AIDS, a hidden threat to agriculture
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CTA. 1997. AIDS, a hidden threat to agriculture. Spore 69. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Every day, nearly 9,000 people world-wide become infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The continent of Africahas been the most seriously hit, but the epidemic has spread throughout Asia and is increasingly evident in the Caribbean and...
Every day, nearly 9,000 people world-wide become infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The continent of Africa has been the most seriously hit, but the epidemic has spread throughout Asia and is increasingly evident in the Caribbean and in the Pacific. Because the disease is so widespread and far reaching in its effects, it cannot be looked upon solely as a medical problem. AIDS also has a direct major impact on agricultural production and national economies. Unlike many diseases, AIDS affects individuals m their most productive years, with the majority of HIV infections occurring in people between the ages of 20 and 40. In some rural communities of sub Saharan Africa, this selective nature of the disease has practically wiped out a whole generation, leaving behind the grandparents and the orphaned children to face the challenge of survival. HIV/AIDS has also had severe and, in some instances, devastating effects on extension and veterinary personnel, and it has been reported that in some districts of some eastern African countries there are insufficient staff to maintain these services. This could jeopardize the timely reporting of, and reaction to, disease outbreaks such as rinderpest (see In Brief Rinderpest, a continuing risk). It is, perhaps, no great surprise that studies of the situation in Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania report a significant decline in crop yields on small farms, especially over the last five years. This decrease in agricultural output can in part be blamed on the multiple effects of the AIDS epidemic. Illness and death directly affect the availability of labour, and those who remain healthy are preoccupied with caring for the sick or undertaking additional tasks that were previously done by others. As a result, time consuming work like weeding, mulching, pruning and land clearance is either not carried out properly or is left undone. Failing to carry out essential agricultural practices also causes a decline in soil fertility, an increase in pests and diseases and an inevitable reduction in output. Labour and land are usually the only sources of earnings available to small-scale farmers. Families affected by AIDS have to survive with less labour, reduced output and, consequently, on a lower income from the sale of farm produce; they cannot afford inputs such as seed and fertilizer, or the tools that may be required for the following season. Medical costs associated with caring for the sick and bedridden have to be borne, along with the funeral expenses of family members who die of the disease. The need for cash often forces desperate measures: cattle are sold, together with other marketable goods; and children are taken out of school to save expenditure On fees, books and uniforms and to provide extra labour. These measures can help sustain families for a while but, in the long term, they worsen the prospect of being able to earn a living and ensure an adequate supply of food. The threat to household and community food security is a serious one, particularly as a good nutritious diet has been shown to improve the condition of those living with AIDS. In areas such as the Kagera region of Tanzania, where the AIDS epidemic has struck hardest, there has been an estimated 50% decline in production of bananas, coffee and staple foods. Farming families have, however, already started to develop their own Survival strategies. Many have made the change to less labour intensive crops that are easier to plant and maintain, and to crops that are also drought resistant. In some farming systems the impact of AIDS has resulted in a shift away from cash crops, such as coffee, in order to concentrate all available labour on the production of subsistence crops like sweet potatoes and cassava in Africa, and taro or eddies in the Pacific. Farmers have also had to adapt their livestock raising practices. Cattle require a high input of labour and, if this is not available, livestock health deteriorates and their economic potential is reduced. As a result, there appears to be a parallel trend towards the keeping of smaller stock, most notably pigs and poultry, which can be less demanding on labour and are also better able to survive by scavenging for much of their nutrient needs. These coping mechanisms developed by farmers are not long-term solutions. In fact, some of these shifts in agricultural practices are already beginning to show drawbacks: for example, a narrowing of the range of crops grown and livestock kept. Education has to be a key factor in reducing the impact of AIDS, particularly in the Pacific and the Caribbean, where the epidemic is still in its relatively early stages. Ms. Renu Chahil-Graf, Senior Advisor to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), wants to see more countries put in place aggressive prevention programmes beginning with awareness creation through agricultural extension services. 'Providing basic information on how AIDS is spread and simple ways in which to avoid it can make a big change,' she says. Farming families that are already affected by AIDS need support and advice on health care and nutrition. Credit assistance could help farmers set up home-based incomegenerating opportunities and small-scale trading activities in order to supplement income. Various interventions are being undertaken by NGOs, but effective implementation requires the active support of ACP governments. Funds directed in this manner are a worthwhile investment for a stable national economy. Because of the nature of HIV/AIDS, and the reluctance of individuals and some governments to be frank about the extent of epidemics, it is difficult to be precise about their development or regression. The AIDS epidemic may be levelling off in some of the earliest affected countries, such as Uganda, but this is no time to be complacent. In other areas HIV/AIDS infections continue to rise at an alarming rate and the impact of HIV/AIDS continues to manifest itself in different ways, affecting every aspect of day to day life. The full extent of the epidemic and its eventual effect on ACP agriculture remains disturbingly hidden, but educational and supportive measures implemented now can help mitigate the consequences in the future.
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