Category Archives: food

Horn of Africa Famine: Millions at Risk

Horn of Africa Famine: Millions at Risk in “Deadly Cocktail” of War, Climate Change, Neoliberalism.

The United Nations has called an emergency meeting to discuss the Horn of Africa drought, which it says has already claimed tens of thousands of lives. Famine was declared in two regions of Somalia on Wednesday where 3.7 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Another eight million people need food assistance in neighboring countries including Kenya and Ethiopia. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls the situation a “catastrophic combination of conflict, high food prices and drought” and has appealed for immediate aid. We go to Nairobi for an update from Kiki Gbeho of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. We also speak with Christian Parenti, author of “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence.” “This was predicted long ago by people on the ground,” Parenti says. “It’s a combination of war, climate change and very bad policy, particularly an embrace of radical free market policies by regional governments that mean the withdrawal of support for pastoralists, the type of people you saw with their dead cattle.” [includes rush transcript]

Worst Food Additive Ever is in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Produces Collateral destruction and misery

Worst Food Additive Ever? It’s in Half of All Foods We Eat and Its Production Destroys Rainforests and Enslaves Children | Food | AlterNet.

The production of this ingredient causes jaw-dropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.
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On August 10, police and security for the massive palm oil corporation Wilmar International (of which Archer Daniels Midland is the second largest shareholder) stormed a small, indigenous village on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They came with bulldozers and guns, destroying up to 70 homes, evicting 82 families, and arresting 18 people. Then they blockaded the village, keeping the villagers in — and journalists out. (Wilmar claims it has done no wrong.)

The village, Suku Anak Dalam, was home to an indigenous group that observes their own traditional system of land rights on their ancestral land and, thus, lacks official legal titles to the land. This is common among indigenous peoples around the world — so common, in fact, that it is protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Indonesia, for the record, voted in favor of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Yet the government routinely sells indigenous peoples’ ancestral land to corporations. Often the land sold is Indonesia’s lowland rainforest, a biologically rich area home to endangered species like the orangutan, Asian elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, Sumatran tiger, and the plant Rafflesia arnoldii, which produces the world’s largest flower.

So why all this destruction? Chances are you’ll find the answer in your pantry. Or your refrigerator, your bathroom, or even under your sink. The palm oil industry is one of the largest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia. Palm oil and palm kernel oil, almost unheard of a decade or two ago, are now unbelievably found in half of all packaged foods in the grocery store (as well as body care and cleaning supplies). These oils, traditional in West Africa, now come overwhelmingly from Indonesia and Malaysia. They cause jawdropping amounts of deforestation (and with it, carbon emissions) and human rights abuses.

“The recipe for palm oil expansion is cheap land, cheap labor, and a corrupt government, and unfortunately Indonesia fits that bill,” says Ashley Schaeffer of Rainforest Action Network.

The African oil palm provides two different oils with different properties: palm oil and palm kernel oil. Palm oil is made from the fruit of the tree, and palm kernel oil comes from the seed, or “nut,” inside the fruit. You can find it on ingredient lists under a number of names, including palmitate, palmate, sodium laureth sulphate, sodium lauryl sulphate, glyceryl stearate, or stearic acid. Palm oil even turns up in so-called “natural,” “healthy,” or even “cruelty-free” products, like Earth Balance (vegan margarine) or Newman-O’s organic Oreo-like cookies. Palm oil is also used in “renewable” biofuels.

A hectare of land (2.47 acres) produces, on average, 3.7 metric tons of palm oil, 0.4 metric tons of palm kernel oil, and 0.6 tons of palm kernel cake. (Palm kernel cake is used as animal feed.) In 2009, Indonesia produced over 20.5 million metric tons, and Malaysia produced over 17.5 million metric tons. As of 2009, the U.S. was only the seventh largest importer of palm oil in the world, but as the second largest importer of palm kernel oil, it ranks third in the world as a driver of deforestation for palm oil plantations.

