is anticipated in Kenya’s coastal and southeastern regions (file photo)

Slow recovery

KFSSG attributed the slow recovery to several factors including an under-resourced food pipeline, cumulative effects of four to five consecutive failed rainy seasons and lowered crop output.

Other factors included high staple food and non-food prices, the remaining impacts of conflict in pastoral areas, and disruption of livelihoods and markets caused by the post-election violence in 2008 in parts of the Rift Valley highlands.

The rains continued into January “enriching pastures, recharging water points, and heightening prospects for offseason cropping”.


Between October and  December 2009, however, flooding killed 30 people and displaced 5,000 households in various parts of the country. Crops and irrigation structures were also destroyed.

The worst-affected districts included Turkana, West Pokot, Baringo, Isiolo, Kajiado and Narok. Parts of Kericho and Nakuru, and localized areas of the southeastern marginal agricultural areas of Kitui and Makueni were also affected.

The Lake region districts of Nyando, Kisumu, Siaya and Rachuonyo also experienced flooding, the report said.

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Solving Kenya’s Food Crisis, One Indigenous Crop at a Time

Posted on 2 September 2009. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security |

In Kenya, persistent drought is threatening food security for some 31.5 million people, and more than one million face imminent starvation.

The United Nation’s World Food Program has requested $230 million for aid, but that seems too little, and perhaps too late for many.

Kenya’s government, looking for about $525 million in supplemental food funds from an already inflation-impacted budget, faces the prospect of feeding its people at the expense of a number of other projects that could improve food security for the future.

It’s a perilous tradeoff — survival now at the expense of future survival.

At the same time, the Kenya Food Security Steering Group (KFSSG) reports that the 2009 maize crop will be 28 percent below normal. This is extraordinarily bad news because maize is the staple food crop for 96 percent of Kenya’s people.

And therein lies the problem, says Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural scientist, teacher and researcher with Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology in Nairobi.

Abukutsa-Onyango, who has been following the crisis as part of her advocacy of African indigenous vegetables, says any long-term solution to global warming, drought and crop failure must be addressed by reducing dependence on Western-style agriculture in favor of indigenous crops.

The problem, Abukutsa-Onyango (in photo at right) notes, is one that has been developing for centuries as Western emphasis on mono-cropping introduced non-native foods (pineapple, cabbage, spinach, carrots, etc.) which required extensive irrigation and frequent applications of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

This non-sustainable form of agriculture, while producing revenues in the form of exportable food, is no longer a viable means of insuring Kenyan food security, given the fact that 80 percent of Kenya’s crops are grown in the arid lowlands, where rain is becoming increasingly unreliable.

As a result of crop Westernization, at least 200 indigenous crops once heavily cultivated in Africa – including such species as grain amaranth, cowpeas, jute mallow, Ethiopian kale, spider plant, African nightshade and pumpkin leaves – have been lost. Today, about 30 species remain, conserved at regional botanical gardens and national museums, as well as at the National Gene Bank in Kikuyu.

It has been Abukutsa-Onyango’s life work to isolate a handful of the most important of those indigenous vegetables and promote their cultivation at the most basic level – among the farmers of Kenya, many of whom are women.

Her efforts on behalf of indigenous crops and women have been surprisingly successful.

“Today, spider plant, African nightshade and vegetable amaranth can be found in Nairobi supermarkets and restaurants, after years of being spurned by the well-fed as food only for the poor, and by the poor themselves as alternatives only in times of extreme hunger,” she says.

The results have been decades in the making, as Abukutsa-Onyango first sought to identify the obstacles, and then created methods of overcoming them.

The outcome – a network of 100 contact farmers, or farmer’s groups, who are trained in all the technical and practical aspects of seed production, seed utilization, seed processing, sustainable indigenous crop production and organic farming methods – is the sort of grassroots outreach that has made indigenous seed more available and more viable, and provided a means of training others to grow these valuable, highly nourishing, food varieties.

“Most of my work on African indigenous vegetables has been participatory at all stages. First and foremost I had to identify and rank the indigenous vegetables grown by, and most familiar to, Kenyan farmers.”

But Abukutsa-Onyango is not promoting indigenous crops at the expense of all crops. Instead, she sees a future food landscape where Kenya’s cool, moist highlands continue to produce Westernized crops for export (and to supplement Kenyan diets), while the lowlands produce better yields of indigenous bambara nuts, for example, or amaranth, spider plant and pigeon pea, without irrigation and in spite of less fertile soils.

“For example, grain amaranth has high protein content, in the range of 10-15 percent, so it is definitely more nutritious than traditional maize. My recommendation here would be to grow the hardy sorghums and millets in combination with other short-lived grains like amaranths and traditional maize.”

It’s a scenario that would benefit both Kenyan prosperity and the health of Kenya’s inhabitants, since the indigenous crops have been shown to contain more than 100 percent of the recommended daily allowances of vitamins and micro-nutrients. This leads to greater dietary and nutritional diversity, which is especially important to growing children and pregnant women.

Many African indigenous vegetables also have medicinal properties. Spider plant is known to help constipation, as well as facilitating birth. Nightshades have been used for centuries to cure stomachache, and Colocasia esculenta, or Elephant Ear (also known as taro root), has been used to treat rapid heartbeat.

There are undoubtedly many more, but their medicinal use has been largely forgotten as Westernized medicine replaced native lore.

Perhaps an added benefit of indigenous cropping would be the rediscovery of natural medicines. Even if this fails to happen, though, Abukutsa-Onyango’s work represents not only a uniquely valuable African (and Kenyan) perspective, but also a global trend toward “homegrown” food and an increasing realization that traditional growing methods – like the Native American Three Sisters cultivation (of corn, beans and squash) – are not only more sustainable, but essential to food security in a warming world.

Her final words of wisdom represent an arrow in time, pointing to a future in harmony with the cycles of Nature rather than an attempt to control it. In fact, her prescription may be the only viable solution:

“I believe we cannot talk about meeting millennium development goals pertaining to food and nutrition security and poverty and health issues without the complementary use of African indigenous foods like indigenous vegetables.”

Courtesy: Jeanne Roberts’s blog

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Kenya Farmers “need help to reap rewards of El-Niño rains”

Posted on 31 August 2009. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security |

Photo: Jane Some/IRIN
Since the harvest from the 2006 long rains, Kenya has not had a bumper maize crop with adequate surpluses that could stabilize supplies (file photo)

Following below-average harvests in 2007 and 2008, Kenya’s grain farmers need seed and fertilizer support to enable them to make use of El Niño rains, expected between October and December 2009, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says.

“Given that most of the farmers, both in high potential and agriculturally marginal ecosystems, lost most of what they invested in the short rains of 2008 and long rains of 2009, there is an urgent need to support them with inputs such as seed and fertilizer, to enable them to utilize the anticipated El Niño rains … [to enhance] their household food security and contribute towards bridging of the deficit in the national grain and other food budget,” FAO said on 27 August.

The agency appealed for US$23 million to enable it and the Ministry of Agriculture to supply various inputs to at least 100,000 families, “each growing an average of three acres in Rift Valley, Central Kenya highlands and marginal agricultural areas of eastern Kenya”.

Kenya’s Meteorological Department on 26 August said the outlook for the October-December short rains indicated that much of the country would likely experience near-normal to above-normal rainfall.

“This El Niño is currently classified as moderate or mild compared with that of 1997-1998. The distribution of the rainfall in time and space is expected to be generally good over most places,” it said.

The department said the rainfall expected over most of the country’s agricultural areas would be adequate for good crop performance.

“Farmers are, therefore, advised to work closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and take advantage of the expected good rainfall performance, the extended rainfall season, and extended length of the growing period, to maximize on the crop yield,” the department said.

It recommended that the emergency measures currently in place – food and water being distributed by the military to drought-affected populations – should be sustained until March 2010.

