South Africa’s department of agriculture said on Friday that scientific tests have confirmed the presence of the invasive fall armyworm in the maize belt, the first time the crop-damaging pest has been detected there.
Countries with confirmed outbreaks can face import bans on agricultural products because the armyworm is classified as a quarantine pest. The pest can also cause extensive damage to crops and has a preference for maize, the regional staple.
The fall armyworm is an invasive Central American species that is harder to detect and eradicate than its African counterpart.
The South African samples were collected in the caterpillar stage and had to emerge as moths before positive identification could be done.
“This pest is a good flyer and cannot be contained in a specific area. Damage reported in South Africa so far is mainly on yellow maize varieties and especially on sweetcorn as well as maize planted for seed production,” the department of agriculture said in a statement.
The outbreak of armyworms has spread to Namibia and Mozambique and is causing “considerable crop damage” in southern Africa, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said earlier on Friday.
Suspected outbreaks have also erupted in Zambia, Zimbabweand Malawi. They follow a crippling El Nino-triggered drought which scorched much of the region last year, hitting crop production and leaving millions in need of food aid.
The FAO said an emergency meeting would be held in Hararefrom Feb. 14 to 16 to shape coordinated emergency responses to the armyworm threat and other potential hazards such as the spread of avian flu which has been detected in other African regions.
In Malawi, where 6.5 million people, more than a third of the population, are dependent on food aid until this year’s harvest in March, the infestation has spread to all 28 districts in the country.
The armyworm moths lay eggs in maize plants and the caterpillars have also been known to march en masse across the landscape – hence the name. They have been known to destroy 90 percent of the crop in fields they infest.
South Africa’s agriculture ministry is registering pesticides for use against the fall armyworm.
There is an urgent need to improve large-scale grain and produce storage in Africa to reduce food losses to protect consumers from the serious health consequences of high aflatoxin levels, experts have said.
Philippe Villers, the president of GrainPro, a US-based green “not-only-for-profit” company, said proper drying of grains and seeds, as well as safe storage, handling and distribution of food commodities, without using chemicals or pesticides is the future in grain production and marketing.
He was speaking ahead of the first Africa Strategic Grain Reserve conference to be held in Nairobi from June 14-15.
The conference will focus on providing safe storage solutions for national grain reserve agencies, while bringing together the ecosystem that supports them – producers such as smallholder farmers and coops, grain traders, government ministries, researchers, funders and international organisations.
Villers said: “Using the principles of Ultra Hermetic™ technology and modified atmospheres, GrainPro is providing leadership in the second green revolution.”
Africa loses up to 30 per cent of its grain production due to poor storage facilities and aflatoxin infestation. These losses that threaten food security on the continent forced the United Nations this year to set a target of halving food loss by 2030 as a key Sustainable Development Goal.
Anne Mbaabu, the head of markets and harvest management at AGRA, said post-harvest loss is “the most unanswered and ignored challenge” to food insecurity in Africa, with over $4 billion in lost value every year.
“Governments, co-ops and farmers need to have better access to appropriate storage facilities and new technologies to reduce these losses,” said Mbaabu.
One of the major food safety and storage issues to be addressed at the conference is the high prevalence of Aflatoxin found in maize and other staple commodities.
Aflatoxins are poisonous and cancer-causing moulds that can lead to stunting in children and severe health problems in adults. They are regularly found in improperly stored commodities such as maize, cassava, millet, rice, sorghum, and wheat. When contaminated grain is processed, aflatoxins enter the general food supply where they have been found in both pet and human foods.
“Aflatoxin contamination across food systems undermines the gains made in improving production systems in the developing world,” said Amare Ayalew, the programme manager of the African Union’s Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA).
“A major part of the solution to the aflatoxin challenge lies in adequate handling and storage of grains. Increased understanding of challenges and opportunities of grain reserves in the African context will go a long way in mitigating aflatoxin contamination in strategic crops,” Ayalew said.
