Fighting high food prices in Madagascar
FAO helps boost rice, sorghum production to reduce costly imports
28 August 2008, Rome - A month-long series of plantings is coming to an end in eastern Madagascar, aimed at ensuring that the local food supply – of rice especially – is sufficient to avoid importing large quantities at high prices to meet the country’s food needs this year.
In July, FAO launched an emergency Technical Cooperation Project worth US$500 000 that is providing rice seed, bean seed and fertilizers to some 6 000 farmers and their families. These households are among those hardest hit by cyclones that in recent months wiped out 80 percent of the last harvest. Seed supplies have been consumed for food.
“Every year, Madagascar imports about 200 000 tonnes of rice for consumption. This year, the gap is estimated at 270 000 tonnes, and that will present a challenge,” said Marco Falcone, FAO’s Emergency Coordinator in Madagascar.
“Importing rice at international prices means paying 70 percent more than current local prices, and that isn’t expected to change,” he added.
The off-season planting in July and August could add considerable production, Mr. Falcone explained, since farmers in Madagascar traditionally only plant in the main rainy season, which starts in November.
In the medium term, development partners including the World Bank are supporting the Malagasy government in its aims to boost annual production by up to 500 000 tonnes of paddy rice per year in three years’ time. With current national production running about 3.5 million tonnes of paddy rice annually, domestic needs would be met and the surplus could be sold.
In order to boost rice harvests on this scale, currently unused arable land would be pulled into production by expanding irrigation schemes and ensuring regular use of fertilizers. This also would allow cultivation beyond the main season.
Transport to market would also have to be improved: rice producing regions in Madagascar often have a glut in output while other regions in the country see price hikes, simply as a result of weak market infrastructure.
“Madagascar could be more than self-sufficient in rice,” said Mr. Falcone. “Madagascar stands to benefit as a major exporter to the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros, Seychelles and Mauritius, for example. Countries in eastern and southern Africa could be another major export market.”
The risk in a rice-only solution
Increased rice production, however, wouldn’t be the only necessary step to resolve a situation of chronic poverty and malnutrition in Madagascar.
“Malnourishment in Madagascar is aggravated by people’s dependence on just one food – rice – which provides calories but not many nutrients or protein,” said Mr. Falcone. In addition, he explained, the country’s drought-prone south produces no rice at all. Getting rice to the south is already one obstacle, while another is transporting it among different isolated regions in the south.
So at the same time that rice and beans are being planted in the regions hit by cyclones, the first sorghum harvests are being reaped in the south with support from FAO, USAID and ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics. This effort is part of a longer-term strategy to return this increasingly dry part of the country to producing a traditional crop that can continue to flourish despite the region’s brutal dry periods.
“This is the first significant sorghum harvest the south has had in nearly 20 years,” said Tom Osborn, Agricultural Officer for the FAO’s Seed and Plant Genetic Resources Service.
“Sorghum disappeared as a main food crop in the mid-1990s, when both crops and seeds were consumed in famine years for survival. Quality sorghum seed was no longer available in southern Madagascar, and then sorghum was largely replaced by maize,” Mr. Osborn explained.
But maize cannot eke out high yields any longer in Madagascar’s south, which is becoming drier with each passing year. FAO has reintroduced sorghum and short-cycle maize, which with the shorter growing period is less vulnerable to dry spells, to boost the local food supply.
Communications Officer, Initiative on Soaring Food Prices (ISFP)
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