FAO said the near-certain El Niño type of rainfall during the short rains, due to start mid-September, provided “an opportunity to utilize the rains in both agriculturally high to medium potential areas and marginal ecosystems in production of off-season crops such as Irish potato, hybrid maize-500 series, green grams, cowpeas and horticultural crops”.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Gree maize: FAO says Kenya’s grain farmers need seed and fertilizer support to enable them to make use of El Niño rains, expected between October and December (file photo)

Insufficient harvests

Kenya’s annual consumption of maize, the staple food, is 33 million bags of 90kg each, said FAO; of this, 22 million are produced in agriculturally high and medium potential areas of Rift Valley and Western Province, mainly during the long March-June rains; another six million are produced in marginal agricultural eco-systems of Eastern Kenya, mainly during the October-December rains, while the remainder come from the Central Kenya Highlands and informal cross-border and official imports.

Since the harvest from the 2006 long rains, Kenya has not had a bumper maize crop with adequate surpluses that could stabilize supplies, the agency added.

“The declining trend in domestic maize supply is destined for the worst situation in the recent past, only comparable to 1984, this year, mainly due to an estimated 45 percent decline in production in the agriculturally high and medium potential areas during the long rains of 2009,” FAO said.

“This will imply that the country will anticipate a deficit of 10 million bags from the traditional grain surplus regions. The impending scenario has been caused by inadequate and poorly distributed rainfall during the main growing long rains season this year.”

Warmer oceans

According to the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO), El Niño conditions have become established over the tropical Pacific, and it is likely these will continue through the remainder of 2009 and probably into the first quarter of 2010.

“The ocean surface and subsurface in the central and eastern Equatorial Pacific has been substantially warmer than normal during June and July, supporting the development of an El Niño event,” WMO said in an update issued on 19 August. “Atmospheric conditions across the tropical Pacific are increasingly showing patterns typical of a developing El Niño event. The development of a basin-wide El Niño has implications for the expected climate patterns in many parts of the world.”

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Trees “vital for food security”

Posted on 31 August 2009. Filed under: Agriculture, Environment, Food Security |

Countries tackling food insecurity and climate change adaptation can greatly benefit from agroforestry – integrating fleshy plants and trees into their farming systems, environmental specialists say.

Sub-Saharan Africa has a history of food insecurity brought on by meagre rains, land degradation, declining soil fertility and bad management of resources, among other factors.

“How do we, in a world of more than six billion people, rising to perhaps over nine billion, feed everyone while simultaneously securing the ecosystem services such as forests and wetlands that underpin agriculture, and indeed life itself in the first place?” Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), posited at the second World Congress on Agroforestry in Nairobi.

“We can empower people – not to wait for others to do something for them – but to take the initiative, one tree at a time,” Steiner said. “Trees are one of nature’s most ingenious answers to many of our problems.”

Agroforestry helps supply fodder, fruit and nuts as well as trees and shrubs that produce gums, resins and valuable medicines.

Steiner said agroforestry may have many roles to play in the new landscape of rewarding countries for their natural or nature-based services.

“Firstly it offers the potential for maximizing sustainable food production in the zones surrounding natural forests while also boosting biodiversity and other ‘natural infrastructure’.

“Secondly, it offers an opportunity for timber production and thus alternative livelihoods to meet perhaps a supply gap that may emerge under a fully-fledged REDD [Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation] regime.

“Thirdly these agroforestry areas can also potentially secure flows from carbon finance in their own right.”

Photo: UNIC
Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme (file photo)

Better REDD

REDD is a strategy to help local communities conserve forests, including funding these efforts through governments and market-based mechanisms, such as trading the carbon stored by forests as credits to greenhouse gas-emitting industries.

Trees such as the Faidherbia albida, a leguminous acacia-like tree, are especially useful.

“Faidherbia goes dormant at the beginning of the rains and deposits abundant quantities of organic fertilizer on to the food crops to provide nutrients and increase yields, totally free of charge,” said Dennis Garrity, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Director-General. “They are fertilizer factories in the food crop fields.”

The leaves and pods of the Faidherbia, which are adapted to a wide array of climates and soils from deserts to humid tropics, provide fodder in the dry season too.

Garrity said: “The much higher food prices… have exacerbated the pain of hunger in hundreds of millions of households. The standard solutions just aren’t working. The question is, what are we as agroforestry scientists going to do about it? What are we going to contribute to sustainable solutions?”

With shrinking forests, he said, “the rising demand for tree products will have to be met from farm-grown sources. Clearly, agroforestry science has much to offer in overcoming the food security challenges in Africa, and elsewhere in the world.”

Tree cover

According to a 24 August report by ICRAF, “tree cover is a common feature on agricultural land”, and represents over one billion hectares of land.

“Agroforestry, if defined by tree cover of greater than 10 percent on agricultural land, is widespread, found on 46 percent of all agricultural land area globally, and affecting 30 percent of rural populations,” stated the report.

Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), said: “Seventy-five percent of Africa’s farm lands are degraded, and deforestation is taking place at four times the global average, destroying 1 percent of our forests every year.”

Agroforestry alone could remove 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next 50 years, meeting about a third of the world’s total carbon reduction challenge, according to ICRAF studies.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Maize field: Mllions of households in Africa are facing hunger (file photo)

Carbon payback

Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai suggested that subsistence farmers might be more willing to invest in farming trees if there were carbon credit revenue guarantees.

UNEP recently launched a Carbon Benefits Project in the catchments of Lake Victoria, Niger, Nigeria and China, which seeks to find a standardized way of assessing how much carbon is actually locked away in vegetation and in soils under different land-management regimes.

This has been a major challenge for African smallholders seeking to access the carbon market. Preliminary findings are expected within 18 months.

According to Steiner, economic incentives are required to reverse deforestation and forest degradation.

“…Simply locking away forests to secure their carbon as if they are the Queen’s jewels, or putting up the modern equivalent of a Berlin Wall between forests and people, is almost certainly folly and almost certainly a recipe for disaster,” he said.

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After 50 Years, Land They Can Call Their Own

Posted on 8 July 2009. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security, Refugees/ IDPs |

Photo: Wilfred Muchire/IRIN
A view of the land that the government recently allocated thousands of people in Central Province

NYERI, 6 July 2009 (IRIN) – After a 50-year wait, thousands of Kenyans in Central Province have received the most coveted asset in the country – a piece of land.

The move is not only good news for those allocated the land but for the country as a whole as the move will boost food security when the recipients start farming wheat, beans, maize and livestock on the 6,070ha.

The 2,900 families have started tilling their land as the government formalizes the settlement, which was part of more than 28,327ha of land initially used for cattle farming, as well as a private game sanctuary owned by an investor.

The government paid the investor US$16.5 million for the land, between Mt Kenya and Aberdare National parks near Central Province’s boundary with Rift Valley Province.

Most of the recipients had, since independence in 1963, been living on government land within Mt Kenya forest and Aberdare Ranges until 1989 when the authorities evicted them for encroaching on water catchment areas.

Since they had nowhere else to go, they camped on road reserves adjacent to the forests where they lived in deplorable conditions.


They are among thousands of Kenyans who failed to secure land when demarcation took place in the late 1950s before independence. This was because they had sold off their land, had worked away from home when demarcation took place, or were so poor that they did not have any land when demarcation began.

After they were evicted from the forests in 1989, most settled in areas adjacent to the two major water towers (Mt Kenya and Aberdare National Parks) in areas such as Chehe, Hombe, Kagochi and Ragati near Mt Kenya and Zaina, Kabage and Gakanga in Aberdare Ranges.

Japhter Kiplimo Rugut, the Central Province commissioner, who has been overseeing the resettlement, said the settlement scheme involved farmers living on designated sites and farming elsewhere.

Under this model, being tested for the first time but set to be rolled out in other areas where there are squatters, the allocated land entailed 0.2ha for each farmer to set up a homestead and another 1.6ha on which to farm.

“People will be living in one area and farming elsewhere in this new planned settlement scheme,” Rugut told IRIN. “The government will be carrying out a similar exercise in Kibwezi area of lower Eastern Province and in parts of Coast Province where there are landless people waiting to be given land.”

Photo: Wilfred Muchire/IRIN
Mary Wambui outside her hut; she is one of the thousands of beneficiaries of government land

Food security

Rugut said the move was expected to boost the region’s food security as the government had, for years, been feeding the families.