“We believe that solving the problem of post-harvest losses and securing safe, long-term storage for grains will have a major positive impact on the financial lives of small holder farmers as well as the health of their communities and environment,” said Cynthia Ryan, director of the Schooner Africa Fund.
Willy Bett, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries is one of the key speakers at the conference. Others are Betty Kibaara of the Rockefeller Foundation, and Gerald Masila of the East Africa Grain Council. The summit is sponsored by the African Union’s Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa, GrainPro, the Schooner Africa Fund, Abt Associates, and AGCO/GSI.
Johannesburg – A severe drought in southern Africa has triggered a surge in food prices, preventing central banks from loosening monetary policy to spur economic growth.
Central banks in South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique have been forced to raise interest rates to rein in inflation after the El Nino-induced drought crippled the production of the staple maize and other crops, pushing up food prices, despite dismal economic growth prospects.
South Africa’s central bank forecasts Africa’s most industrialised economy to grow by 0.6 percent this year, after expanding 1.3 percent in 2015, partly hobbled by the drought and low commodity prices.
The bank has hiked rates by a cumulative 200 basis points since January 2014 to bring inflation within its target band of between 3 and 6 percent.
Sanlam economic advisor Jac Laubscher said by leaving the benchmark rate at 7 percent at its policy meeting last month, the bank was trying to strike a balance between fighting inflation and not depressing already weak economic growth.
“This time around they opted for growth, while at the same time making it clear that the decision to keep the repo rate unchanged should be viewed as a mere pause,” Laubscher said.
Inflation stood at 6.2 percent in April, but food inflation rose to 11.3 percent compared with 5 percent in the same period last year. The central bank sees food inflation peaking at 12 percent in the final quarter of 2016.
“This tightened monetary policy stance unfortunately comes at a time of very lacklustre economic growth,” said Hanns Spangenberg, an economist at NKC African Economics. “However, the central bank cannot let expectations for inflation anchor at levels above the upper range of its target range.”
Also of concern was a weaker rand, which has depreciated 26 percent to the dollar since January 2015. The currency is vulnerable to possible downgrades to South Africa’s credit rating and higher US interest rates.
In Zambia, Africa’s no.2 copper producer, the benchmark lending rate is at a record 15.5 percent as the central bank fights higher inflation, which stood at 21.3 percent in May compared with 6.9 percent in May 2015.
“The cost of maize has gone up significantly and that is fuelling inflation,” Zambia’s Deputy Finance Minister Christopher Mvunga said. “Unless we are food sufficient, central banks will struggle.”
Zambia’s central bank expects inflation to average 8.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016, but analysts say the target was too ambitious.
“It is very difficult to attain single digit inflation because our currency has been depreciating and most of the goods that we consume are imported,” said Lubinda Habazoka, an economist at the Copperbelt University.
Weaker copper prices have put pressure on Zambia’s currency and the economy. The government expects the economy to grow by 3.7 percent this year against 3.5 percent last year.
Higher food prices have also pushed up annual inflation in Mozambique, which faces an imminent sovereign debt default.
Inflation stood at 17.29 percent in April after prices rose by 1.98 percent in April 2015.
The central bank lifted its benchmark lending rate by 200 basis points to 12.75 percent in April, saying it was concerned about pronounced inflation risks caused by the drought and the sharp depreciation of the currency.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network expects ‘stressed’ and ‘crisis’ outcomes between January and March in the broader Southern Africa region: “Poor households in these areas will experience livelihood protection and consumption deficits due to reduced casual labour opportunities, above average food prices, poor pasture and livestock conditions, the late start of season, and poor rainfall performance so far.”
We interviewed Professor in Food Security Sheryl Hendriks from the University of Pretoria on the possibility of a food shortage in SA, and how South Africans should be preparing for the rising cost of food.
With SA now having to import six million tonnes of maize, will it be enough to quell a potential food shortage?
