Posts Tagged ‘maize’


U.S. Government Raises Estimates for Corn and Soybean Harvest, But Lasting Effects of Drought Still Loom

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By Andrew Alesbury

The U.S. government predicts that the nation’s 2012 corn and soybean harvests will not be as low as previously predicted, although the effects of this year’s drought in the country’s top agricultural region are not yet over.

The USDA has raised its production
forecasts for corn and soybeans, but
the effects of the drought are not yet over (Photo Credit: Collective Vision).

In a recent report on national crop production, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts a slight rise from October’s projections, with total corn production expected to hit 10.7 billion bushels and soybean production projected to reach 2.97 billion bushels. Even with the new projections, the drought is expected to cause deficits in 2012 U.S. corn and soybean production of 13 percent and 4 percent, respectively, over 2011.

This summer’s drought was centered in the Midwest, the heart of U.S. corn and soybean production. Because the United States is the world’s biggest exporter of the two crops, the plant-withering conditions caused soybean and corn prices to reach record highs worldwide, fueling fears over continued price increases. But rainfall late in the growing season has lessened the drought’s impact, allowing farmers to make up for some of the crop shortfall and bring prices down.

Analysts such as Mark Schultz, chief analyst at Northstar Commodity Investment Co., speculate that decreased demand for grains has also helped to soften the blow of global shortages. “Surging costs may have damped demand by makers of food, biofuel and livestock feed,” Schultz said in an interview with Bloomberg. “Given all the rhetoric about the rest of the world running out of food, it appears that supplies are adequate and that high prices may have slowed demand.”

Yet not all is back to normal. Irrespective of recent rainfall or of demand compensating for decreased supply, the drought has still accounted for large crop losses and may have lasting effects. Corn yields for 2012 are expected to average 122.3 bushels per acre, down 24.9 bushels per acre from 2011. If these predictions prove accurate, they would represent the nation’s lowest corn output since 2006 and lowest average yield since 1995.



New Study on Monsanto Maize Raises Serious Concerns about Safety of GM Foods

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By Rachael Styer

A new study released by Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini of the University of Caen in France and the independent research organization CRIIGEN is the first peer-reviewed lifetime feeding trial of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) Maize NK603 and the widely used herbicide Roundup. Previous studies regarding the safety of GMO foods for human consumption observed the effects of low-level consumption of GM foods by rats for only 90 days, a period of time roughly equivalent to a rat’s adolescence.

Rats consuming low-levels of Monsanto’s maize NK603 suffered mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage (Photo Credit: Linda Eckhardt)

Seralini’s study examines the health effects of GM maize consumption on rats over a period of two years, a rat’s average lifespan, and the results of the study are startling. Rats consuming low-levels of maize NK603 and the popular herbicide Roundup (individually or combined) suffered from mammary tumors and severe kidney and liver damage, conditions that typically led to premature death. Fifty percent of male rats and 70 percent of female rats fed on the substances died prematurely, compared to 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively, for the control group. To hear the experts discuss the study’s results further, check out this video interview posted by the UK’s The Grocer.

While GM foods have been touted as an efficient and effective way to feed a growing global population, the results of Seralini’s study suggest that perhaps those seeking a solution to problems of global hunger should focus their efforts elsewhere. Patrick Holden, the Founder and Director for the Sustainable Food Trust, expressed this sentiment in a press release about the study: “GM crops hold out the promise of helping to meet the triple challenges of climate change, resource depletion and population increase, but if they have negative effects on health we need to recognize this as quickly as possible and apply our energies in other areas.”

Consumer concern over the safety of GM foods is nothing new. Since the early 2000s, retailers have responded to consumer demand by labeling non-GM products in their stores, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value brands. And the controversy over whether GM food labeling should be mandatory is playing out in California as voters and lawmakers debate the merits of Prop 37, a ballot initiative which would require food sellers in California to label most products containing GM ingredients.

Although the study already underwent the peer review process, its methods have drawn criticism from other experts; Tom Sanders, head of the nutritional sciences research division at King’s College London, claims the authors went on a “statistical fishing trip.” But, Michael Antoniou, a molecular biologist also from King’s College London and a collaborator on the paper, defended the study’s results while still acknowledging the need for more research. Antoniou commented to reporters, “I feel this data is strong enough to withdraw the marketing approval for this variety of GM maize temporarily, until this study is followed up and repeated with a larger number of animals to get the full statistical power that we want.”