“We have been giving relief supplies to the more than 2,900 families who have been given land,” he said. “They did not have anywhere to farm and solely relied on the government supplies, which will be a thing of the past once they settle in their farms.”

The government has set aside more than $1.2 million to set up various amenities in the area, including water, electricity, health and education facilities.

James Mwangi, 75, one of the recipients, said he hoped to enjoy the fruits of his land despite his advanced age.

“I have been landless throughout my life and I can only thank God and the government for eventually giving me a piece of land; we have suffered for decades,” Mwangi said.

Another recipient, Mary Wambui, was optimistic that despite the failing rains, she would harvest her own crop after years of depending on relief supplies.

“The last time I harvested my crops was in 1989 before we were evicted from Mt Kenya forest; for the last 20 years, we have been surviving on government and Red Cross supplies and occasionally [some] from well-wishers,” she said.

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Balancing Environmental Protection and the Community’s Socio-Economic Needs

Posted on 21 November 2008. Filed under: Agriculture, Environment, Governance |

During a discussion with environmental law enforcement agency officials in Khartoum and Juba, Sudan, recently, the head of the department dealing with national cooperation on forestry raised an important question about balancing environmental protective objectives and human needs. The official pointed out that in Sudan about 70 percent of the country’s energy requirements comes from the wood biomass. Thus, any protective measures imposed on the forests of the country need to take into consideration the livelihoods of the local population who depend on them.

This brings us to a very important aspect regarding the process of formulating and implementing environmental policies and regulations. Traditionally, policy and legislation formulation have been carried out at the national level without necessarily involving or holding consultations with key stakeholders including the local communities. Policy makers perceive local communities as lacking expertise to make informed decisions. This top-down approach leaves some key stakeholders unrepresented in the development agendas.

Local populations depend on the environment for their livelihoods. This includes provision of food, fuel-wood, pasture, building material, medicines etc. Thus, local communities’ perceptions and socio-economic needs require special consideration when formulating national environmental policies and legislation without which implementation will be difficult. Even where local people are not directly involved in policy formulation, they need to be adequately informed about government development policies and goals and their role in implementing them. Having in place clear systems of disseminating environmental policies and legislation to local communities would promote national cohesion and integration which is vital for fostering political stability. This in turn makes local communities feel that they own the policies their governments formulate.

Institutions and agencies entrusted with enforcement of environmental laws work with local communities and hence support from local people is of paramount importance if success is to be realised. It follows from this, therefore, that when environmental protective measures do not take into account the socio-economic development of the local people, then they are rarely adequately enforced because of lack of support from the local community. This creates conflicts between conservation objectives and socio-economic needs of the local communities. More resources and time have to be spent either to enforce the laws or negotiate with the local population to secure their support. The forceful eviction of livestock keepers and crop cultivators from Ihefu wetlands in Usangu basin in Southern Tanzania and the socio-economic and political struggles in and around Mau Forest Reserve in Kenya are examples of inadequate involvement of local people in policy formulation and implementation.

Caution however is required in trying to secure the support of local people to achieve conservation goals through taking into consideration their socio-economic activities. In some circumstances, the needs and wills of local people are not necessarily environmentally friendly, as local people may wish to achieve their socio-economic goals at the expense of the environment. There is, therefore, a need to strike a balance between the socio-economic needs of the local people and environmental protective objectives. To achieve this, full and active participation of key environmental related stakeholders, including local people at different levels of decision-making is one of the essential steps. This could be achieved through community awareness and outreach programmes in relation to environmental policies, laws and environmental protection and management in general. Thus, environmental protection and management issues need to be translated into understandable concepts for an ordinary person who often views environmental resources as gifts from God and hence her or she has the “birthright” to use them. Some crimes the local people commit against the environment may be due to lack of awareness.

It is important to note however that the kind of environmental crimes referred to in this article are those that involve individuals and groups of people whose livelihoods depend on environmental resources. Organised criminal gangs that exploit environmental resources for commercial purposes are to be controlled through breaking their networks because they work in a chain from the source where a crime is committed such as illegal logging in the forests through transit routes such as transportation to the destination of the goods/products such as cities or industrial centres. The facilitators of the process are sometimes influential people in the society such as politicians, businessmen and even environmental law enforcement officials, hence the difficulty to control and apprehend. They share information at every step of the process making it difficult to apprehend and take them to a court or any other institution entrusted with powers to enforce the rule of law. For these environmental criminal gangs to be apprehended and punished there is a need to strengthen environmental law enforcement agencies and officials through improving governance in the protection and management of the environment and the resources therein. This in turn requires a thorough training and capacity needs assessment of the environmental law enforcement institutions and agencies in the regions concerned.

Donald Anthony Mwiturubani, Senior Researcher, Environmental Security Programme, ISS Nairobi Office

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Kenya Pays the Cost of Bad Farming Policy

Posted on 24 October 2008. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security |

Anthony Kimani Muhia is as ambitious as he is entrepreneurial. The 32-year-old farmer from central Kenya has figured out much of what’s wrong with the country’s farming system, and he’s determined to change it, starting with himself.

His plot of land feels not much bigger than a handkerchief – about ¾ of an acre – but he’s been using it to find new ways of farming that might help him, his family and his community escape the poverty trap.

For all its tiny size, the farm is impressive.

There is the traditional stand of bananas surrounding an 8th of an acre of maize shoots, but the other half of the land has been turned over to horticulture, with rows of spinach, Chinese cabbage, and tomatoes.

All of them are radical departures from the usual subsistence crops that the community has depended on for generations.

Photo gallery: Maize – from harvest to market

“The biggest problem we have is inheritance,” he said.

“Every father divides his land amongst his sons, and now plots are so small that it’s almost impossible to survive, let alone make a living.

“We’ve got to come up with a way of combining and consolidating farms into communal plots so we can benefit from economies of scale.”

And for Anthony, the issue of land reform lies at the heart of Kenya’s food crisis.

Small farm headaches

“The problem for small farmers like myself is that we have to buy our inputs in very small quantities. That means we get no bulk discount for seed or fertiliser.

“We can’t afford to improve our infrastructure with things like irrigation systems, so we’re dependent on rain, and there’s no way we could ever think big machines like tractors.”

Anthony showed me his meagre maize harvest: about half a bag of dried white maize – the staple that keeps most of Africa’s poor alive.

He shook his head in frustration: “The agronomists tell us we should be getting about three bags of maize for a plot my size. That’s what they harvest in the US or Europe. But here, we get one sixth of that.”

About half the maize that ends up in Kenya’s markets comes from small farmers like Anthony Muhia. Ironically, that tends to inflate the impact of rising prices for inputs like seed and fertiliser.

“Because subsistence farmers pay a premium for buying small quantities of their inputs, any rise in costs has a disproportionate impact on the price of their produce in markets,” said agricultural economist Dr Julius Okello.

“Ultimately it’s the consumers who pay, but it also makes it impossible for small farmers to improve themselves or their farms.”

Even getting produce to market is a problem.

Because small farmers can’t afford to hire a truck, brokers come by every week or so to buy from the farm gate and move the goods to town, adding their own premium in the process.

Self-inflicted inflation

Dr Okello acknowledges that the global rise in food prices has had its impact in Africa, but he also argues that most of the problem is self-inflicted; that Africa’s own unique circumstances have added to the crisis and pushed domestic prices far higher than they should be.

“The continuous subdivision of land is the starting point. We’ve never had a proper land policy in Kenya, so the farms are chopped into smaller and smaller pieces that are impossible to survive on.

“But the food distribution system – the infrastructure – is very poor, so it is very expensive to move things like maize from where there’s a surplus, to where it’s needed. Why would you organise a truck to get your maize to Nairobi, when it’ll probably break down on the bad roads along the way?”

“And on top of it all, we’ve got retrogressive trade policies. The (Kenyan) government has just announced a ban on maize exports, but all that will do is create a black market for smuggled grain that will drive prices up even higher. Either way, the consumer pays.”

Election violence

And in Nairobi the problems have been compounded by a drought, and the post election violence of early this year.