At this point, we are not sure how much we will need to import. The difficulty is that our exchange rate makes imports exceptionally expensive.
The cost of local production is far lower than the cost of importing – especially when international demand and prices are high, but more so because our exchange rate has weakened so drastically.
Maize meal prices have already increased in the stores. The price of SA’s staple food will increase dramatically when we start importing as the consumer will need to cover the costs of importation. If the drought continues, we will face future shortages, making us reliant on imports in the near-term.
The current crisis affects white maize more than yellow maize. Yellow maize is used for animal feed so the white maize crisis will affect the price of mielie meal and other foods where maize is added – corn flour, baking goods, biscuits, breakfast cereals etc.
One of SA’s best options would be to turn to consuming yellow maize, as we did in the crisis in the 1980’s when we were faced with a similar crisis. One could only buy yellow maize because sanctions prevented us from importing white maize from other countries. Not many countries produce white maize in surplus except for the US, Mexico, Brazil and China. Although, using yellow maize for human consumption would exacerbate the shortage of supply of animal feed, which would affect the prices of other foods such as meat, chicken and dairy products.
For lower-income and poor consumers who consume mainly pap, the options are limited. These consumers will most likely need support from relatives or government if the price of maize meal increases substantially.
For all, avoiding debt is crucial!
Driving his pick-up truck down a dirt road, farmer Petrus Roux points to scorched fields that should be a sea of green maize, part of South Africa’s western grain belt.
The worst drought in over a hundred years has devastated crops and could tip the economy into recession, adding to a loss of investor faith in President Jacob Zuma, pushing up food prices and possibly stoking social and racial tensions ahead of local elections.
“As far as the eye can see, empty fields,” Roux said, pointing to pastures seared a rusty red.
Alongside record temperatures there has been a stampede from South African assets beyond the wider flight from emerging markets. The rand has fallen sharply and analysts say a credit ratings downgrade to “junk” status is possible.
Agriculture only contributes 2.2 percent to economic output, but a major farming contraction could turn slow growth into recession. This could push up the jobless rate from around 25 percent and widen the gap between rich and poor, factors already contributing to political tensions and exposing the racial rifts that Nelson Mandela tried to heal after years of apartheid.
Online racial abuse spiked in the last month and police had to deploy razor wire this week to separate crowds of whites and blacks protesting outside the court appearance of four white farmers accused of beating two black men to death.
Sim Tshabalala, the head of Standard Bank, one of South Africa’s largest banks, said on Wednesday that racism and inequality were weighing on the economy.
“There is pressure in the society over economic decline and that pressure is playing out on social platforms,” said Gary van Staden, political analyst with NKC African Economics.
Africa’s most industrialized economy grew 0.7 percent in the third quarter but that was after shrinking 1.7 percent in the previous three months. Some analysts are expecting a recession, usually considered to be two consecutive quarters of contraction, in 2016.
This would make it harder for the ruling African National Congress, in power since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, to overcome a serious challenge from the liberal Democratic Alliance Party and the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters in mid-year local elections.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said on Thursday the economy was not heading for recession. The government is forecasting growth of 1.5 percent in 2016 but recent indicators are downbeat.
The rand, also hit by the slump in global commodity prices, slid 25 percent in 2015 and last week briefly plunged 10 percent to a record low of 17.995 to the dollar. This could push up inflation, currently 4.8 percent year-on-year, particularly if food is imported to compensate for the loss of domestic supply.
Manufacturing output, which accounts for more than 12 percent of the economy, fell in both October and November. Finance, real estate and business services, the single largest contributor to output at around 20 percent, expanded 2.8 percent in the third quarter but is expected to slow.
Agriculture, a particularly volatile sector, could make the difference. A 20 percent contraction in farming output, for example, could shave 0.4 percent off overall growth, analysts say. It shrank 12.6 percent in Q3 after declining 19.7 and 18 percent in the previous two periods.
