|CERES No. 158 March - April 1996 (FAO Ceres, 1996, 50 p.)|
by Helene Stavrou
There is an uneasy consensus among cattle-producing countries and scientists that it is safe to eat meat and dairy products from animals treated with natural and artificial hormones - if properly used. Yet as of this writing, the European Union (KU) has continued to ban the sale of meat and milk from hormone-treated animals, and arguments for and against invoke an unlikely mix of science, trade, economics, consumer sensibilities and animal welfare.
The agricultural practice of using hormones to fatten cattle and stimulate lactation first drew fire in the 1970s when the synthetic sex hormone diethylstibestrol (DES), then prescribed for both humans and cattle, was linked to cancer in the daughters of women who had taken it to prevent miscarriage.
The use of DES was drastically curtailed in medicine and banned outright as a growth promoter in cattle because residues of the hormone remain in meat after slaughter. Many countries did continue, however, to use other hormones as veterinary growth adjuncts. But not the EU countries, which banned all growth-promoting hormones - and consequently the sale of domestic and imported meat from cattle given those hormones. When the milk-stimulating hormone bovine somatotropin (BST) came into use, the EU banned it as well.
In 1984, several governments asked FAO to examine the question of hormone residues in dietary meat in order to determine once and for all whether any health risks were associated with growth-promoting hormones.
The issue went before the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international body through which FAO and the World Health Organization evaluate, adopt and publish food safety standards. The commission asked its Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives to test three natural and two synthetic sex hormones used to speed growth in cattle and the milk-stimulating hormone BST.
The panel found meat from cattle implanted with the synthetic growth-promoting hormones zeranol and trenbolone acetate safe for human consumption if drug residue in the meat did not exceed a specified, minute amount.
The natural hormones estradiol 17B, progesterone, testosterone and BST were deemed safe without any residue limit if used in accordance with sound veterinary practice. The panel said only an insignificant amount of hormonal byproduct is consumed in the meat and milk of properly treated animals. Because these byproducts are indistinguishable from chemicals already present in the human body, they pose no threat to human health.
In June 1996, the Codex Commission voted to postpone a decision on BST but adopted the other recommendations for the growth-promoting hormones as international standards of food safety.
The EU countries generally accepted that the hormones in question, when properly used, do not present a hazard to human health. But they did not back down.
One European concern, according to FAO's Alan Randell, session secretary of the June Codex Commission meeting, was the difficulty in enforcing the sound veterinary practice fundamental to safety. All the hormones considered safe when used in accordance with sound practices can be dangerous if misused. Moreover, says Randell, there is a major problem of illegal use of untested substances in meat production in Europe.
Scandinavian countries argued on the basis of animal welfare. Many countries do not want hormone use because it is unnecessary, says Stuart Slorach of the Swedish National Food Authority. They don't believe it is justified on the basis of animal welfare: it does affect hormonal balance in animals.
Finland, Norway and Sweden maintained that the use of hormones to promote growth did not, in itself, comply with the principles of good agricultural practice. They said there was no demonstrated need to subject animals to hormonal implants.
The Europeans also claim consumers simply do not want to eat meat from hormonally treated animals. Ever since a consumer boycott of veal as a result of illegal use of DES in 1979, consumer sentiment has been decidedly against all hormone additives in meat.
Consumers International, a pan-European watchdog organization, points out that the consequences from long-term consumption of meat containing hormones remain unknown.
Even if the health risks from hormones in meat production are minuscule, the organization contends, consumers should be permitted to avoid any marginal risk should they so choose. In order for them to be able to make this choice, meat containing hormones should be clearly labelled.
Proponents of hormone use cried foul.
They are safe, so why prevent their use? asks Christian Verschueren of Consultation mondiale de l'industrie de la santnimale (COMISA), an international veterinary drug trade organization. COMISA, he says, is trying to educate the consumer to acknowledge the safety of hormones administered with established veterinary safeguards.
There are compelling economic arguments in favor of hormones in commercial husbandry. It is far cheaper to feed hormone-fortified cattle. They are more efficient in converting their feed to beef, grow at a faster rate and produce leaner meat, yielding more beef per kilogram of feed. These production efficiencies'' translate into savings which should be passed on to consumers, says Randell. But COMISA's Verschueren and others acknowledge that economic arguments carry less weight where agricultural industries enjoy government subsidies, as in the EU countries.