The trouble erupted after disputed elections, and tens of thousands of farmers were forced from their properties and had their crops destroyed in the process. Many still haven’t gone back to their land.

In Nairobi, trader after trader in the grain market shook their head when I asked for maize.

“It’s impossible,” said one stall-holder who gave her name as Margaret. “We haven’t had maize for ages. You just can’t find it. Of course, the season is over, but we’ve always been able to get hold of some for our customers in past years. And the price is just too high… It was about 15 shillings (20 US cents) a kilo last year. Now it is about 25 shillings – almost double.”

Margaret pulled out a small bag of “mixed grains” – maize and beans together, selling now for about 50 shillings a kilo.

“That’s it. That’s all I have,” she said. “But people here – they want pure maize. And we have nothing to sell.”

Source: BBC Radio World Service
First broadcast on 16th October

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Kenya Among African Countries Shifting Focus to Biotechnology

Posted on 29 September 2008. Filed under: Agriculture |

Poor agricultural yields and rising food insecurity in sub – Saharan Africa has brought into sharp focus the role of modern agricultural technology in human development.

Heightening food insecurity in Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and several other African countries of the region has stimulated political and public attention on genetic engineering in general and on the potential benefits and risks of genetically modified foods (GMs).

In the recent past, over 10 African countries were facing a major food crisis with more than 38 million threatened with hunger and starvation due to a number of interrelated factors like rapid decline in food production as a result of bad agricultural policies; sever drought, poor infrastructure, poor investments in agricultural research.

Overall agricultural production in Eastern, Western and Central Africa has been sluggish in growth. According to a recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agricultural production is estimated to fall more drastically in Eastern and Southern Africa since adverse weather like floods affects food production hence more than 600, 000 people in Malawi are prone to severe famine.

In Angola, emergency food aid is needed for over 1.3 million internally displaced people and the region has at least 25% of the World’s undernourished people. Millions of African pregnant mothers and children especially under the age of 6 years die every year as a result of hunger, majority suffer from malnutrition, including protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) and a lack of micronutrients.

PEM deficiency is manifested in stunting and causes poor cognitive development and low educational achievement. Sub Saharan Africa is now the largest recipient of food aid with approximately 1.3 million people in Eritrea, 5.2 in Ethiopia, 1.5 million in Kenya and 2.0 million in Sudan required food aid in the year 2004.

Food security assessments conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) is the year 2004 showed that that more than 70% of households in Malawi and Zambia had no cereal seeds while Zimbabwe more than 94% of farmers had no seeds. But food insecurity is not simply caused by failure of agriculture to produce enough food, but also by many structural inadequacies that make it difficult for households to have access to food.

Demand for and accessibility to food is influenced by a variety of factors including income levels, population growth and movements, infrastructure, lifestyles and preferences and human resources development.

Increasing environmental degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa is the order of the day food, insecurity has also deepened poverty, increasing cases of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/Aids epidemics, while other parts of the World are experiencing growing levels of food security, high rates of economic growth, better standards of living, low mortality rate which is attributable to scientific and technological advances.

Advances in modern technology have made it possible to produce new, improved, safer and less expensive drugs, food additives, industrial enzymes, oil eating and other pollution degrading microbes are a few of the goods that can be developed using this technology.

To meet increasing demand for food and enlarge the basis for its security in Sub- Saharan Africa, productivity increases is therefore vital. “Biotechnology could contribute significantly to the achievement of the objectives of the convention on Biological Diversity and the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.

However, it must be developed judiciously, and used with adequate and transparent safety measures,” said former United Nation Secretary- General Kofi Annan.

According to an expert from Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Dr. Simon Gichuki, modern agricultural biotechnology has opened a wide range of possibilities of identifying, isolating, selecting and transferring genes from one organism into another to improve on quality, yielding and resistant to pest and diseases.

“Tissue Culture (TC) has done marvelous in terms of food security; an estimated 300,000 Kenyan rural families rely on banana to provide them with a regular cash income. The importance of banana in tackling the problems of poverty, food security and malnutrition in Kenya is therefore clear with this technology,” said Africa Harvest Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Florence Wambugu. In her speech during a recently concluded all Africa Congress on Biotechnology here in Nairobi, the CEO highlighted the plight of the vast majority of people whose lives hung in the balance if TC is not adopted in all the developing countries to save their dwindling economy.

She however elaborated on what her ten year of much dedication on TC in Kenya has done to the farmers adding that it has helped them recover from the setback in banana yields that occurred during the mid- 1990s. The area under banana, which had declined to around 46,000 ha at the end of 1996, had risen drastically and was estimated to be around 82,000 ha by the end of 2006.

This increase in banana orchards is equivalent to an additional net income of Ksh.5508 accruing to the banana growers (Acharya and Alton Mackey, 2007).

Acharya and Alton Mackey (2007) have estimated the direct economic impact of TC bananas, taking the area under TC bananas as 4288 (5.22% of the total banana area) and the difference in net income between TC and non- TC banana is Ksh224, 526 per ha noting that the additional income that accrued to TC bananas growers is around Ksh.963 million being an indirect impact of Ksh. 5508 million results in a total economic impact of Ksh. 6471 million.

At family level, a TC banana plantation is an important asset, since it provides food security and put to an end ‘begging culture’ when there is a drought to the area. Malnutrition has decreased to those who have adopted TC and the families’ diets have become more diverse since the income from selling bananas can be used to buy other types of food.

Groups benefits arising from the TC banana project are many including social cohesion and the group can present a collective voice for the community improvement, access to additional development activities is much easier, the groups can access credit, and use the money to buy plantlets or other inputs, vast knowledge, has enhanced their status in the society, have developed new business and entrepreneurial attitudes.

The Africa Harvest CEO further said that the technical impact of TC banana is that there is availability of large quantities of clean and superior planting materials which has enabled them to participate in reclaiming their old banana orchards and reduce losses due to pests and diseases.

She however attributes this success to the enormous support they got from the Ministry of Agriculture, KARI, JKUAT TechnoServe, ISAAA, BTA, GTL and ATL.Moreover TC banana has a positive impact to gender balancing since in earlier time, banana was considered as a ‘woman’ crop since 89% of banana orchard was taken care of by women but currently due to a huge income that has accompanied TC banana, 30% of the new groups are women while 70% is men.

According to the chairman of Africa Harvest Dr. Kanayo Nwaze, Africa Biotified Sorghum (ABS) is one of the 43 projects that seek to tackle one of the 14 major scientific challenges which if solved, could lead to important advances in preventing, treating, and curing diseases like HIV/Aids, malaria and many more disease that are affecting the developing countries.

The initiative is supported by a US$450 million commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) as well as two funding committees: US$27.1 million from the Wellcome Trust and US$4.5 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Dr. Kanayo further puts that he is optimistic that the ABS project will contribute to the overall goal of creating ‘deliverable technologies’ and health tools that are effective, inexpensive to produce, easy to distribute and simple to use in developing countries.

Apart from the infrastructure and scientific capacity, the ABS project through thr Public Acceptance and Communication (PAC) program, has contributed to a better understanding of biotechnology issues in Africa. The project is assisting in strengthening the existing consensus on controversial ethical, environmental, legal and political issues pertaining to genetically modified (GM) crops.

It provides a tangible opportunity to put into action commitments made to biotechnology through pan-African forums for such as the African Union and the New partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), which aims at helping countries engage in dialogue and strengthen national and regional biotechnology strategies.

Dr Stella Makokha, KARI says development of stem borer resistant maize using Bt maize, development of GM herbicide resistance in maize to combat the Striga weed, field trials on sweet potatoes resistant to viruses development of maize streak viruses-resistant maize varieties which they have done in conjunction with ISAAA and ICIPE has been a success since many farmers have tried it and are jubilant with the results got. Networks within institutions that deal with biotechnology: ABSF, ABNETA, KARI, ILRI, ISAAA and CIP.

She however emphasize that low government funding has been a major setback hence called for at least 1% of GDP since other countries like Asian Tigers and EU countries which are doing very well allocate 4% of their GDP to biotechnologies.