“We are anticipating a recession this year and agriculture and the drought will be big parts of that,” said George Glynos, an analyst at Johannesburg-based financial consultancy ETM.
A rise in food prices, a significant portion of spending for lower-income South Africans who are overwhelmingly black and many of whom have seen little economic improvement since the end of apartheid, could also contribute to tensions.
South Africa may need to import as much as 5 million tonnes of maize this year, roughly half its requirements, producer group Grain SA said last week.
The maize crop last year, when South Africa recorded its lowest average rainfall since records began in 1904, was down a third to under 10 million tonnes and the harvest is expected to be much lower this year. Africa’s biggest maize producer is usually a net exporter of the grain.
Futures prices for white maize, the main food staple for lower-income households, more than doubled last year because of the drought.
“We expect general food prices to increase by 15 to 20 percent this year because the drought is hitting everything,” said Christo Joubert, head of the food price monitoring arm of the National Agricultural Marketing Council.
That would increase political pressure on Zuma, already under fire for triggering financial turmoil by changing finance ministers twice last month.
The central bank has repeatedly warned about drought and food prices and is expected to raise interest rates at the end of the month to curb inflation pressures.
Analysts say Zuma has few tools to deal with the brewing problems and expect the ANC to spend money to win over voters.
“The problem that underpins the annus horribilis of 2016 is no policy interventions to stop the backward slide. And with the local elections coming up you will see fiscal indiscipline,” Van Staden said.
Johannesburg – South Africa should brace itself for a rapid rise in staple food prices as the worst drought in 23 years leaves farm land barren.
Although food inflation in the country has remained relatively low, the drought and the weak rand could change the equation as the country has to rely on imports to augment the shortage in the local market.
The latest statistics show maize, wheat, soya beans, sunflower and ground nut harvests have fallen by almost 30 percent year on year.
In the meantime, sugar cane production came down by almost 23 percent. In some sugar cane areas of KwaZulu-Natal, production fell by as much as 53 percent.
Agricultural experts this week warned that the people who would feel the biggest impact of the drought would be the poorest of the poor, who depend on staple foods such as maize, bread, cereal and beans.
Farmer representative body Grain SA this week warned of tough times ahead for consumers as living costs would rise and disposable income drop.
Grain SA economist Wandile Sihlobo said poor people would have to dig deeper into their disposable income to buy maize, which at the current exchange rate cost almost double the normal price.
“The cost of importing maize has increased by at least 80 percent in the past days alone,” Sihlobo said.
“The drought has had quite a significant impact that it has caused but what I think what is closer to our tables is maize where the harvest has actually decreased by 31 percent on a year-on-year basis so the impact is quite significant.”
During a good harvest, South Africa is able to provide enough maize for its own consumption, netting the agricultural industry at least R6.5 billion in revenue.
But this week, with the rand dipping to R14, its weakest level yet against the dollar, Grain SA forecast that South Africa would import 700 000 tons of yellow maize and 50 000 tons of white maize in the coming maize marketing year.
The provinces hardest hit by the drought are KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Free State and Mpumalanga.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the sugar cane industry warned that it would take at least 10 years to recover the billions of rands it has lost through the drought.
South African Cane Growers Association managing director Nhlanhla Gumede said the industry faced a “double whammy” because farmers made a return on their investments over a time period of eight to 10 years and a break in the cycle could push them into further despair.
“If the good conditions prevail then the crop will be able to recover relatively quickly – not enough for this year but certainly for next year,” Gumede said.
“Our focus at present is to work with as many stakeholders as possible to provide a basket of solutions for farmers and workers.”
Agri SA agricultural economist Thabi Nkosi said farmers were scaling back on production, which could leave millions without jobs as the industry was labour intensive.
Nkosi said the drought could cost farmers R10bn as input costs surpassed profits, raising worries about the short-term sustainability of the industry.