What do you think? Do GMOs present a public health risk? Let us know in the comments!

Rachael Styer is a research Intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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2007-2008 Food Crisis: Causes, Responses, and Lessons Learned

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By Jameson Spivack

The world food crisis of 2007-2008 caused a substantial rise in the cost of food, especially staple foods such as rice, wheat, and corn. This rise in price had a devastating effect on hungry people in the developing world.

When food prices rise, poor people in developing countries are hurt the most. (Image source: IFPRI)

Between 2005 and 2011, world prices for rice, wheat, and maize rose 102 percent, 115 percent, and 204 percent, respectively, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). With price increases, people with less disposable income must spend a larger percentage of their earnings on essential staple grains, and less on other food and non-food items. This can have a significant impact on nutrition.

In seven Latin American countries, this increase in price led to an average 8 percent decrease in the amount of calories consumed. Before the crisis, 35 percent of households in Ecuador received an adequate amount of calories; afterwards, only 22 percent were receiving healthy levels of calories. In developing countries, if prices rise 50 percent across the board, and there is no rise in income, iron intake will decrease by 30 percent, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). In the Philippines, this 30 percent decrease in iron consumption would mean that only 5 percent of women have adequate levels of iron.



A Dam Brings Food Insecurity to Indigenous People

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By Patricia Baquero

Along its 760-kilometer course, from the Shewan highlands in southern Ethiopia, down to Lake Turkana in Kenya, the Omo River supports half a million Indigenous People from more than two dozen different tribes, including the Bodi, Karo, Muguji, Mursi, Elmolo, Gabbra, Rendille and Hamar in the Lower Omo valley and around Lake Turkana. For generations, the Indigenous People have farmed sorghum, maize and beans along the lower Omo and around Lake Turkana region, depending on the annual flooding cycle of the river. The natural ebb and flow of the Omo River provides water for agriculture, livestock, and fishing.

The Gibe III Dam, currently under construction, could exacerbate water scarcity and conflicts in the region. (Photo credit: Mark Angelo)

But since the 1970s, droughts have increased in frequency and length, bringing famine and displacing thousands of people. Water scarcity and conflicts over water resources are also likely to worsen when the Gibe III Dam project finishes in 2012. The dam is situated about 300 kilometers southwest of Addis Ababa with a capacity of 1,870 MW, and can provide power to 400 million people. Ethiopia is among the countries with the lowest rates of electricity—currently, only 15 percent of Ethiopians have access to electricity, and this access is mainly in cities.

But the dam potentially threatens the lives of the Indigenous farmers and fishers from the Omo-Turkana region. According to the African Resources Working Group (ARWG), the Gibe III dam will reduce the lake’s depth by about seven to ten meters in its first five years, adding to the effects of climate change, which has likely reduced the depth by about five to eight meters already. The dam will disturb the natural flooding cycle of the Omo River, eliminating the seasonal floods and the nutrients deposited along the river.



Innovation of the Week: Fertilizer Tree Systems enrich soils naturally

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By Isaac Hopkins

Among the most challenging long-term barriers to agricultural production and sustainability in Africa is poor and degrading soil quality. According to “Agricultural success from Africa: the case of fertilizer tree systems in southern Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe),” a report from the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, simple “Fertilizer Tree Systems” (FTS) can double maize production in soil that is low in nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient. A type of agroforestry, FTS incorporate nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs into agricultural fields, usually inter-planted with food crops. These trees take in atmospheric nitrogen and return it to the soil, where it serves as a nutrient for plants.

Nitrogen-fixing agroforestry is emerging in southern Africa as a major tool for renewing soil fertility and boosting yields. (Photo credit: Trees4Children)

Soil analyses by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and others in the 1980s revealed nitrogen to be a limiting factor in many African soils. In response, on-farm studies in the 1990s showed that FTS with the right species could increase crop yields with or without mineral fertilizers. FTS are much cheaper for farmers to implement than buying fertilizer inputs, and represent a more holistic approach to soil management. FTS scaling-up programs were broadly implemented about ten years ago, and in that time the number of small-holder farmers using these techniques has ballooned from a few hundred to more than 250,000 in Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

FTS have proven most effective for small farmers who are able to devote the necessary labor and land more easily than the money needed for commercial fertilizer. By relying on naturally occurring systems rather than imports, agroforestry improves food security, bolsters biodiversity, and reinforces local economies. The introduction of a wider variety of plants to fields, for example, has been shown to increase diversity of the local ecosystem, which further augments the soil.