Some hormone supporters contend, in fact, that EU objections on grounds of safety, economics and consumer preferences are specious arguments used to hide unfair trade practices. They suspect Europe is violating the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. A product of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, the agreement unequivocally holds countries to imposing only those trade restrictions needed to protect health and based on scientific principles.
At a meeting last June, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman pressed European Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler to lift the ban. He contended there was no scientific evidence to support it and threatened to take the case to the WTO. Fischler argued that the fears of consumers must be respected but said the European Commission would re-evaluate its position after an EU scientific conference on growth promotion in meat production. The conference came to the same broad conclusions as the Codex panel.
Early last June a group of Yaqui farmers overturned a truckload of seeds outside the Secretariat of Agriculture of Ciudad Obregon in the state of Sonora. They were enraged over a wheat price that was low even for that farming region of northern Mexico. At roughly the same time, desperate campesinos began occupying banks, sometimes taking employees hostage. They blocked the main highways with protests, organized mass demonstrations in front of the national Parliament and local government offices and registered by the thousands with the debtor's movement El Barzon.
El Barzon, which takes its name from the yoke ring to which a plow is attached, has 2.5 million members - from credit card holders ruined by a tenfold increase in interest rates to borrowers, who have not realized the return they expected on their investment in irrigation, machinery, fertilizers, terrains.
Members of the movement are not the poor. They include farmers trying to practice a modern, capitalist agriculture as well as urban, middle-class Mexicans. They are willing to pay their debts - but only at mutually agreed interest rates and not under what El Barzon considers usurious conditions imposed by the banks.
Why have these relatively privileged producers rejected the unrestrained neo-liberalism introduced by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and gone into battle against the banks' interest rates? It is because Mexican agriculture has just suffered the blow of a socio-economic earthquake intensified by a drastic devaluation of the peso in December 1994. Underneath the rubble, a whole sector of the middle class, both rural and urban, is struggling against sudden pauperization.
Forced to watch their agricultural production sink under the terrible impact of foreign imports, rural, middle-class Mexicans feel particularly offended by the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few bankers. Their methods of showing their outrage are radical. They burn tractors due to be repossessed by the banks, interrupt bank auctions and retrieve goods and properties repossessed by government officials.
Due to the combined effects of NAFTA and drought, 400 000 hectares of farmland were left unsown. Mexico had to import 4 million tons of corn in 1995, compared to 2.5 million tons in 1994. Nearly 10 per cent of the US$8 billion in loans to the agricultural sector are in default, and the total grows by 29 per cent monthly.
In the newspaper La Jornada last 29 June, Jose Rodolfo Farias Arizpe, president of the Agricultural State Council of Nuevo Leon, blamed the crisis on a model of development that provides for commercial liberalization favoring consumption and protected importers. He cited a lack of definition as to the role the agricultural sector should take within the context of the national economy.
Between 21 December 1994 and 21 April 1995, 12 000 companies went under, and the total of loans in default rose to US$20 billion - 20 per cent of the banks' capital - according to Jose Quirino Salas, president of the National Assembly of Rural Agricultural Producers, Merchants, and Service Lenders of El Barzon.
Even more disturbing is the growing concentration of wealth. Out of a national population of 92.2 million, 24 193 Mexicans control 56 per cent of bank deposits. Of the 14.2 million Mexicans who manage to save anything at all, 0.17 per cent possess 91 per cent of all fixed-term deposits.
The Mexican Catholic Church has expressed strong concern over the situation. Asserting that Mexicans' standard of living has fallen by more than 50 per cent over the past six years, the Mexican Episcopate asked U.S. bishops to lobby in Washington for a discount on the Mexican debt. The Catholic leadership fears that worsening unemployment and poverty will breed unrest. A starving population is capable of trying anything, said Bishop Jose Maria Hernandez of Nezahualcoyotl.
NAFTA was signed in January 1994, and in the autumn-winter cycle of 1994-95, production of the 10 principal grains dropped by 21.6 per cent from the previous cycle, the Secretariat of Agriculture reported. Oleaginous production doubled, mainly because farmers in Tamaulipas near the United States began producing safflower seeds instead of grains. Overall, while production of rice, beans, corn and wheat dropped from 9.5 to 7.5 million tons, oleaginous production (cotton, sesame, safflower and soy) rose from 85 to 169.5 million tons.