“Farmers are holding back and do not want to invest in an industry that is looking bleak,” Nkosi said.
“Some of them are already talking insolvency so they will not be looking at employing more people instead they would retrench those already in employment to lower their costs,” Nkosi added.
Maize is the major staple crop in many parts of Africa. Bt maize is the only commercialised genetically modified (GM) food crop in the continent and has been cultivated in South Africa since 2001 through public and private programmes.
Bt maize produces insecticidal proteins that provide resistance to the African maize stem borer (Busseola fusca) and the Chilo borer (Chilo partellus), two pests that cause significant yield losses.
There is intense debate about the role of genetically modified (GM) food crops in combatting low yields and food insecurity amongst smallholders in Africa. Bt maize is still the only commercialised GM food crop in Africa and thus provides an unique opportunity for an empirical evaluation on this matter.
Only African country to grow Bt maize
South Africa is the only country in Africa where farmers grow Bt maize. South African smallholders have been introduced to Bt maize through a number of private enterprise interventions and government programmes since 2001. Scientific publications on the effects of Bt maize on South African smallholders, from socioeconomic and ecological perspectives, are now starting to accumulate.
Bt maize produces insecticidal proteins that provide resistance to the African maize stem borer (Busseola fusca) and the Chilo borer (Chilo partellus) which can cause significant yield losses in low-input African smallholder systems. As maize is the dominant staple crop in Africa, and stem borer damage is a significant production problem to many African smallholders, Bt maize could have substantial positive impacts on the livelihoods and food security of smallholders.
In this commentary, we argue, however, that the fact that Bt maize was originally developed for use in large-scale capital intensive farming is still reflected in its functioning, which currently results in it being of limited use to smallholders. In addition, the regulatory context in which Bt maize was introduced in South Africa, and the lack of information provided to smallholders with the introduction of Bt maize, further reduce the current possibility of smallholders benefitting from it.
As an alternative, we see positive progress in public–private initiatives to develop new maize varieties, specifically for smallholders’ preferences and circumstances, which, we argue, show greater potential to improve food security in smallholders’ contexts.
Economic risk of adoption – much more expensive
The first aspect which negatively impacts on the possibility of Bt maize to be of benefit to smallholders is the economic risk that its adoption entails. To date, Bt maize seed has been supplied to smallholders through government-sponsored interventions – either for free or at greatly subsidised rates; smallholders therefore have not yet experienced the real costs of the seed.
Bt maize is currently sold at about double the price of popular non-GM hybrids and five times that of the price of popular open pollinated varieties (OPVs). Despite the high prices, some economic studies on Bt maize have reported that, by averaging over a number of years, smallholders can benefit from adopting Bt maize compared with planting conventional hybrids. However, stem borer pressure is highly variable between seasons; therefore during years and at sites that experience low insect pressure, the economic benefit of planting Bt maize can be negative.
Resource-constrained smallholders who do not have an economic buffer are not able to absorb losses in years for which the cost of Bt maize seed does not pay off.
Further reinforcing economic risk taking, currently commercialised Bt maize varieties are developed to give high yields under good agricultural conditions (sufficient and timely rain, fertilisation and good storage conditions).
Local hybrids outperform the GM ones
Smallholders often do not have the economy to provide such an optimal farm environment, and commonly farm on lands that are less suited for agriculture. As a result, planting currently available varieties of Bt maize entails the risk that input costs will not be covered within any one year. Indeed, studies on Bt maize in South Africa indicate that commercial varieties into which the Bt trait is introduced are outperformed by locally used non-GM hybrids and OPVs, which are better adapted to smallholders’ agro-ecologies, fluctuations in rainfall and suboptimal storage conditions.
Other countries, such as India, China and Argentina, which report higher adoption of Bt crops by smallholders, have less monopolistic seed markets and lower prices for GM seed than South Africa does, and, as a result of lower regulatory control on GM crops, the Bt traits have also to a greater extent been incorporated into locally suited varieties. It must also be noted, however, that the lower regulatory control of GM crops in these countries has simultaneously led to the marketing of seed of dubious quality, which negatively affects farmers.