Safou: the “Butterfruit”

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by Dan Kane

Native to the humid, tropical forests of West and Central Africa, safou (Dacryodes edulis) is also known as the “butterfruit” for its rich, oily pulp. But safou is more than just creamy and delicious. It’s quickly becoming an important cash crop for small farmers in Africa and has proven useful in agroforestry systems and in preventing hunger.

Safou, an indigenous African tree fruit known for its buttery texture, is a promising cash crop with a variety of uses.(Photo credit: S. Olanrewaju Disu)

People in West and Central Africa have been eating safou for centuries as a fresh fruit between meals and cooked as a main course. When roasted or quickly boiled in salted water, the pulp separates from the skin and seed and takes on a buttery texture. In Nigeria, cooked pulp is combined with starchy foods like maize to make a main course. And if cooked for even longer, a healthy oil, primarily made up of unsaturated fats, can be extracted from the pulp and seed.

Like its namesake, butter, safou is high in fats and very calorie-dense. But unlike butter, safou is also high in amino acids, the chemical building blocks of proteins. Concentrations of some its essential amino acids, such as lysine and leucine, are comparable to concentrations found in eggs and meat. Plus, the fruit is also high in micronutrients and minerals, particularly potassium, calcium, and magnesium, makingsafou  a superfoodwith the potential to help alleviate hunger and malnutrition. (more…)


Local Seeds to Meet Smallscale Farmers’ Needs

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Madame Coulibaly does something that many seed dealers in Mali and other parts of Africa usually don’t do—she keeps her prices low enough for small, cash-scarce farmers to afford. And instead of packaging seeds in large volumes, Mme. Coulibaly provides  seeds of sorghum, rice, millet, maize, ground nuts, cowpeas, and beans in various size packages, making them easier for farmers to buy and use.

Instead of packaging seeds in large volumes, Mme. Coulibaly provides seeds of sorghum, rice, millet, maize, ground nuts, cowpeas, and beans in various size packages, making them easier for farmers to buy and use. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Coulibaly explained that before she and her husband began Faso Kaba Seed Company, partly with funding from a grant from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, “people weren’t taking the seed from here (Mali), but taking it from the West.” In other words, there weren’t many places for farmers to buy locally produced and certified seed. That’s changing, however.  In addition to advertising her products on radio and television, Mme. Coulibaly has hired and trained agro-dealers who travel to rural communities to sell seeds directly to farmers.

In addition to “being able to take care of me and my family,” from starting the seed dealership, says Coulibaly, she’s also been able to  expand the business with two seed outlets, hire 6 full-time employees, and have part-time staff that helps package seed. Unfortunately, she says, it hasn’t been easy for her to find or hire women agro-dealers to reach more women farmers because it’s harder for them to travel. But women make up the majority of seed growers, working through cooperatives to provide seed to Faso Kaba.

More importantly, says Coulibaly, “people have told me that since they’ve started buying her seed they don’t have to buy additional food because they’re self-sufficient.”

Watch Mme. Coulibaly describe how her seeds are helping to improve her own livelihood, as well as the livelihoods of the local farmers that use her seeds:


Working Where the Rain Doesn’t Fall

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The following is a guest blog post written by Matthew Foerster, project associate at KOMAZA, a non-profit working to connect small-scale farmers with high-value markets to improve livelihoods.

In Africa, barriers to raising agricultural production are numerous and complex. Lack of improved seeds and crop inputs, inadequate infrastructure to bring crops to market, tenuous land rights and an insufficient amount of finance for smallholder farmers all inhibit the potential of Africa’s agricultural sector.

Decades of deforestation and prolonged droughts have resulted in extreme soil erosion and desertification. In Ganze, Kenya, it's essentially like trying to farm in a giant sandbox. (Photo credit: Matthew Foerster)

Last week, a group of international policymakers, researchers and donors gathered in Ghana to discuss what can be done to improve the situation and put Africa on a path toward lasting food security and economic prosperity.

Spearheaded by Kofi Annan, the African Green Revolution Forum focused on new initiatives to scale-up investment in African agricultural, including a specific focus on the so-called “breadbaskets,” areas with nutrient-rich soil and adequate rainfall.