Limited facilities for research and communication, low experience in commercialization of technologies, little knowledge to the end users about technologies being developed, less emphasis on animal on biotechnology research, conflicting policies- importation of old clothes can stifle the cotton industry once cotton production increases; are also some of the challenges that are affecting biotechnologies.

Other crops that the scientists have improved on are; maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rubber, rice, cassava, coffee, mushroom, grain and legumes, cow pea, tobacco.

The global scientists vowed not to rest irrespective of a chain of challenges the face and are currently currying out research on industrial crops especially bio-fuel production, untapped desirable drought and disease resistance genes, TC of high value crops like vanilla, livestock disease control measures, improvement of livestock breeds for environmental stress and improve the nutritive value of foods.

Kenya’s assistant Minister for Higher Education Science and Technology, Kilemi Mwiria, told Africa Science News Service that the parliament is in its last stages of passing biotechnology bills to guard these scientific innovations and adopt them adding that the government is also committed to make sure that her citizens don’t sleep while hungry and that it will support scientists in fighting poverty, diseases and malnutrition.

He urged the developing countries to burry begging culture and embrace these biotechnological findings that if applied can make them self sufficient.

Dr. Kilemi further said that developing countries should come out of paranoid state and embrace biotech since majority of people in these countries don’t seek traditional medicine men but instead seek medical attention from these scientists (doctors) hence warned that this is the safe technology that is used in crops and animals to increase their yielding abilities.

The legislator called for the members of the parliament to stop giving hand outs to their constituents but instead empower them with the knowledge of biotechnologies which can improve on their living standards

He advised scientists to make their scientific, technology finding reports and write books in a simpler way so that everybody can understand their benefits without problems.

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Syngenta’s Tropical Sugar Beet Receives World Business and Development Award

Posted on 29 September 2008. Filed under: Agriculture |

Basel, Switzerland, Syngenta announced that yesterday it received the 2008 World Business and Development Award (WBDA) for the development and successful introduction of a new sugar beet that can be grown under tropical climate conditions and brings significant advantages to farmers, the environment, the sugar and ethanol industries and the economy.

The WBDA, presented by the United Nations Development Program, the International Chamber of Commerce and the International Business Leaders Forum, acknowledge the contribution of the private sector to help achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. The award recognized Syngenta’s tropical sugar beet as “an example of technological innovation that helps increase sustainable agricultural productivity to meet the world’s growing demand for food, feed and fuel”.

“We are very proud of this achievement. It is a reminder of the importance of the work we do in addressing the challenges of feeding a growing population and finding alternative energy sources” said Martin Taylor, Chairman of Syngenta. “Tropical sugar beet is also a good example of sustainable agriculture, since it improves land use and helps water management. It also illustrates how Syngenta works in partnership with agriculture in developing countries around the world”

About tropical sugar beet

Tropical sugar beet can be grown in relatively dry areas as it requires substantially less water than sugar cane. The beets are also faster growing, allowing farmers to grow a second crop on their land in the same period as sugarcane crops take to mature. This increases farmers’ productivity and income, bringing significant benefits also to the agricultural sector of developing markets. Tropical sugar beet delivers similar output yields to sugar cane and can be used both for processing sugar for food and conversion to bio-ethanol. An alternative to cane, it supports biodiversity when used in areas with extensive sugar cane monocultures.

It took Syngenta 11 years to develop tropicalized sugar beet. In 2007, the beet was successfully introduced in India. In the State of Maharashtra, for example, Syngenta helped a cooperation of more than 12,000 smallhold farmers to build and operate a bio-ethanol production plant that runs on Syngenta tropical beet. In Colombia, the building has started of two beet-to-ethanol plants, which are expected to start processing tropical sugar beet in 2009.

Syngenta is currently conducting adaptation trials in many other tropical countries such as China, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico and in the USA.

For further information and pictures:

Footage material can be downloaded under:

About Syngenta

Syngenta is a world-leading agribusiness committed to sustainable agriculture through innovative research and technology. The company is a leader in crop protection, and ranks third in the high-value commercial seeds market. Sales in 2007 were approximately $9.2 billion. Syngenta employs over 21,000 people in more than 90 countries. Syngenta is listed on the Swiss stock exchange (SYNN) and in New York (SYT). Further information is available at

Syngenta Cautionary Statement Regarding Forward-Looking Statements

This document contains forward-looking statements, which can be identified by terminology such as ’expect’, ’would’, ’will’, ’potential’, ’plans’, ’prospects’, ’estimated’, ’aiming’, ’on track’ and similar expressions. Such statements may be subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause the actual results to differ materially from these statements. We refer you to Syngenta’s publicly available filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for information about these and other risks and uncertainties. Syngenta assumes no obligation to update forward-looking statements to reflect actual results, changed assumptions or other factors. This document does not constitute, or form part of, any offer or invitation to sell or issue, or any solicitation of any offer, to purchase or subscribe for any ordinary shares in Syngenta AG, or Syngenta ADSs, nor shall it form the basis of, or be relied on in connection with, any contract therefore.

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Kibera: From Rubbish Dump to Cabbage Patch

Posted on 4 September 2008. Filed under: Agriculture, Environment, Poverty |

Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
This organic farm in the sprawling Kibera slum is providing residents with a source of income

NAIROBI, 3 September 2008 (IRIN) – Rubbish is everywhere in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, just a few kilometres from the centre of Nairobi. It lies not just between the ramshackle dwellings, but often underneath them, rendering them vulnerable to collapse in times of flood.

But the face of the slum is beginning to change as fresh vegetables spring up where trash once lay rotting.

The youth in Kandimiru, one of the villages within the slum have, through a self-help group, established the first organic farm on what was once a garbage dumpsite.

“We wanted to keep the area clean so we saw it fit to have a garden,” Augustine Oramisi, the chairman of the Kibera Youth Initiative for Community Development, a local umbrella body for self-help groups in Kibera, told IRIN.

Most of the youth involved in the project were involved in the post-election clashes that rocked the slum earlier in the year, Oramisi said.

“They were the most vibrant group during the skirmishes,” Oramisi said.

Since crime and disease is rife and unemployment is rampant, the project is seen by many as helping reform the behaviour of the youth in the slum. “Most of the members were criminals who have chosen to reform,” Mohammed Abdullahi, an official with the group, said.

“I have seen many people dying here,” Abdullahi said. At least 10 of the group members have been killed in crime-related activities, he said.

“No one could pass here,” Hussein Hassan, a member of the group told IRIN as he tended to a crop of spinach growing in the quarter acre garden located against a heap of garbage. Besides tending to the farm, Hassan also has a job collecting garbage in the area. The cabbages, tomatoes, spinach, kale, pumpkin and sunflowers grown on the farm are sold locally within the slum.

Recently, the group had their first cabbage harvest.

Besides providing food and income, the farm is also being used as a pilot project to teach local students how to carry out land reclamation.

The sprawling, unregulated slum originated during World War I, when the land was a temporary residence to the Nubian (Sudanese) soldiers from the King’s African Rifles. The name ‘Kibera’ comes from the Nubian word ‘kibra’, meaning forest or jungle.

Other prevailing conditions in the slum include the lack of basic water supplies, sanitation, solid waste management, power problems, poor roads and high population densities.

According to Eric Agoro Simba, a coordinator of the youth group, residents in Kibera require a forum where would-be donors and aid agencies can consult with them first to address the various challenges facing most of the slum’s inhabitants.

“The problems [in the slums] might be big but we also have the solutions,” Agoro said. “What these people need is a push, not pity.”

Agoro’s sentiments were echoed by Claire K Niala, a doctor mobilising funds to support the farm project and other development projects in the area. “They [slum dwellers] need empowerment more,” she told IRIN on 2 September.

There was a need to ensure that donor funding for slum projects actually benefited the local residents, they said.

“Anything with the word ‘Kibera’ sells, but the money ends up in the wrong pockets,” Agoro said.

According to UN Habitat, a community-based financial framework for accessing credit for housing and related services, such as water and sanitation, would enable communities in the area to access finance for improving their living conditions and enhance their capacity for self governance and decision making.