The government has formulated plans for the rural sector under its Procampo program. The president of the National Agricultural Council, Jorge Mazon Rubio, gave the program his qualified approval but said it contains inconsistencies in design and application. The government, he said, must find a long-term solution for the geographic areas that are unable to convert their lands to other crops, and to put into effect legislative changes that would allow the program full guarantee of enforcement for the next 15 years.
Modifications in the Constitution to legalize reconstitution of large landholdings known as latifundios aim, in true NAFTA spirit, to speed up the capitalization of agriculture and regulate landownership. But laws alone are not enough to stimulate investment in agriculture. The low profitability of these investments, high inflation, soaring interest rates, fluctuating exchange rates, drawbacks of liberalization, the threat posed by imports and political instability all affect commercial agriculture as well as poor and middle-class indigenous groups.
Except for large companies with the capacity to reconstitute latifundios, diversify their production, assure their own distribution or heavily influence markets, there are few who can invest today in Mexican farmland. This makes NAFTA's effect in Mexico more of a looming question mark than the hoped-for panacea.
Milk from a cow's healthy udder contains few bacteria, but between milking and processing the germ count increases considerably. If the milk isn't cooled and doesn't reach the processor within five hours after milking, as can easily happen in developing countries, it isn't suitable for processing. Time, labor and valuable nutrition are lost. This is a serious problem but, unlike many others facing Third World farmers, this is a problem that has a cheap, simple and safe solution - treating raw milk with its own antibacterial system created by nature for the benefit of the organism.
Countries with advanced, large-scale dairy industries have facilities for cooling raw milk during on-farm handling, storage and transportation to keep down the bacteria count and preserve its quality. Through much of the developing world, however, most of the milk is produced by smallholders, and constant refrigeration is not only too expensive but technically and logistically impossible.
The usual procedure is for dairy farmers to deliver small quantities of milk to a local collection point, where the amount by volume or weight is recorded and, sometimes, the quality is checked. The milk collected is transported by bicycle or donkey to a larger centre, which may or may not have refrigeration facilities, then trucked in bulk to a processing plant.
If the trip from milking stool to processing plant takes more than five hours the milk quality suffers. If it hasn't been chilled at all along its route, it will probably be unacceptable both to dairy processing plants and to potential consumers.
What the dairy industry in developing countries needs is a method, other than refrigeration, to protect raw milk from bacterial deterioration on the way to the processing plant. And that is exactly what lactoperoxidase (LPS) offers.
LPS is a protein naturally present in milk. It has an antibacterial effect in the presence of hydrogen peroxide and thiocyanate, which milk also contains. Studies have shown small additions of hydrogen peroxide and thiocyanate stimulate LPS's bacteria-fighting system in milk and considerably extend its shelf-life.
To activate LPS in raw milk, the natural level of thiocyanate present in milk is increased to about 15 parts per million (ppm) and an equimolar (8,5 ppm H2O2) amount of hydrogen peroxide is added. This is approximately 100 times less than the amount of hydrogen peroxide often used for the unauthorized conservation of milk and three to 20 times less than the level of thiocyanate found in human saliva or in cassava or cabbage. Toxicological studies have confirmed the modest levels of thiocyanate recommended would cause no health problems.
In experiments and field trials, the treatment produced an antibacterial effect that lasted five to six days on refrigerated milk and increased the shelf-life of raw milk by three to four hours in an ambient temperature of 30°C, depending on the quality of the raw milk when it was treated.
Effective, cheap, safe and easy to apply at milk collection points, the method would be of particular benefit to countries with warm climates. It provides a safety margin for delivery of unrefrigerated milk to processing centres and makes it possible to collect milk from remote areas where collection is not feasible at present. It can also preserve milk for longer periods in countries with refrigeration facilities.
Many developing countries, however, have followed the lead of countries with industrialized dairy industries and enacted legislation requiring refrigeration of milk, thus barring the use of any alternative method of preservation. This is impractical and counter-productive where milk-producing areas are widely scattered and refrigeration is not technically or economically possible. The laws impede development of milk production and, even worse, encourage consumption of raw milk which is not properly treated and may be harmful to the consumer.
LPS is a far more effective solution, proven safe by decades of exhaustive research and testing.
The idea of using chemical additives to preserve milk was first officially broached on an international level at an FAO Expert Consultation in Rome in 1957. Research in the United States, United Kingdom, Sweden, the former Czechoslovakia and other countries had already pointed to the LPS system as one of the most promising methods available.