Indonesia has lost 46 percent of its forests since 1950, and the forests have recently disappeared at a rate of about 1.5 million hectares (an area larger than the state of Connecticut) per year. Of the 103.3 million hectares of remaining forests in 2000, only 88.2 million remained in 2009. At that time, an estimated 7.3 million hectares of oil palm plantations were already established, mostly on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Indonesia plans to continue the palm oil expansion, hoping to produce an additional 8.3 million metric tons by 2015 — this means a 71 percent expansion in area devoted to palm oil in the coming years.

At stake are not only endangered species and human lives, but carbon emissions. One of the ecosystems at risk is Indonesia’s peat swamps, where soil contains an astounding 65 percent organic matter. (Most soils contain only two to 10 percent organic matter.) Laurel Sutherlin of Rainforest Action Network describes the draining and often burning of these peat swamps as “a carbon bomb.” Destruction of its peat swamps as well as its rainforests makes Indonesia the world’s third largest carbon emitter after the U.S. and China.

Among the horror stories coming out of Southeast Asian palm oil plantations are accounts of child slave labor. Ferdi and Volario, ages 14 and 21, respectively, were each met by representatives of the Malaysian company Kuala Lampur Kepong in their North Sumatra villages. They were offered high-paying jobs with good working conditions, and they jumped at the opportunity. According to an account by Rainforest Action Network: “The two worked grueling hours each day spraying oil palm trees with toxic chemical fertilizers, without any protection to shield their hands, face or lungs. After work, Ferdi and Volario were forced inside the camp where they’d stay overnight under lock and key, guarded by security. If they had to use the bathroom, they’d do their best to hold it until morning or relieve themselves in plastic bags or shoes.” They escaped after two months and were never paid for their work.

What is the industry doing about such horrific claims? It has established the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Kuala Lampur Kepong, Wilmar International, and Archer Daniels Midland are all members, and so are their customers, Cargill, Nestlé and Unilever, as well as environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International. But, according to Sutherlin, membership in RSPO means nothing — other than that an organization paid its dues. “That’s the first level of greenwash,” says Sutherlin.

RSPO certifies some products and companies, and Sutherlin says that does have some meaning, but leaves major loopholes open. For example, there are no carbon or climate standards, and there have been problems with the implementation of social safeguards. “It’s been a spotty record about their ability to enforce the standards for how people are treated and how communities are affected,” notes Sutherlin. Yet, he says, RSPO is “the best game in town.”

Rather than simply relying on RSPO’s certification, Rainforest Action Network has focused its campaign on the U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill, which has a hand in fully 25 percent of palm oil on the global market. Rainforest Action Network is asking Cargill to sign on to a set of social and environmental safeguards and to provide public transparency on its palm oil operations. If Cargill cleans up its act, perhaps it will help put pressure on other major multinationals like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé, which also source palm oil from unethical suppliers like Wilmar International.

Journalists have also criticized environmental groups for “cozy relationships with corporate eco-nasties.” The World Wildlife Fund has come under attack for its partnership with Wilmar, the corporation that attacked a Sumatran village. Its involvement in RSPO serves as a reminder of the accusations in a 2010 Nation article, which claimed that “many of the green organizations meant to be leading the fight are busy shoveling up hard cash from the world’s worst polluters–and burying science-based environmentalism in return.” (WWF says it received no payment from Wilmar in this particular case.)

The ugly issue of palm oil even touches the beloved American icon, the Girl Scout cookie. When Girl Scouts Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen began a project to save the orangutan for their Bronze Awards, they discovered the link between habitat loss and palm oil. Then they looked at a box of Girl Scout cookies and found palm oil on the list of ingredients. The two 11-year-olds — who are now ages 15 and 16 — began a campaign to get the Girl Scouts to remove palm oil from its cookies.

It took five years to get a response from the supposedly wholesome Girl Scouts USA (whose 2012 slogan is “Forever Green“). While the organization ignored its own members for several years, it was unable to ignore the coverage the girls received from Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and several major TV networks. Once the story was so well-covered by the media, Girl Scouts USA responded, promising it would try to move to a sustainable source of palm oil by 2015. In the meantime, it would continue buying palm oil that could have come from deforested lands or plantations that use child slave labor, but would also buy GreenPalm certificates, which fund a price premium that goes to producers following RSPO’s best practice guidelines.