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Is Agricultural Biodiversity Another Way Out For Global Food Crisis?

Posted on 23 May 2008. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security |

Another possible way out for coping with the global food crisis is stressed here on Wednesday amid United Nation (UN) sets “Biodiversity and Agriculture” as theme of the International Day of Biological Diversity (IBD) this year.

“The protection of the world’s biodiversity is essential to the world’s food supply,” said Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The food prices have been rocketing for the past two years due to the tight supplies all over the world, and food costs are currently on average more than two and a half times higher compared to that in early 2002, with no signs of relief in sight.

“We chose this specific theme this year in order to stress the need to properly protect and manage the world’s biodiversity so as to ensure a secure supply of food for a growing world population,” said the CBD executive secretary.

His remarks are clearly supported by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who sent his message to IBD earlier, saying “of the 7,000 species of plants that have been domesticated over the 10,000-year history of agriculture, only 30 account for the vast majority of the food we eat every day. Relying on so few species for sustenance is a losing strategy.”


“From the perspective of facing the food crisis, developing agriculture biodiversity means understanding the diversity of highly nutritious traditional food system,” said Dr. Joseph Jojo Baidu-Forson, regional director of sub-Saharan Africa, Biodiversity International.

“In fact, we do have diversified sources of food, which could be excellent complementary food to the three major staples, namely, rice, wheat and maize,” said Baidu-Forson.

Economic and cultural changes have led to declining attention to the traditional food resources and knowledge, as urbanization, globalization and commercialization hastened the introduction of international “fast” food and cultures.

“Yet, the African food systems are very rich in diversity of traditional cereals, legumes, vegetables, indigenous fruits and animal-source foods, which are still well conserved in rural communities,” said Baidu-Forson.

“The neglect of our rich diversity of indigenous and traditional food systems have contributed to food insecurity in Africa,” he added.

The regional director also told Xinhua reporters that Africa, and the world at large, has not put adequate emphasis and investment in the research for developing the productivity or fully utilizing the traditional food sources.

“The understanding of its value and the development of agricultural biodiversity mean a lot to the food security, humanity, and even our survival,” Joseph said.


The UN General Assembly has declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity. This provides an unprecedented opportunity to raise awareness of the role that agriculture biodiversity plays in the lives of people and to create a better popular understanding of the value of agricultural biodiversity resources for human well being.

“The goal of the initiative is to promote and support efforts to ensure that agricultural biodiversity meets its potential to contribute to human development, and to create a drumbeat of messages targeting at agents of change and end users of agricultural biodiversity around the world,” said William Ruto, Kenyan agriculture minister, who officially launched the Campaign on Diversity for Life in Kenya on IBD.

The campaign is expected to change attitudes and increase appreciation by schoolchildren and their communities, the media, and policymakers of the value of agrobiodiversity for health and nutrition, he added.

Baidu-Forson said, “We also hope that policymakers would integrate conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity into national plans to ensure that such diversity is able to play its part in attaining the Millennium Development Goals on poverty and hunger.”

The World Bank said on Tuesday the rising food prices have pushed some 100 million people back into poverty, living below two U.S. dollars per day, and the fallout from price rises have already sparked food riots in some countries.

Solutions, such as genetically modified crops, have been proposed to alleviate the global food crisis, but as World Bank Managing Director Juan Jose Daboub said, “there is no magic solution, though the modified crops could be considered as long as it doesn’t create further price distortion.”

“To increase the global food production is surely the long-term solution to the current crisis,” said CBD Executive Secretary Djoghlaf, “but the agriculture biodiversity is definitely another parallel way to ensure a secure food supply.”

“We do hope that more and more research institutes will join us in the research for further commercial utilization of traditional food system, and more and more private sectors will realize the value of implementing agricultural biodiversity,” added Baidu-Forson.

The Convention on Biological Diversity is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and the equitable sharing of the benefits from utilization of genetic resources.

The Biodiversity International is the world’s largest international organization dedicated solely to research on making the most of agricultural resources and their diversity for human well-being.

See also UNEP: The International Day For Biological Diversity 22 May 2008

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Food Price Crisis: A Wake-Up Call for Food Sovereignty

Posted on 13 May 2008. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security, Governance, MDGs |

Food prices have been increasing sharply. According to the World Bank, global food prices have climbed by 83% over the last three years. The real price of rice rose to a 19-year high in March 2008, an increase of 50% in two weeks alone while the real price of wheat hit a 28-year high, triggering an international crisis.

The increase in food prices is impacting the most vulnerable – the poor are particularly affected, as their diets rely on the very staples that are becoming too costly: cereal grains, cooking oil, and dairy. However, the crisis is being felt not only by the poor, but is also eroding the gains of the working and middle classes, while investors and speculators are busy moving financial capital into food commodity markets after the housing bubble burst in 2007. In the meanwhile International Financial Institutions are promoting further trade liberalization and technological fixes such as the Green Revolution to boost agricultural production.

This Policy Brief examines the impact and causes of the soaring food prices and explores the viability of solutions recommended by the World Bank, WTO and the IMF to deal with growing hunger. It then makes own recommendations on how to stave off the starvation.

Click here to download the policy brief.

The Oakland Institute is a progressive policy think tank working to increase public participation and promote fair debate on critical social, economic, environmental and foreign policy issues.

Read the original article at: Food Price Crisis: A Wake-Up Call for Food Sovereignty

Related Articles on this Weblog: FOOD SECURITY

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An Answer to the Global Food Crisis: Peasants & Small Scale Farmers Can Feed the World

Posted on 13 May 2008. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security, MDGs |

Prices on the world market for cereals are rising. Wheat prices increased by 130% in the period between March 2007-March 2008. Rice prices increased by almost 80% in the period up to 2008. Maize prices increased by 35% between March 2007 and March 2008 (1). In countries that depend heavily on food imports some prices have gone up dramatically. Poor families see their food bills go up and can no longer afford to buy the minimum needed.

In many countries cereal prices have doubled or tripled over the last year. Governments in these countries are under high pressure to make food available at reasonable prices. In Haiti the government already fell because of this issue and strong protests have taken place in other countries such as Cameroun, Egypt, and the Philippines…

The current crisis: a result of agricultural liberalization

Some analyst have been exclusively blaming agrofuels, the increasing world demand and global warming for the current food crisis. But actually, this crisis is also the result of many years of destructive policies that have undermined domestic food production. Trade liberalization has waged a virtual war against small producers. Farmers have been forced to produce cash crops for transnational corporations (TNCs) and buy their food on the world market.

Over the last 20-30 years the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and more recently the WTO have forced countries to decrease investment in food production and to reduce support for peasant and small farmers. However, small farmers are the key food producers in the world.

Major international donors have also shown a lack of interest in food production. Development cooperation from industrialized countries to developing countries went up from 20 billion USD in 1980 to 100 billion USD in 2007. However, support for agriculture went down from 17 billion dollar to 3 billion USD during the same time. And most of these funds probably did not go to peasant-based food production.

Under neo-liberal policies, state managed food reserves have been considered too expensive and governments have been forced to reduce and privatize them under structural adjustment regimes. For example, Bulog, the Indonesian state company founded to regulate buffer stocks was privatized in 1998 under the policy package of the International Monetary Fund. Under pressure from the WTO, state marketing boards have been dismantled because they go against the principle of “free” trade. Under WTO agreements, countries have also been forced to “liberalize” their agricultural markets: reduce import duties (which is an important income loss for the importing governments!) and accept imports for at least 5% of their internal consumption even if they did not need it. At the same time TNCs have kept on dumping surpluses into their markets, using all forms of direct and indirect export subsidies.. At the same time, national governments have failed to stabilize their markets and protect farmers and consumers against sudden price fluctuations.

Neo-liberal policies have destroyed the capacities of countries to feed themselves.

After 14 years of NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreements) Mexico went through a major crisis often dubbed as the “tortilla crisis”. From an exporting country Mexico has become dependent on US maize imports and current imports 30 percent of its maize. Nowadays, while increased amounts of US maize have suddenly been diverted to agro-fuels production, quantities available for the Mexican markets have dropped, provoking price surges.