At its 20th joint session in 1967, the FAO/World Health Organization (WHO) Committee of Government Experts on Milk and Milk Products turned to the International Dairy Federation (IDF) for technical advice. IDF carried out its own studies and concluded the LPS system was an acceptable alternative to refrigeration to prevent raw milk from deteriorating in countries in the early stages of organized dairy industry development when the installation of cooling facilities was impossible for technical or economic reasons.
Field trials by national research institutes in Kenya, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Mexico, the Philippines, Pakistan and Cuba in cooperation with the Swedish University of Agricultural Science and FAO confirmed the merits of the LPS system.
At its 21st session in Rome in 1986, the FAO/WHO Committee of Government Experts on the Code of Principles concerning Milk and Milk Products asked IDF to prepare a code of practice for the use of LPS to preserve raw milk. After circulating the code among its national committees, IDF presented it to the FAO/WHO Experts' Committee on Food Additives at its 35th meeting in 1989. From there it went to the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which gave final approval at its 19th session held 1-10 July 1991 in Rome.
FAO is now working with scientific and development institutes to find the best ways of exploiting this applied biotechnological process to the benefit of milk producers throughout the developing world.
Jan Barabas is dairy technician officer in the Dairy Group of FAO's Animal Production and Health Division.
For further information: Meat and Dairy Service, MO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy, Tel: (396) 52254368; Fax: (396) 52255749
A rainy day can be good weather for households in need of a free supply of water. The origin of all the fresh water the world uses, whether from surface or underground sources, is precipitation. A simple way to collect this precipitation is to rig up pipes to carry rainwater from rooftop gutters to a cistern, but that means making do with whatever water happens to run off the roof. A far better way is to design a more efficient catchment system by modifying the position of the house and construction of the roof.
The first step is to understand something of the physics of rain. Each raindrop has a diameter of 0.5 to 5 millimetres. Each rainfall has a spectrum of drop sizes with most of the larger drops being 2 or 3 mm in diameter. Drops of 0.04 to 0.5 mm are called drizzle, and of 0.001 to 0.04 mm form clouds or fog.
In still air, a drop with a diameter of 0.1 mm falls vertically at about 25 centimetres per second, a 0.5 mm drop at 2 m per second and a 5 mm drop at 9 m per second. The effect of a wind of even a few metres per second is to push the drops sideways so they fall at an angle. The stronger the wind or the smaller the drops, the closer to horizontal will be their path.
When it is raining and there is a strong west wind, it is logical to seek shelter on the east side of the house. By the same logic, it is from the west side that the most rain can be collected.
· Positioning the house. The house should stand free of any trees or taller buildings that would intercept precipitation. Its length should face the wind, and it should have an eaves-trough (rain gutter) at the bottom of the west wall to collect the rain striking and running down the wall.
· Designing the roof. A flat roof is an efficient rain collector only if the rain falls straight down, which is not normally the case. A centre peaked roof is better for collecting rain falling at an angle. Even better would be to eliminate the peak and have a roof with a single slope rising up from the windward side. This, however, might look a little odd so a more reasonable approach is to put a vertical panel along the peak of the roof. Even a small panel 1 m high can significantly increase the amount of rain collected in windy weather.
· Making use of rain shadows. The reason for the increased collection is the existence of a rain shadow behind each vertical part of the house - the west wall, the peak of the roof and the panel on the roof. When the wind blows rain against one side of the vertical wall, the rain-free area on the other side is known as a rain shadow. The wall will collect the rain that would have fallen in the rain-shadow area in the absence of the wall. The rain collected by a house designed to make use of rain shadows can be two or three times as much as the rain collected by a house with a simple flat roof collection system.
· Taking the measurements. The sizes of the rain-shadow areas can be determined by measuring the wind speed and inferring the droplet sizes from the measured rainfall rates. Once the rain-shadow area is determined, it is possible to use a rain gauge to measure the rainfall on the ground and calculate the amount of water that should be collected. Climatological data for the locality will reveal the prevailing wind direction during rainfalls and average wind speed and rainfall rate. Then, informed decisions can be made on how to orient new villages or individual buildings and which buildings are best suited for modification to improve their rainfall collection.
Using the rainshadow concept can improve any effort to collect precipitation. In particular, it can make a critical difference in semi-arid or mountain areas where there is frequent drizzle but little heavy rain and, not only is the total amount of precipitation low, but the drops tend to move toward the horizontal.
