AIDS threatens African food supply by cutting transfer of farming know-how

23 August 2004 – HIV/AIDS is threatening subsistence agriculture across southern and eastern Africa, impoverishing agricultural households and potentially cutting off the transfer of vital know-know about traditional crops from generation to generation, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today.

The agency based its warning on a major new study of subsistence agriculture in Mozambique, documenting the loss of many varieties of grains, tubers, legumes and vegetables due to HIV/AIDS, flood and drought, threatening the southern African nation with long-term agricultural decline and consequent ominous implications for its food supply.

“This study documents an alarming trend affecting millions of the poorest rural households,” said FAO AIDS expert Marcela Villarreal. “The problem affects not only Mozambique but also countries across southern and eastern Africa, where HIV/AIDS is just as big a problem.”

The study shows that 45 per cent of respondents from HIV/AIDS-affected households said they had reduced the area under cultivation and 60 per cent said they had cut back on the number of crops grown.

Study author Anne Waterhouse said the results showed that HIV/AIDS is likely to have a "highly negative" impact on local knowledge of seeds since it will impeded the passing of farming know-how about traditional crops from generation to generation as infected adults slowly become incapacitated and stop planting many varieties of crops.

It is important not to lose traditional crop varieties, which act as an insurance policy against hunger because they are adapted to local conditions and will produce a minimal harvest even during Africa's recurrent droughts, FAO said. Hybrid or "improved" seeds do not withstand drought as well as traditional seeds and they require special care, such as fertilizer and plentiful water that are often beyond the means of the poorest farmers.

In Mozambique, more than 1.3 million people out of a population of 18 million are thought to be living with HIV/AIDS. FAO predicts that by 2020 the country will have lost over 20 per cent of its agricultural labour force to HIV/AIDS. In the nine hardest-hit African countries, all in southern and eastern Africa, FAO predicts a loss of agricultural labour due to the disease, ranging from 13 per cent in Tanzania to 26 per cent in Namibia.

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