So what should consumers do? For the time being, avoiding products containing palm oil is probably your best bet. Since palm oil is so ubiquitous this will likely mean opting to buy fewer processed foods overall. Don’t forget to check your beauty and cleaning products, too. In a handful of cases, such as Dr. Bronner’s soaps, palm oil comes from fair trade, organic sources. But this is hardly the norm, and with the immense amount of palm oil used in the U.S., it’s unlikely that sustainable sources could cover all of the current demand.

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Release : March 8, 2017
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Production Company : Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment.
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Major river basins have enough water to sustainably double food production in the coming decades

Major river basins have enough water to sustainably double food production in the coming decades.

ScienceDaily (Sep. 25, 2011) — While water-related conflicts and shortages abound throughout the rapidly changing societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century, according to two special issues of the peer-reviewed journal, Water International (Volume 35, Issue 5 and Volume 36, Issue 1), released September 26 at the XIV World Water Congress.

The report from the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) of the CGIAR finds that the “sleeping giant” of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger and Volta.

“Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today,” said Alain Vidal, director of the CPWF. “Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern.”

“Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used,” he added, “particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa. With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.

While Africa has the biggest potential to increase food production, researchers identified large areas of arable land in Asia and Latin America where production is at least 10 percent below its potential. For example, in the Indus and Ganges, researchers found 23 percent of rice systems are producing about half of what they could sustainably yield.

The analysis — which involved five years of research by scientists in 30 countries around the world — is the most comprehensive effort to date to assess how, over vast regions, human societies are coping with the growing need for water to nurture crops and pastures, generate electricity, quench the thirst of rapidly growing urban centers, and sustain our environment. The findings also present a picture of the increasingly political role of water management in addressing these competing needs, especially in dealing with the most pressing problem facing humanity today: doubling food production in the developing world to feed a surging population, which, globally, is expected to expand from seven to 9.5 billion people by 2050.

The 10 river basins that were studied include: the Andes and São Francisco in South America; the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta basins in Africa; and the Ganges, Indus, Karkheh, Mekong, and Yellow in Asia. The basins — distinct and gargantuan geographic areas defined by water flows from high-ground to streams that feed major river systems — cover 13.5 million square kilometers and are home to some 1.5 billion people, 470 million of whom are amongst the world’s poorest.

According to Vidal, the 10 basins were selected for study because they embody the full measure of water-related challenges in the developing world. The research examines the role of policy and governance in managing water resources in ways that reduce poverty and improve living standards for the greatest number of people

“The most surprising finding is that despite all of the pressures facing our basins today, there are relatively straightforward opportunities to satisfy our development needs and alleviate poverty for millions of people without exhausting our most precious natural resource,” said Dr. Simon Cook, of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and Leader of the CPWF’s Basin Focal Research Project (BFRP).

For example, Cook and his colleagues found that if donors and government ministries put more emphasis on supporting rain-fed agriculture, food production can increase substantially and rapidly. In Africa, it was found that the vast majority of cropland is rainfed and researchers found that only about four percent of available water is captured for crops and livestock.

“With a major push to intensify rainfed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river basins systems,” said Cook.

The authors also note that boosting food production in the basins studied requires looking beyond crops to consider more efficient uses of water to improve livestock operations and fisheries. Water policies often ignore the role livestock and fish play in local livelihoods and diets. For example, the researchers found that in the Niger basin, freshwater fisheries support 900,000 people while 40 million people in the Mekong depend on fisheries for at least part of the year. In the Nile, researchers note that almost half of the water in the basin flows through livestock systems.

“The basin perspective is critical in order to assess the upstream and downstream impacts of water allocation policies, and to determine opportunities for optimizing the sum of benefits across many residents,” said Dennis Wichelns, Deputy Director General at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which was a major partner in the research.

The researchers contrast the poor use of water resources within river basins observed in many areas — which they refer to as “dead spots” for agriculture development — to “bright spots” of water efficiency. They said bright spots can be found in the large areas of the Ganges, Nile and Yellow River basins, where farmers and governments have responded to development challenges by vastly improving the amount of food produced from available water. They also single out “hot spots” — which can be found in the in the Indus, Yellow, Nile and Limpopo river basins — where there is mounting concern and conflict over sharing water resources and reaching consensus on development approaches.