- Robert S. Schemenauer is a scientist in the Cloud Physics Research Division of Environment Canada's Atmospheric Environment Service.
Bread is fast replacing rice as the staple food in the crowded urban centres of developing countries, and it couldn't have happened at a worse time. Soaring wheat prices threaten to cause balance-of-payments deficits reminiscent of the energy crisis of the 1970s. The difference this time is that the Arab nations - including petroleum exporters - face serious economic consequences along with the rest of the developing world.
The price of wheat per ton shot up from US$140 to $210 between November 1994 and November 1995 and, according to the international Wheat Council (IWC), should reach US$250 this spring. To compound the problem, food security has already been undermined by a drawdown in strategic stocks because of poor harvests and reductions in food aid in line with post-Cold War policy orientations. The entire southern hemisphere, including the Arab countries, is feeling the effects.
FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) estimates 1995-96 cereal imports will cost low-income, food-deficit countries an extra US$3 billion, up 25 per cent from 1994-95. There is growing concern, FAO says, that many of these countries will not be able to finance in 1995-96 the additional cost of cereal imports.
The wheat bill of 11 Arab wheat-importing countries, as estimated by IWC, would be up at least 20 per cent by this spring - totalling US$6 billion, compared to $5 billion in 1995. The worst hit in terms of balance-of-payments deficits would be the three largest importers, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. Egypt and Algeria could also face heightened political instability if basic food supplies were jeopardized.
Richard Woodhams, vice executive director of IWC, says much of the price rise has nothing to do with production. He cites cutoffs in government subsidies to wheat producers, especially in the United States and European Union, and hikes in shipping costs, which alone added US$30 a ton to the price. The Final Act of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which took effect in January 1995, provided for the phasing out of subsidies paid to domestic producers. And, Woodhams says, rising demand and falling supplies made producers more than happy to comply.
The effect of this change in the demand-supply rates has already been staggering. The price of American Reed winter wheat jumped 70 per cent to US$210 a ton last April when Washington lifted subsidies of up to 45 per cent - or almost US$100 a ton.
Last year's drought in North Africa left some Arab countries in a vulnerable position. Morocco's wheat harvest plunged from 9.4 million tons in 1994 to 1.6 million last year, and plans to buy 2.8 million tons in 1995-96. Egypt, which lacked reserves, was forced to buy 700 000 tons of wheat in 1995 - at a free market price that had reached US$200 a ton.
Saudi Arabia, until recently one of the world's top 10 wheat-exporting countries, expects its 1995-96 wheat production to just cover its domestic needs, but this is by choice. With oil prices falling, the Saudi government decided to relinquish the subsidies with which it had encouraged wheat production. The U.S. Agricultural Trade Office in Riyadh said the area sown to wheat fell from 581 000 hectares in 1994 to 465 000 ha in 1995. The newspaper Al-Quds reported from Dubai last 7 September the Saudi government is expected to cut the subsidized price at which it buys wheat from Saudi farmers from the 1995 rate of 2 000 riyals (about US$533) a ton to 1 500 SRIs (about US$400). The indications are that within two to three years, Saudi production will stabilize at about 1.5 million tons annually - enough to cover local demand and provide surplus for strategic stocks.
For a low-income, food-deficit country like Yemen, the cost of wheat imports is putting a severe strain on hard currency reserves. According to government figures, Yemen spent US$423 million for wheat during the first nine months of 1995, compared to US$400 million for the whole of 1994 - and each US$1 paid out was subsidized by the equivalent of 9 cents in Yemen's currency, the rial.
The overall consumption of wheat in the developing countries has been growing at the rate of 5 per cent a year since the 1960s. In the Arab world, the per capita consumption of wheat has jumped from 100 kilograms a decade ago to 142 kg today. Aggregate production increases of 2 per cent annually can hardly keep pace with population growth of 3.5 per cent annually. IWC put total Arab wheat imports in 1994-95 at 21.1 million tons compared to 18.4 million tons in 1992-93. Imports in 1995-96 are expected to exceed 22 million tons.
Overall, Arab countries paid US$33 billion in 1994 to import basic food commodities, including wheat. Given the expected price rises due to the dismantling of trade barriers and the projected population rise from 240 million at present to 295 million by the year 2000, keeping food imports at the current per capita level will cost the Arab world US$50 billion a year.