In 1992, Indonesian farmers produced enough soya to supply the domestic market. Soya-based tofu and ‘tempeh’ are an important part of the daily diet throughout the archipelago. Following the neo-liberal doctrine, the country opened its borders to food imports, allowing cheap US soy to flood the market. This destroyed national production. Today, 60% of the soy consumed in Indonesia is imported. Record prices for US soy last January led to a national crisis when the price of ‘tempeh’ and tofu (the « meat of the poor ») doubled in a few weeks.

According to the FAO the food deficit in West Africa increased by 81% between 1995 and 2004. During the same period cereal imports increased by 102%, sugar imports by 83%, dairy products by 152% and poultry by 500%. However, according to IFAD (2007) the region has the potential to produce sufficient amounts of food.

All around the world, even though it is increasing nation’s vulnerability, liberalization goes on: the European Union is forcing the ACP countries into so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) to liberalize the agricultural sector with foreseeable adverse effects on food production.

The agrofuel boom: a sudden shock on the world markets

The emergence of agrofuels is another cause of food price rises. Over the past few years, TNCs and world economic powers such as the US and the EU have rapidely developed agrofuel production. Massive subsidies and investments are flowing into this “booming” sector. As a result, land is rapidely being converted from food into fuel production and an important part of the US maize suddenly “disappeared” as it was bought up for ethanol production. This uncontrolled explosion of the agrofuel sector created a shock in the already unstable international agricultural markets. Egypt, one of the largest cereal importers, has called upon the US and the EU to stop encouraging the growth of maize and other crops for agrofuels. In Egypt food prices, including subsidized bread, went up by nearly 30% last year (2). In the Philippines, the government is now looking at some 1.2 million hectares for jatropha production in the southern island of Mindanao operated by the Philippine National Oil Co.-Alternative Fuels Corporation, It is also identifying more than 400,000 hectares of land for private sector investments. (Jatropha curcas is a drought-tolerant non-edible shrub. It produces fruits the size of golf balls which contain oil that can be converted into agrofuels. Impacts on local food security are expected (5).

Speculators: betting on expected scarcity

Often eclipsed in the public debate, speculation is one of the main causes of the current food crisis. Production remains high, but speculators are betting on expected scarcity and artificially increasing prices.

World grain production in 2007/2008 is estimated at 2108 million tones (an increase by 4,7% compared to 2006/2007). This is well over the average growth in the last decade of 2%. Average consumption of cereals for food increased around 1% per year and will reach 1009 million tones in 2007/2008. The use for feed purposes increased by 2% to 756 million tones. And the use for other purposes will be around 364 million tones. An important part of it is maize (95 million tones), much of which is going into agrofuels. The USA is expected to use 81 million tons of maize for ethanol, 37% more than in 2006/2007.

The world cereal stocks are estimated to decrease by 21 million (5%) tons to 405 million tons at the end of the season in 2008. Stocks have been going down for several years, they are now at the lowest levels in 25 years.

Although it is true that over the last years demand has increased slightly more compared to production, a balanced international and national policy regarding domestic food production could easily address the situation and would secure stable prices for farmers and consumers.

TNCs and mainstream analysts expect that land will be increasingly used for agrofuels (maize but also palm oil, rape seed, sugarcane…). They predict that the growing Asian middle class will start buying meat which will increase cereal demand and they expect negative climate effects on food production such as severe droughts and floods. Meanwhile, TNCs aggressively obtain large areas of agricultural land around cities for speculative purposes, expelling small food producers . In India more than 700 so called “New Economic Zones” are being established, kicking farmers out of their land.

Based on those predictions, TNCs have been manipulating the markets. Traders have kept stocks away from the market in order to stimulate price increases and generate huge profits afterwards. In Indonesia, in the midst of the soya price hike in January 2008, the company PT Cargill Indonesia was still keeping 13,000 tons of soybeans in its warehouse in Surabaya, waiting for prices to reach record highs.

In many countries large supermarkets have gained a near monopoly power and they are increasing prices far more than is justified by the price increase of the agricultural product. For example in France the price of certain yoghurts increased by 40% although the cost of the milk accounts for only a third of the total price. A substantial increase of the milk price for farmers could never cause such a price increase. (3) In Germany, farmers have seen the farm-gate price of milk dropping by 20-30%, pushing them into bankruptcy because supermarkets use cheap dairy products as a marketing tool to attract consumers.

International financial speculation is playing a major role in food price increases since the summer of 2007. Due to the financial crisis in the USA, speculators started to move from financial products to raw materials, including agricultural products. This directly affects prices in the domestic markets as many countries are increasingly dependent on food imports.

This is happening while there is still enough food in the world to feed the global population. According to the FAO the world could even feed up to 12 billion people in the future.

Lessons learned from the crisis: the market will not solve the problem

Instability on the international food markets is one of the characteristics of agricultural markets: as production is seasonal and variable, and a increase of production cannot be realized very quickly as crops need time to grow. At the same time consumption does not increase very much if more food is available. So small differences in supply and demand, uncertainties regarding future harvests and speculation on international markets can create huge price effects. The volatility in the food markets is mainly due to deregulation, the lack of control on the big players and the lack of necessary state intervention at the international and the national level to stabilize markets. De-regulated markets are key part of the problem!

Peasants and small farmers do not benefit from higher prices

While speculators and large traders do benefit from the current crises, most peasants and farmers do not benefit from the higher prices. They grow food, but the benefits of the harvest often get out of their hands : it is already sold out to the money lender, to the agricultural inputs company, or directly to the trader or the processing unit. Although prices for farmers have gone up for some cereals, this is modest compared with increases on the world market and increases imposed upon consumers. If food on the market comes from domestic producers, usually benefits of higher prices are reaped by companies and other intermediaries that buy the products from the farmers and sell them at an high price. If the products come from the international market, this is even clearer: transnational companies control that market. They define at what prices products are bought in the original country and at what prices they are sold in the importing country. Although in certain cases prices did go up for producers, the biggest part of the increase is cashed in by others. In the dairy and meat sector, because of the increased production costs, farmers even see their prices going down while consumers prices are shooting up.

Despite some moderate price increases at the farm level, stock breeders are in a crisis due to the rise in feed prices and cereal producers are facing sharp rises in oil based fertilizer prices. Farmers sell their produce at an extremely low price compared to what consumers pay. In Europe the Spanish Coordination of Farmer Unions (COAG) calculated that consumers in Spain pay up to 600% more than what the food producer gets for his/her production. Similar figures also exist for other countries where the consumer price is mainly defined by costs for processing, transport and retailing.

Among the victims: agricultural workers, landless farmers and cash crop producers

Agricultural workers as well as many people in the rural areas also have to buy food as they do not have access to land to produce. Therefore, they are severely hit by the current crisis. Some peasants and small farmers may have land but they are forced to produce cash crops instead of food. The increase of the price of edible oil in Indonesia since 2007 has not benefited the Indonesian palm oil farmers at all. They received only a minor price increase from the large buyers and they do not understand why ordinary people and consumers have to suffer such high prices for edible oil. Many of them are working under contract farming with big agribusiness companies which process, refine and sell the product. A small number of big agribusiness companies increased domestic prices, following the international price hike. The contract farming model creates a situation in which farmers cannot produce food for their families as they have to produce cash crops as monocultures such as sugar cane, palm oil, coffee, tea and cacao. This means that even if the farmer receives a minor increase for his cash crop, she has to buy much more expensive food on the market. Therefore increasing food prices also cause more poverty in their families.

Urban consumers hit hard

The international policies of the last decades have expelled hundreds of millions of people to the urban areas where most of them landed in slums, having a very precarious life, forced to work for very low wages and buy food and other goods at a high price. They are the first victims of the current crisis as they have no way to produce their own food. Their number has increased dramatically and they spend a big part of their income on food. According to the FAO, food represents up to 60-80 percent of consumer’s spending in developing countries (including landless farmers and agricultural workers). Companies ruthlessly exploit the current situation, accepting that increasing numbers of people go hungry as they do not have the money to buy the available food. Governments are forced to import expensive food to meet consumer demand and do not have the means to support the poorest consumers.