Lack of transfer of information on Bt maize is found to be a key obstacle for successful adoption by smallholders. To successfully adopt Bt maize, farmers must be informed that it provides resistance to stem borers; and, for the sake of preserving the stem borer resistance, they need to be taught to plant a refuge of non-Bt maize next to their Bt crop. This refuge is provided by planting a specified area of non-Bt hybrids with the Bt crop, thereby providing feeding grounds for stem borers. In South Africa today, the main information channel on Bt crops to smallholders is through the private sector (seed companies and local seed retailers).
Jacobson and Myhr reported from the Eastern Cape Province that the information days on GM crops held by seed companies were insufficient for transferring all the necessary information and that the local seed retailers largely lacked the ability to transfer information on GM crops. We have recently witnessed a similar situation in the Limpopo Province where Bt and Roundup Ready maize is about to be rolled out to smallholders through a government-funded programme, while seed retailers and local government authorities lack sufficient information on GM crops.
Lack of information leads to faulty planting
Research shows that as a result of the current flaws in how information on Bt maize is transferred to smallholders, many smallholders planting Bt maize are not fully aware of what makes it different from other hybrid maize; and they often do not understand the purpose of refugia, nor comply with the demand to plant them. (To some extent, the lack of compliance with refugia plantings also applies to large commercial South African farmers).
Regulations regarding Bt maize in South Africa also currently obstruct smallholders from fully benefitting. These regulations apply both to the patents for GM crops and the biosafety management practices that come with planting GM crops in South Africa. Both forms of regulation result in farmers not being allowed to recycle GM seed. While hybrid seed in general is unsuitable for recycling because of yield drop, resource-constrained smallholders frequently use the possibility of recycling seed to be able to plant in years for which the budget does not allow for the purchase of new seed.
In summary, current Bt maize varieties in South Africa are expensive, are not suited to planting in suboptimal agricultural environments and come with regulations that smallholders do not understand or with which they do not agree. Whilst some of these problems can be remedied, there are cheaper alternatives available that are more attuned both to smallholders’ agro-ecologies and to their farming practices.
The South African government is currently, through the Agricultural Research Council – Grain Crops Institute (ARC-GCI), promoting the development and certification of maize OPVs suited to smallholder conditions and practices. The ARC-GCI is working in collaboration with the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center (CIMMYT), initially through the Southern African Drought and Low Soil Fertility Project, and now through a breeding programme called Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa. These initiatives are working closely with smallholders and have resulted in the registration of a number of stress-tolerant maize OPVs on the South African Variety List.
In addition to drought and low soil nitrogen tolerance, the varieties also possess such desirable traits as resistance to major maize diseases (e.g. turcicum leaf blight and grey leaf spot), superior tolerance to smallholders’ storage conditions, early maturation and suitability for home processing. These are features of maize that are repeatedly highlighted as important by smallholders in southern Africa.
As a consequence of the projected increase in moisture stress because of climate change, these varieties, and continued efforts to produce them, can also be expected to substantially contribute to food security in future. Smallholder farmers in the Limpopo Province have already adopted some of these varieties, and are currently growing and marketing certified seed of ZM 1421, ZM 1521 and ZM 1523. In the Eastern Cape Province, some of the OPVs showed very stable performance across different stress-prone environments and seasons, and produced yields that were not significantly different from hybrids.
Zero seed costs can be realised for some seasons, because of the option of recycling seed of OPVs without the yield penalty associated with recycling hybrids.
We argue that government money would be better spent on supporting further development and spread of these less costly stress-tolerant maize OPVs to smallholders which, we argue, have better prospects for increasing and stabilising smallholders’ maize yields in economically sustainable ways.
Source: Green Times
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