Although forecasts agree the cost of wheat will continue to rise, estimates vary as to how drastic the rise will be. The Economist Intelligence Unit said late last year that 1996 prices could reach record highs as the world wheat supply drops to crisis levels due to drastic reductions in production by the United States, Canada, EU countries, Argentina and Australia, which together harvest almost 90 per cent of the world's wheat. In the case of the United States, Canada and EU trade factors are at work; for Argentina and Australia, there is fear of continuing drought. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said it expects the United States and Canada to withdraw support they paid to farmers to take large areas out of wheat but predicted only gradual price rises until the year 2000.
As a further strain on supplies, a sharp rise in demand is expected in the second half of the 1990s in Russia, which had its worst harvest in decades in 1995, and China is expected to import almost 10 million tons of wheat due to water shortages (see Ceres No. 155, pp. 26-35).
As a result of rising demand and falling supply, both IWC and OECD warn that world strategic stocks could drop to 92 million tons this year, the lowest in 20 years. In EU countries alone, OECD said stocks collapse from 33 million tons two years ago to only 3 million tons in 1995.
Medhat Makar, an Egyptian journalist, is editor of the Arabic edition of Ceres.
U.S. and Japanese scientists are cooperating in an attempt to remove the bitterness from the juice of navel oranges by genetic engineering. All citrus fruits contain a substance that turns into bitter-tasting limonin when juice is extracted or the fruit is processed into fresh segments or slices. Taste-panel studies indicate about 30 per cent of consumers object to the taste of juice with as little as two parts per million of limonin.
The bitterness is far more pronounced in navel oranges, and their juice has to be diluted to make it saleable. But the bitterness of limonin and the closely related compound nomilin can be neutralized in some kinds of citrus by an enzyme that attaches to each bitter molecule a molecule of glucose, which transforms them into non-bitter compounds called limonoid glucosides. Shin Hasegawa and his team of researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Western Regional Research Center in Albany, California, have identified the enzyme in navel oranges that links the glucose molecule on to limonin or nomilin and isolated about 20 liminoid glucosides thus produced. Hasegawa's group is cooperating with Mitsuko Omura of the Japanese government's Fruit Tree Research Station in Okitsu, Shimizu, in an attempt to work back from the enzyme to find the gene that directs the enzyme's production. The Japanese group is a pioneer in transgenic work with citrus, Hasegawa said. It is doing the genetic engineering part of the research.
The Japanese scientists will introduce the debittering gene, perhaps modified to increase its power, into single navel orange cells growing in laboratory petri dishes. From these engineered single citrus cells trees can grow and bear fruit with the modified genes at work.
Farmers in southern Benin have found the best way to deal with their biggest problem, a grass weed, is to smother it with another plant, a ground creeper. And in doing so, they have taught researchers once again the valuable lesson that working with farmers rather than for them is the key to increasing production.
The problem arose in the mid-1980s. The traditional farming system with a long fallow period had collapsed because of pressure to produce more food. The ultimate result was a drop in production because soil fertility took a nosedive. As soils degraded, fields became infested with the grass weed Imperata cylindrica, known as spear grass, and were then abandoned.
Researchers at the Institut national des recherches agricoles du Bn joined forces with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in looking for a leguminous cover crop to improve soil fertility. They selected Mucuna pruriens, the velvet bean, brought in from Latin America.
Mucuna, an annual leguminous, ground-creeping plant, produces a lot of growth, and when it dies down during the dry season, it leaves behind large amounts of organic matter. Initial trials in 1988 and 1989, showed that if maize is planted into this thick mulch at the beginning of the next rainy season, grain yields more than double. The maize crop benefits because the mucuna debris provides nitrogen and helps the soil retain more rainfall.
Demonstration plots with farmers produced some sensational increases in yields - as much as tenfold. But that didn't convince most farmers to plant mucuna. They weren't interested in a crop that yielded no food.
Some farmers did persist with mucuna, however, because they saw its potential in another more important direction. They found it could eliminate imperata grass from badly infested fields. If they cut down the grass just before the rains and then planted mucuna, the creeper had the chance to outgrow the imperata and smother it. In its search for light through the thick carpet of mucuna, the imperata uses up its root reserves, and by the end of the season there is very little left in the field. Next season maize can be planted into the mucuna mulch.
That finding, spread from farmer to farmer by word of mouth, was enough to get more people to plant mucuna.