More free trade will not solve the crisis

Institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF as well as some governments are now advocating more investment in agriculture, increased food aid for the low income food importing countries and further liberalization of markets so that countries can improve their income through export. Many argue that we need more intensive production patterns, which means for them more industrial high input agriculture. This includes the introduction of GMOs and the use of more fossil energy!

At the same time they promote a second TNC-led “green” revolution in Africa, they keep on pushing for more market access for their TNCs in the Doha round and tie up the extra financial support to political criteria to increase the dependency of these countries. Nothing is said about the need for increased market regulation and stabilization or whether the support that is called for will go to peasant-based food production. Such investments will go to the importing countries by offering their financial “help”, bring more investment in corporate-led food production and continue to impose the same recipe of deregulation and privatization.

In the WTO negotiations high prices are used to make governments accept further tariff cuts and more de-regulation of the agricultural markets. This will create the next crisis when price fluctuations go in the other direction.

A way out of the crisis: rebuilding national food economies

To address the current crisis, La Via Campesina believes that countries should give priority in their budget to support the poorest consumers so that they have access to sufficient food. Meanwhile, they should give priority to their domestic food production in order to become less dependent on the world market. This means increased investment in peasant and farmer-based food production for the domestic market.

We do need more intensive food production, but intensive in the use of labor and in the sustainable use of natural resources. Diverse production systems have to be developed, systems that are not exclusively focusing on the main crops such as corn, soya, rice and wheat but that integrate local foods that have been neglected since the onset of the “green” revolution.. Small-scale family farms can produce a large diversity of food that garantees a balanced diet and some surpluses for the markets. Small-scale family farming is a protection against hunger!

Internal market prices have to be stabilized at a reasonable level for farmers and consumers: for farmers so that they can receive prices that cover the cost of production and secure a decent income and for consumers so that they are protected against high food prices. Direct sales from peasants and small farmers to consumers has to be encouraged. Mr. Jacques Diouf, secretary General of FAO has stated that developing countries should be enabled to achieve food self sufficiency(6).

In every country an intervention system has to be put in place that can stabilize market prices. In order to achieve this, import controls with taxes and quotas are needed to regulate imports and avoid dumping or low price imports that undermine domestic production. National buffer stocks managed by the state have to be built up in order to stabilize domestic markets: in times of surplus, cereals can be taken from the market to build up the stock and in case of shortage, cereals can be released.

Therefore land should be distributed equally to the landless and peasant family through genuine agrarian reform and land reform. This should include the control over and access to water, seed, credits and appropriate technology. People should be enabled again to produce their own food and feed their own communities. Any land grabbing, land evictions and expansion of land allocation for the expansion of agribusiness-led agriculture has to be stopped. Immediate measures are needed to support small farmers and peasants to increase agro-ecological food production.

National governments should not repeat the mistake of promoting agribusiness corporations to invest in large food production units. According to the FAO, ex-Soviet countries plan to open their land to agribusiness companies to produce food on land that is currently not cultivated. This could turn out to be another mistake if this is presented as a solution for the food crisis.

Regulating international markets and implementing basic rights

At the international level stabilization measures have to be implemented. International buffer stocks have to be built up as well as an intervention mechanism to stabilize prices on the international markets at a reasonable level. Exporting countries have to accept international rules that control the quantities they can bring to the market.

Countries should have the freedom to control imports in order to protect domestic food production.

Production of cereals for agrofuels is unacceptable and has to be stopped as this competes with food production. As a first step we ask for an immediate moratorium on agrofuels as proposed by Jean Ziegler former UN rapporteur on the Right to Food.

The influence of transnational corporations has to be limited and the international trade in staple foods has to be brought to a necessary minimum level. As much as possible domestic production should fulfill internal demand. This is the only way to protect farmers and consumers against sudden price fluctuations from the international market.

A possible agreement in the Doha Round will mean another blow for peasant-based food production; therefore any agreement has to be rejected.

Peasants and small farmers are the main food producers

La Via Campesina is convinced that peasants and small farmers can feed the world. They therefore have to be considered as the key part of the solution. With sufficient political will and the implementation of adequate policies more peasants and small farmers will easily produce sufficient food to feed everyone at a reasonable price. The current situation shows that changes are needed!

The time for food sovereignty has come!

By La Via Campesina (Grassroots International)

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Financing Boost for Kenya’s Small Farmers

Posted on 7 May 2008. Filed under: Agriculture, Food Security, Governance, MDGs, Microfinance |

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
The cost of food is rising, placing a disproportionate burden on the poor who spend most of their income on consumables

NAIROBI, 6 May 2008 (IRIN) – Small farmers and agricultural enterprises are the main beneficiaries of a financing partnership launched on 6 May to help them break out of poverty and commercialise farming.

“We must insulate our people from the indignity of hunger and starvation,” James Mwangi, the chief executive officer of Equity Bank, one of the partners in the deal, said in Nairobi at the launch of “Kilimo Biashara” (Commercialising Farming).

According to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the partnership represents an innovative solution to the farmers’ credit crunch, with the aim of boosting food security and creating jobs in rural areas.

AGRA, with Equity Bank, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture, signed an agreement for a loan facility of US$50 million (Ksh3 billion) to speed up financing for at least 2.5 million farmers and 15,000 agricultural enterprises across the country.

The loan facility will operate against a “cash guarantee fund” from AGRA and IFAD to reduce part of the risk of lending by Equity Bank, AGRA said.

“Farmers are the backbone of our economy; they deserve access to affordable credit that will enable them to make a profit and continue Kenya’s trajectory of growth,” Mwangi said.

Akin Adesina, AGRA vice-president in charge of policy and partnerships, read a speech on behalf of the AGRA chairman, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in which he said the government still faced many challenges despite the formation of a new cabinet.

“There are lots of internally displaced persons. Many have lost their lands and ability to produce food,” Annan said. “Vast areas of the country now experience the challenges of getting access to affordable seeds and fertilisers. Unless urgent measures are taken, food insecurity will deepen.

“The world is in the midst of a food crisis. Kenya is not exempted. The food crisis has several causes, including high energy prices, diversion of food grains to bio-fuels, climate change, and low grain reserves on the global market – the lowest it has been in several years.

“Many go hungry. Children skip meals, malnutrition is rising and real wages are falling due to the high price of food,” he said. “There is an urgent need to mitigate these impacts. Food subsidies are justified to stem the tide, but only for the short term. We need to recognise that the real cause of the food crisis in Africa is low and declining agricultural productivity.”

For a sustainable solution, he said, medium to long-term measures were needed to raise agricultural productivity in Kenya and other African countries; “that requires a green revolution“.

''We need to recognise that the real cause of the food crisis in Africa is low and declining agricultural productivity''

“Now is the time to have bold policies that support farmers to be able to afford farm inputs and produce food to feed granaries in Africa,” Annan said. “Now is the time for governments to implement bold pro-poor policies to achieve a green revolution – one that ensures sustainable and dramatic increases in agricultural productivity by poor farmers. Now is the time.”

Poverty strategy

President Mwai Kibaki said Kilimo Biashara was one of the government’s strategies to improve the plight of poor farmers and to help eradicate poverty.

He said the government had taken measures to improve agricultural production across the country, including reviving collapsed farmers’ institutions, doubling the budgetary allocation for the ministry of agriculture, improving agricultural extension services by providing technical and personnel assistance, as well as establishing commodity-specific grants to sectors such as coffee and tea.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Kenya wanted to move away from dependence on outside help with regard to food production.

“A hungry person is an angry person; we want to deal with the hunger so as to be able to comprehensively deal with the anger,” he said.

Agriculture Minister William Ruto said his ministry had identified key areas to make agriculture “profitable, commercial and competitive”: access to farm inputs; doubling the ministry’s research budget; certification of seed; and increasing farmers’ access to credit.

“If you finance agriculture, you enable farmers to produce more food; if farmers produce more food, we are likely to realise lower food costs; with lower food costs, we will be able to tame inflation; and if we tame inflation then our economy will grow.”

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