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Teaching herbicide use may help expand African food production

Farmers in Africa routinely battle situations that would be their Western counterparts’ worst nightmares: an almost total lack of an infrastructure for transporting crops; bureaucratic red tape at border crossings; government purchasing monopolies; AIDS …

But one of the most debilitating obstacles they face is one that growers in the United States, Europe, Brazil and Argentina handle without giving much thought: Preventing weeds from reducing their crop yields from 25 percent to 100 percent.

“Preparing fields for planting and weeding crops with hoes take unbelievable amounts of time,” says Jay Vroom, chairman of CropLife Foundation, “And, in general, women and children are the ones who get stuck with those jobs. The amount of time they have to spend can keep them from doing other things like attending school.”

CropLife Foundation in partnership with CNFA, a Washington-based enterprise development organization non-profit, is launching a demonstration project aimed at helping African farmers learn how to replace back-breaking labor with chemical weed control.

Vroom and other CropLife Foundation representatives announced the project at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines, Iowa, Oct. 16. The World Food Prize was begun by Nobel Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug, a native of Iowa who is credited with saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation by improving plant genetics.

“As father of the Green Revolution, Dr. Borlaug’s philosophy and practice of using plant science technology to dramatically improve crop yields in developing countries truly provides the basis for this demonstration,” said Vroom.

According to studies in Africa, farmers can spend more than 100 hours per hectare (2.47 acres) preparing weed-infested land for planting. The studies show 200 hours may be required for hand-hoeing weeds from growing crops.

Even with that prodigious amount of labor, farmers still lose 25 percent to 100 percent of their crop yields to competition from weeds, according to those studies conducted by university agronomists in Africa.

CropLife Foundation, a research and education non-profit organization focused on crop management issues in Washington, is investigating the use of herbicides to control weeds and other pesticides to combat insects and post-harvest losses on key crops such as maize and beans. The demonstration project could provide benefits beyond those of higher crop yields, according to CropLife Foundation representatives.

“The current practice in African agriculture is for women to use hand tools to chop weeds from crops,” said CLF Project Director Leonard Gianessi. (African women typically use short-handled hoes; not the long-handled ones used by U.S. farmers before herbicides became available.)

“This practice creates severe back problems for the workers and is also very inefficient in preventing yield losses,” said Gianessi, the author of a number of landmark studies on the benefits of crop protection chemicals. “Especially, the intensive, ongoing labor results in fewer women having time to capitalize on education and other opportunities.”

Commenting on CLF’s Africa weed project, Borlaug said he has found weed control to be one of the most limiting factors affecting crop production in Africa and in most developing countries.

“Many times you will hear a farmer say he cannot grow any more corn, wheat or sorghum because he has to spend so much time controlling weeds on his acreage. This severely limits how those farmers view increased crop and food production,” he noted.

Some farmers also limit the amount of crop nutrients they apply because they’re also fertilizing the weeds, making them even more difficult to chop out. Having to spend hours preparing fields or chopping weeds in newly planted crops can also prevent farmers from planting other crops on time, says Gianessi.

In developing the demonstration, CNFA is utilizing its network of 1,500 agrodealers in Africa. The demonstration organizers are planting 50 field plots in Kenya and Malawi and collecting data to show the potential of herbicides to reduce hand weeding, produce higher crop yields and generate higher income.

“These plots are being located just outside the dealerships so that farmers can see them when they come to buy seeds or other inputs,” says Vroom. “We’re very fortunate in that Leonard already had contacts with CNFA who could help make this project possible.”

Financial and technical support is being provided by Syngenta Crop Protection, Dow AgroSciences, Bayer CropScience, DuPont Crop Protection and Monsanto. The companies are also giving product samples for use in the demonstration plots.

The CropLife Foundation was created in 2001 to promote and advance sustainable agriculture and the environmentally sound use of crop protection products and bioengineered agriculture.

“We’ve been asking what are the niches where we could help farmers produce safe, high quality, abundant food, fiber and other crops,” said Vroom. “Through Leonard’s herbicide benefits studies, he had determined there was a real absence of herbicide expertise in developing countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa.”

“If the Kenya-Malawi demonstrations are as successful as we believe they will be, we will be seeking support from major funding organizations to expand the crop technology concept to all the 1,500-plus agrodealers in our African network,” said CNFA President John Costello. “These dealers provided planting advice and crop inputs to millions of African farmers.”

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TAGS: Management
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