Confronting the “Complete Fragmentation” of Water Management

Cook and his colleagues caution that while globally there is enough water to sustain human development and environmental needs, water-related conflicts will continue if particular issues like food security and energy production are considered in isolation from one another. Cook observed that in most areas there is a “complete fragmentation of how river basins are managed amongst different actors and even countries where the water needs of different sectors — agriculture, industry, environment and mining — are considered separately rather than as interrelated and interdependent.”

“In many cases, we need a complete rethink of how government ministries take advantage of the range of benefits coming from river basins, rather than focusing on one sector such as hydropower, irrigation or industry,” the authors stated.

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Poisoned school lunch kills Peru children

BBC News – Poisoned school lunch kills Peru children.

Three children have died and more than 50 others are seriously ill in Peru after eating a school meal contaminated with pesticide, officials say.

The children were being fed by a government nutrition programme for the poor, at a remote mountain village in the north of the country.

It is thought the meal of rice and fish was prepared in a container which may have previously held rat poison.

At least three adults have also been taken ill.

The mass poisoning happened in the village of Redondo in the Cajamarca region, about 750km (470 miles) north of the capital, Lima.

The three dead were between six and 10 years old.

The food had been donated by the National Food Assistance Programme, which gives food to schools in the poorest parts of the country.

The mother of one of the children who died said they showed signs of having been poisoned.

“I think it was poison because all the kids are purple, from all parts of the school,” said the mother, who was not named.

“My little boy has died. My nine-year-old boy, Miguel Angel, has died.”

Peruvian health official Miguel Zumaeta said the incident “looks like it was a carbonates intoxication, which means rat poison”.

Prosecutors and health ministry officials are investigating how the meal became tainted.

In a similar case in 1999, 24 children died in a village near Cusco in southern Peru after eating food contaminated by pesticide.

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Warming seas could smother seafood

Warming seas could smother seafood – environment – 08 September 2011 – New Scientist.

Seafood could be going off a lot of menus as the world warms. More than half of a group of fish crucial for the marine food web might die if, as predicted, global warming reduces the amount of oxygen dissolved in some critical areas of the ocean – including some of our richest fisheries.

The prediction is based on a unique set of records that goes back to 1951. California has regularly surveyed its marine plankton and baby fish to support the sardine fishery. “There is almost no other dataset going back so far that includes every kind of fish,” says Tony Koslow of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who heads the survey. The survey records also include information on water temperature, salinity and the dissolved oxygen content.

Koslow’s team studied records of 86 fish species found consistently in the samples and discovered that the abundance of 27 of them correlated strongly with the amount of oxygen 200 to 400 metres down: a 20 per cent drop in oxygen meant a 63 per cent drop in the fish. There have been several episodes of low oxygen during the period in question, mainly in the 1950s and since 1984.

Global climate models predict that 20 to 40 per cent of the oxygen at these depths will disappear over the next century due to warming, says Koslow – mainly because these waters get oxygen by mixing with surface waters. Warmer, lighter surface waters are less likely to mix with the colder, denser waters beneath.

Of the 27 species most affected by low oxygen, says Koslow, 24 were “mesopelagic”: fish that spend the daytime in deep, dark waters below 200 metres to avoid predators such as squid that hunt by sight. There are 10 billion tonnes of mesopelagic fish globally – 10 times the annual global commercial catch – and they are a vital food for other fish and marine birds and mammals.

Out of the depths

In large segments of the Indian, eastern Pacific and Atlantic Oceans called oxygen minimum zones (OMZs), patterns of ocean currents already permit little downward mixing of surface water, so the dark depths where mesopelagics hide have barely enough oxygen for survival. Worldwide, OMZs are expanding both in area and vertically, pushing “hypoxic” water – water with too little oxygen for survival – to ever-shallower levels. Last year, Japanese researchers reported that this has nearly halved the depths inhabited by Pacific cod.