With the right policies and steady investment in smallholder farmers, there is tremendous potential for African countries to produce their own food and even become net exporters, and it’s true that the best chances of success will be in these breadbasket areas. However, we must not overlook the unique challenges and needs of farmers living in Africa’s arid- and semi-arid regions. We must remember that there are millions of rural dryland farmers who do not enjoy the benefits of frequent rainfall and fertile soil. These farmers take on extraordinary risk and are faced with minimal and sometimes non-existent returns when trying to produce staple food crops on their eroded land. And as research suggests, these are the same people who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. What role will they play in a green revolution?

KOMAZA, an early-stage non-profit social enterprise, has developed a model that provides sustainable economic opportunities for rural farmers living in these semi-arid regions.

Where KOMAZA works in rural Kenya, infertile soil and frequent drought make traditional farming nearly impossible. Unlike the rich and fertile grain belts of Kenya’s Western and Rift Valley provinces, the country’s Coast province suffers from incredibly dry, degraded soil and low, erratic rainfall. Forget trying to grow major cash crops like coffee, tea or fruit here; it’s essentially like trying to farm in a desert. Only for a few weeks in May and June does maize grow well in this part of the country; the land sits empty most of the year.

Samson Ngoba, a field officer, helps a farmer plant her first half-acre tree farm. (Photo credit: Matthew Foerster)

We’ve found a way to help dryland farmers capitalize on their large tracts of barren land by helping them plant and maintain small-scale, income-generating tree farms. Unlike seasonal crops that are dependent on accurate timing of rainfall, trees can survive several months without water and can effectively utilize rain whenever it comes. With small-scale forestry, subsistence farmers can unlock the potential of their otherwise unproductive, fallow land.

A half-acre of fast-growing, drought-resistant trees allows farmers to earn unprecedented amounts of income over a ten-year cycle as the trees are harvested, processed and sold as high-quality wood products – creating everything from lumber to electricity poles to satiate Kenya’s massive and growing wood market.

Sustainable forestry already delivers incredible profits to large companies, but the economic potential of trees has been out of reach for Africa’s poorest farmers.  Although most dryland farmers have surplus land and labor, they have not been able to unite the full value chain required for profitable tree farming.

This is the unique need and opportunity that KOMAZA seeks to address. We are partnering with rural farmers, from seedling to market, to build Africa’s first non-profit forestry company. KOMAZA has already planted over a quarter-million trees with 1,000 families. Within the past three months, we have recruited an additional 1,500 farmers who will establish small-scale farms in April. By the end of 2012, we aim to plant three million trees with 10,000 farmers.

By helping subsistence farmers plant trees as well as short-term crops on half-acre, family-owned plots, this model empowers Africa’s indigenous communities whose livelihoods depend on natural resources. Simply put, it’s a low-risk, high-return investment ideally suited for semi-arid environments. By integrating poverty alleviation with environmental conservation, microforestry offers an alternative to rampant deforestation and provides Africa’s dryland farmers—those who may be the last to benefit from a green revolution—with a sustainable source of income to make life-long investments in their families’ futures.

There is obviously no panacea to the challenges of food insecurity and poverty in Africa, especially in marginal, semi-arid regions. But I am among a group of about 120 people working for KOMAZA who believe that small-scale, community-based tree farming will help lift thousands of families out of rural poverty. We believe this is one example of a market-based approach that has the potential to bring about lasting environmental, social and economic change for those who need it most – farmers living in regions where the rain doesn’t fall.

Matthew Foerster is a project associate with KOMAZA.


Part 41: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

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Each day we run three of your responses to the question: Where Would You Like to See More Agricultural Funding Directed?

Photo credit: Bernard Pollack

1. Xavier Rakotonjanahary, National Center for Rural Development, Madagascar says:

“There are many ways where more funding could address agricultural development. However, priorities should be understood by donors and agreed between different groups of stakeholders. First is that people in the rural area should be aware of new technologies, have access to them, and apply or scale up them, as part of of education, communication and technology transfer. The second priority is building rural infrastructure which is very essential to facilitate the dissemination of technologies and market accessibility. And third is the system of fund allocation; it could be through farmer organisations working with a private company but the most important objective should be a fair price to small scale farmers, who represent the majority of population in developing countries. Thus, depending on the situation,  the technology is ready made, transferred or scaled-up, the funding could be directed to technology dissemination, infrastructure building or to fair price issues.”

2. Tobias Leenaert EVA, Belgium says:

“I would obviously welcome more funding for research into plant-based alternatives to animal products, and what potential they have for locally solving famine and nutritional problems (see e.g. your post about those African beans). I believe a lot can be gained by studying the traditionally present vegetarian staple products, check how they can be completed (if necessary) without animal animal products, investigate the best ways to cultivate them etc. All this given, of course, my idea that plant-based nutrition is to be preferred, generally speaking, above animal-based nutrition because of sustainability, health and compassion.”