Because imperata does creep back within three to four years, farmers will have to re-introduce mucuna periodically to suppress the imperata once again, and this also ensures soil fertility is maintained. So in a roundabout way, the researchers have achieved their objective.
Experience has shown when maize follows mucuna, yields are increased. Some farmers have got yields of 2 000 kilograms per hectare, others have seen yields treble. But mucuna only supplies organic matter and nitrogen, so it may be necessary to apply phosphorous and potassium if these nutrients are deficient.
GLOBAL ACTION ON PLANT GENETIC RESOURCES
FAO, working in close cooperation with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), is organizing the most ambitious program ever undertaken in the field of plant genetic resources. At this year's Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources experts and officials of some 140 countries will review a comprehensive report on The State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources and consider for formal adoption a pioneering Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The aim is to put into operation the Convention on Biological Diversity approved at the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro - particularly as it regards plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. In preparation, each country has spent two years putting together a country report, and scientists and representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations and the private sector plus independent scientists attended 12 subregional meetings around the world. The conference will be held 17-23 June in Leipzig, Germany. For further information, contact: The Secretariat, Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, FAO, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome. Fax: (039-6) 5225-5533. E-mail: ICPPGR@fao.org
AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING WORK
FAO has honored three national institutions and four individuals for outstanding contributions in the field of food and agricultural development. The awards, named for former FAO directors-general, were announced during the Organization's 28th biennial conference held in Rome last 20 October to 2 November. The Edouard Saouma Award recognizes institutions that have implemented with particular efficiency projects funded by FAO's Technical Cooperation Programme. The 1994-95 award went jointly to the Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias of Chile for introducing biological control technology against the immediate threat of a Russian wheat aphid invasion (TCP/CHI/0153), to the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health for creating a process that improved food quality and safety in Calcutta (TCP/IND/0155) and to the Horticulture Crops Division of the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Horticultural Research Station in Kenya for reversing a decline in the production of Asian vegetables and creating a dynamic new sector satisfying local demand and export requirements (TCP/KEN/0054).
The Boerma Award singles out journalists who have helped to focus public attention on important aspects of food problems and stimulated interest in and support for measures leading to their solution. The joint winners for 1994-95 were Fawzia El-Moualled of Egypt for her strong commitment and significant contribution over the past 40 years, both on radio and in print, to development issues, particularly with regard to the rural population, and Michael Pickstock of the United Kingdom for the dedication shown throughout his career to covering agriculture in developing countries, particularly with regard to increasing food production through sustainable agricultural development and for the contribution he made to improving public awareness and understanding.
The annual B.R. Sen Award recognizes the achievements of FAO field officers. The 1994 award went to Seiichi Etoh of Japan for his work in fisheries development in Eritrea and the 1995 award to Roberto Samanez-Mercado of Brazil for his work on the Amazon Cooperation Treaty in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE - BUT COMPLETED
It was more like another sequel to Raiders of the Lost
Ark than your usual internal audit. In true Indiana Jones style, one
intrepid auditor crossed the Congo by boat. Another braved the Syrian Desert in
a car. And still another arrived at his destination in the midst of a coup
d't. The more fortunate only had to contend with airline strikes, flight
cancellations and travellers' ailments. It was all in the interests of
completing what G. Peter Wilson, director of the FAO Office of Internal Audit,
Inspection and Management Control, calls perhaps the most comprehensive
global internal audit undertaking ever performed in the United Nations
system. In order to assess the overall quality of management of field
operations, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf had requested an up-to-date audit
of the five FAO regional offices and 75 field offices around the world - in the
space of five weeks. It was July, and due to vacations, illness and unfilled
posts, only four of the 14 auditors the project required were on hand. Leaves
were cancelled, auditors were borrowed from other departments and two were
brought out of retirement. Each was assigned a cluster of offices
according to geographic location, logistics and language. They were briefed,
supplied with visas, medical clearance, travel advances and tickets and sent on
their way to 54 countries. Twenty days after the office had received the
request, the first reports started coming in on a special fax set up for the
purpose. Rome staff reviewed and cleared the drafts as they arrived, delivering
them to the director-general's office with a daily status report. Not only was
the deadline met, Wilson reported in the International Journal of Government
Auditing, but the enthusiasm displayed by the whole audit team has had a
powerful impact on other staff members in terms of their acceptance
support for the changes being made in the Organization.