The California coast is an OMZ. When oxygen levels are even lower than usual, the hypoxic zone starts up to 90 metres closer to the surface. This means fish must stay in shallower, more brightly lit water, says Koslow, at greater risk from predators – which, he suspects, is what kills them. In the California data, predatory rockfish in fact boomed during periods of low oxygen.

“This is important work,” says William Gilly of Stanford University’s marine lab in Pacific Grove, California. He studies Humboldt squid, an OMZ predator whose recent movements seem consistent with Koslow’s idea.

“These findings are an example of the kinds of changes we will see more broadly throughout our oceans in coming decades, especially in OMZs,” says Frank Whitney of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, British Columbia, Canada. Unfortunately, he notes, water and nutrient movements within OMZs make them among our richest fishing grounds.

Journal reference: Marine Ecology Progress Series, DOI: 10.3354/meps09270

Can Planting Vegetables in Vacant Lots Save Cleveland?

Can Planting Vegetables in Vacant Lots Save Cleveland? | Wired Science | Wired.com.

Backyard vegetables can fight crime, improve health, and boost the economy.

By transforming its vacant lots, backyards and roof-tops into farming plots, the city of Cleveland could meet all of its fresh produce, poultry and honey needs, calculate economists from Ohio State University. These steps would save up to $155 million annually, boost employment and scale back obesity.

“Post-industrial cities like Cleveland are struggling with more and more unused land, these become sources of crime,” said Parwinder Grewal co-author of a study “Can cities become self-reliant in food?” published July 20 in Cities.

“I was motivated to show how much food a city could actually produce by using this land,” he said. “We could address global problems through this way of gardening.”

Urban gardening improves health, reduces pollution, and creates local businesses, Grewal said. The population of Cleveland, what Grewal considers a typical post-industrial city, peaked near one million in 1950, and has been declining since. Today scarcely half a million people call Cleveland home.

 

As industrial jobs have dried up, the city’s exodus has accelerated. Unable to keep up their properties, many former residents have abandoned their homes. Vacant lots are proliferating, and currently number more than 20,000, according to the Cleveland City Planning Commission.

Ten percent of Clevelanders have been diagnosed with diabetes, as compared to the national average of 8 percent, and more than a third are obese. Among cities with a population between 100,000 and 500,000, it is the seventh most dangerous, according to one crime ranking. Growing tomatoes and beans, and keeping bees and chickens, would change all this, Grewal said. Studies have shown that gardens improve community health, reduce crime and increase property values.

Cleveland city planners have placed special emphasis on programs to foster urban gardening in the past five to 10 years, however, Grewal’s visions are on a more ambitious scale.

In the most intensive scenario he outlines 80 percent of all vacant lots, 62 percent of business rooftops, and 9 percent of residential lots would be tied to food, allowing the city to meet up to 100 percent of its fresh food needs. Grewal, who grows the bulk of his own food in his backyard, believes that his propositions are realistic and practical. The largest barrier is convincing citizens to garden.

“No discredit to the value of Grewal’s study,” said Kim Scott, a Cleveland City Planner and urban gardening specialist, “but articulating an idea is a different experience from implementing it.”

While Cleveland might have enough land to be self-sufficient, it doesn’t yet have the labor force to make it happen, Scott said.

“A mental shift has to take place,” said Scott. “Many people don’t have a clue about farming. They lack the patience to eat whole foods, they lack the desire.”

Both Scott and Grewal hope that shift is coming. Cleveland now has hundreds of community gardens. Some residents are growing market gardens, cultivating and selling produce as a full-time job. The city is seeing the grandest show of large public gardens since the Victory Gardens of World War II, when 40 percent of U.S. vegetables came from private and public gardens.

“If we could do it then,” said Grewal, “we can do it now. And if we design cities that are as self-sufficient as possible, the longer human civilization can sustain itself.”

Image: Parwinder Grewal

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Peanut butter to the rescue in Somalia famine?

Peanut butter to the rescue in Somalia famine? – health – 26 July 2011 – New Scientist.

The Plumpy’Nut is coming. But will it arrive in time to save 3.5 million people who the Somali foreign minister says may starve to death?