3.  Kristof Nordin, Malawi says:

As straightforward as this question seems, it is very complicated to answer.  Historically, agricultural “funding” can often be found at the root of many unsustainable practices that have grown out of our current approach to high-input, industrialized, and chemically-dependent food production. Countries such as Malawi, in the name of ‘agricultural progress and development’, have spent millions on research, breeding, and adaptation of a foreign crop—maize—to comply with local growing conditions.  All the while, ignoring hundreds of indigenous crops that have naturally adapted themselves over thousands of years, which are often drought resistant, pest resistant, highly nutritious, open-pollinated, and FREE! Many well-intentioned projects often fail primarily due to ‘agricultural funding’.  One need only look to the “donation graveyards” scattered throughout the landscape of developing countries; wherein lie the decaying corpses of unusable industrial farm implements, broken down tractors, and inoperable machinery.   At the same time we have innumerable households who have neglected to pick up a simple watering can and establish a kitchen garden.

We need to start asking some hard questions:  Should we be spending millions of dollars on complex agricultural irrigation projects when millions of people have yet failed to even place a simple clay pot under the eaves of their roof or reuse their grey water?   Should we be jumping so quickly to the costly genetic altering of the nutritional structure of foods before people have succeeded in, or understood the importance of growing and eating a balanced diet?  Should we allow the continued funding of high-input industrialized agricultural initiatives that often spiral local farmers into ever-growing debt, dependency, environmental destruction, and food insecurity?

There seems to be a groundswell in the number of projects and initiatives throughout the world that are implementing new, innovative, and sustainable solutions.  Some of these approaches have been highlighted on the Nourishing the Planet’s blog, while others remain relatively isolated and unknown.  “Agricultural funding” can no longer squander its resources on ‘cookie-cutter’ approaches.  It needs to be applied towards systems that foster creative and unique thinking skills, a true understanding of natural systems, the utilization of local resources under the tutelage of indigenous knowledge, as well as design systems that reunite agriculture with a community’s needs: food and nutrition security, energy efficiency, renewable fuel sources, natural building supplies, local medicines, fibers, economics, labor, and more.  Often times, these are the approaches that take no funding at all.”

To read more responses see:

Part 36: Robert Goodland (USA), Yao M. Afantchao (USA), and Queresh Noordin
Part 37: Richard Twine (UK), Yiching Song, and Abdelmunem Ahmed (Palestine)
Part 38: Bruce Murphy (Australia), Richard (South Africa), and Paul Van Mele (Benin)
Part 39: NM Nayar (India), Abe Agulto (Philippines), Paul Yao Kpai (Ghana)
Part 40: Sophia Murphy, Roland Sundström, Jones Lemchi

What is your answer? Email me at or tweet your response to @WorldWatchAg


Celosia: Nature’s Prettiest Vegetable

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By Amanda Stone

You may know it as that pretty ornamental flower in your garden, but did you know that Celosia could also be a delicious snack? This beautiful plant with flame-like flowers is actually a common and important food in parts of tropical Africa, its original home.

Photo Credit: J.M. Garg

Because of its flavor and nutritional value, Celosia is widely consumed in several parts of Africa. It is an especially important food in Nigeria, Benin and Congo because of its affinity for hot and humid climates, and it is also commonly eaten in Indonesia and India. The leaves, young stems, and flowers a can be made into soups and stews, served as a nutty-flavored side dish with meat or fish or with a cereal-based main course such as maize porridge. Celosia has a pleasant, mild flavor, and lacks the bitterness of other leafy vegetables.

Celosia grow easily, require little care, and often reseed themselves making them high yielding, cheap and simple to grow. Having proven widely tolerant to both tropical and dry conditions and usually unaffected by pests, diseases, or soil type, this crop is among the most flexible greens for harsh growing conditions.

In addition to their nutritional and aesthetic value, Celosia may also help repress striga, a parasitic weed which devastates other crops such as sorghum, millet and maize. Though the research on this trait is still far from clear, farmers call it “striga chaser”.

With the potential to increase food security, Celosia is valuable in more ways than one. When cultivated near homes, the colorful flowers will brighten villages and local cooks can also pluck off some leaves each day to add to dinner or for a snack.

Amanda Stone is Nourishing the Planet’s Communications Assistant.