Today the UN World Food Programme has airlifted 14 tonnes of the highly enriched “therapeutic” peanut butter to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, for immediate distribution to the 40,000 refugees who have gathered there to escape the triple crisis of drought-aggravated famine, war and escalating food prices.

Since it was recommended by the World Health Organization in 2007 as the emergency food of choice for malnourished infants, Plumpy’Nut, manufactured by French company Nutriset, has become a staple of international famine relief. Children can eat it straight from the packet instead of having to be fed intravenously. Based on peanut butter, it contains sugar, vegetable fat, and skimmed milk powder enriched with vitamins and minerals.

Now it’s at the heart of a twin-track plan agreed in Rome, Italy, today by the UN to address the famine crisis affecting 12 million people in the Horn of Africa.

Proven best

Stéphane Doyon, a nutrition expert for the charity Médecins Sans Frontières, says that sending ready-to-eat therapeutic foods like Plumpy’Nut is the best strategy to combat malnutrition in children rapidly. “It’s proven to work best against severe malnutrition, especially in situations where you don’t have the flexibility to individualise interventions,” he says. “Based on clinical science and evidence, they contain the right blend of macro and micronutrients needed to rehabilitate children from severe malnutrition.”

The crisis is particularly affecting Somalia itself and neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, where refugees from Somalia are arriving at a rate of 1500 to 2000 per day, according to the UNHCR refugee agency. The UN today agreed that the long-term solution is to invest in the future of farming in the region, but the other, much more urgent priority is to save those close to death through starvation.

“It’s vital we reach those at the epicentre of the famine with food assistance, especially the highly fortified nutritious products that are so important for vulnerable children,” WFP’s executive director Josette Sheeran said in a statement in Rome.

Famine ravages East Africa

Famine continues to ravage East Africa – Features – Al Jazeera English.

In Somalia, where civil war has ravaged the country, where conflict continues to claim victims, a new hardship is being visited on the innocent.

Thirty years ago the world rallied to help the famine victims of Ethiopia and across the Horn of Africa, and vowed never again.

Now, after the worst drought in the region in 60 years, thousands are dead, thousands dying and more than 11 million people are at risk.

The drought was officially declared last week by the United Nations, and the international community is now trying to co-ordinate an action plan.

They gathered in Rome at the headquarters of the United Nation’s Farming and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the representatives of 191 countries, of non-government organisations, of charities and aid groups.

They were told by the foreign minister of Somalia’s government in exile Mohamed Ibrahim: “The people of Somalia now face widespread famine for a wide array of reasons, extremely low rates of rainfall for the past two years, al-Shabab’s blockade of humanitarian and aid agencies access to the needy, the vulnerability of the Somali people and the continual chaos and instability throughout the region”.

Famine in a failed state

The problem of access has dominated much of the discussion. Somalia is a failed state. The rule of law is ignored and the Islamist fighters of al-Shabab control large parts of the country. They have in the past banned international aid agencies from working in the area with threats of extreme violence. In early July it said would accept groups it had blocked. But just last week, it again said it would stop groups it considered Western or ”Christian”. And so people continue to starve, blocked from the help that could save them.

The famine is biting in Somalia, but 11 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea are also struggling to find enough food to eat. The drought has destroyed crops, conflict has forced people to run from the areas where they live, and – crucially – where they farm. The drop in production has led to a spike in demand, sending food prices soaring beyond the reach of most ordinary families. Refugees are spilling out of Somalia, heading to refugee camps where they hope not for a better life, but simply for the chance of one.

Josette Sheeran is the head of the UN’s World Food Programme. She arrived at the conference on the overnight flight from East Africa, having toured the areas most affected.

She saw thousands of Somalis slowly making their way to the temporary camps which are now almost bursting with exhausted, emaciated people. “What we saw is children who are arriving so weak that many of them are in stage four malnutrition and have little chance – less than 40 per cent chance – of making it,” she told the delegates.  “We also heard from women who had to leave babies along the road and make the horrifying choice of saving the stronger for the weaker or those who had children die in their arms,” she added.

Sheeran, who has been credited with bringing a new dynamism to the World Food Programme, denied that the world had ignored warnings that a crisis was coming, only waking up when pictures of dead babies started to fill the TV  screens. “This drought is worse than the one in the 1980s, but fewer people are dying because of the programmes put in place, the early-warning systems and the resilience measures that have been introduced.  It’s still too many and we need to work to save lives.”

Kanayo Nwanze is an agricultural specialist who runs the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development. He welcomes the international intervention but believes Africa should be doing much more to help Africans: ”If Africa does not get its house in order and expects the world to help us out, we are dreaming”, said Nwanze. And he told me, “Tanzania, Kenya and Ghana are moving ahead with agriculture but less than ten countries have fulfilled the pledge they made in 2003 to set aside ten per cent of their budgets for agriculture”.

Nwanze pointed out that 30 years ago, Africa was a net exporter of many foods. “Now it imports.  And that is due to bad governance.”

The international community has pledged many millions to help with the immediate crisis, but Barbara Stocking of the charity Oxfam believes that short-term fixes don’t help the long-term problems.  Describing the famine as “shameful”, she said, “We have not had the investment in small producers across the world that was expected.  The money has simply not come through”. And she insisted that people must hold their governments to account when they promise money to help and then don’t follow through.

As one delegate told me: “People are dying in the drought in the Horn of Africa because the rains failed. The international community can’t afford to do the same.”

Crop disease to add to east Africa's woes

Crop disease to add to east Africa’s woes – environment – 13 July 2011 – New Scientist.

NEARLY 20 million people face starvation in east Africa as the region experiences its worst drought for 60 years. Hopes now focus on the return of the rains, perhaps as early as the autumn. But that could just bring another problem with it.

A new, aggressive strain of yellow rust, a fungal disease of wheat, is waiting in the wings, and east Africa isn’t the only region at risk.

The disease had already struck the US, Australia and Europe when, in 2010, a particularly virulent strain infested an area from Morocco to Pakistan, and spread faster than any known major crop disease (see map). Most wheat varieties in warm countries have no defence against it. Its march continued this year, with an outbreak in northern India.

Concern about yellow rust has languished as wheat scientists rushed to respond to a related disease, the Ug99 strain of stem rust against which little of the world’s wheat has any resistance. Yellow rust has historically been less deadly than stem rust, and thrived only in cool countries.

But in 2000, a new aggressive strain of the disease was detected in California, though it probably evolved in Africa or Asia, says Mogens Hovmøller of Aarhus University, Denmark. It generates more spores than its ancestors, so it spreads farther, faster.

It is also nastier. Yellow rust typically does not destroy entire crops, even in the absence of fungicide. But this lineage wiped out organic crops in Denmark, says Hovmøller. Based on the location of recent outbreaks, Colin Wellings of the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, says some of the world’s major wheat producers are at risk from the new strain.

Concern is greatest in the tropics, where most farmers cannot afford fungicide and yellow rust has not typically been a problem: until now, the disease has not been adapted to warm temperatures. As a result, most local wheat varieties carry only one gene to resist it, called Yr27.

The new strain tolerates warmer temperatures and appears to have acquired genes to defeat Yr27, possibly from other yellow rusts. No one knows where or when this happened, but plant pathologists discovered last year that yellow rust can reproduce sexually, suggesting the new strain may have picked up genes from local strains by mating with them.

The result was an epidemic that in 2010 killed up to 40 per cent the wheat crop in Ethiopia, Syria, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, Morocco and Kenya. The spores like humidity, and struck irrigated fields in drought-stricken areas, says Mahmoud Solh, head of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria. Drought is now holding them at bay in some places, but “when the rains return to Africa, the rust will be waiting”, he warns. Hovmøller agrees.

Wheat researchers meeting at ICARDA in April said they had developed wheat varieties that can resist the new strain of yellow rust. They also yield 15 per cent more grain and resist Ug99 stem rust. But it will take several years to breed enough seed for regions blighted by the new strain, cautions Solh. And the aggressive strains produce so many spores so fast, adds Hovmøller, that they mutate and adapt faster than yellow rust has in the past. “What works now may not last long,” he says.