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August 22, 2009

Weeds are farmers' natural enemy number one, says FAO expert

Weeds should be regarded as a top natural killer for farmers around the world, especially in Africa, according to an expert from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

More than 1 billion people nowadays in the world are hungry, the result of flawed policies, wars, natural hazards like floods, droughts, pests, diseases and climate change. But one huge hunger-maker lurks largely unnoticed, FAO's weed expert Ricardo Labrada-Romero said in the report.

"Maybe it's because weeds are not very spectacular," he said. "Droughts, insects and diseases like swine flu are attention-grabbers because their effects are dramatic. Weeds are different. They play havoc out quietly all year round, year after year."

Considering the damage caused by one weed alone, Broomrape (Orobanche spp), an aggressive root weed which attacks legumes and vegetables, it can not only lead to complete crop failure but also make fields infertile for many years, the expert pointed out. Figures clearly show that weeds should be regarded as farmers' natural enemy No. 1, Labrada-Romero said.

According to a leading environmental research organization, Land Care of New Zealand, they cause some 95 billion U.S. dollars a year in lost food production at global level, compared with 85 billion dollars for pathogens, 46 billion dollars for insects and 2.4 billion dollars for vertebrates, he said.

Economic losses may be even greater considering that more than half of the time farmers spend in the fields goes to weed control, Labrada-Romero said. If farms are to increase their productivity one of the first things they must do is to improve weed management, he added. Nowhere is this more important than in Africa, where weeds are a major cause of stagnating yields and production, Labrada-Romero stressed.

"With only manual labor available, African smallholders need to weed every day and that means a family physically can't handle more than 1-1.5 hectares," he said. "But proper management would allow them to farm more land and grow more food."

Modern integrated weed management involves much more than spraying herbicides. Crop rotation is one effective technique because weeds are often biologically adapted to a given food crop so that changing the crop can reduce weeds too.

Also important, said Labrada-Romero, is the use of certified, quality seeds. Many of the seeds produced and used by farmers are contaminated by weed seeds. If smallholders produce their own seeds, they should be taught to clean them so as to avoid planting weeds in their fields at sowing time.

After two decades fighting weeds, Labrada-Romero, a 62-year-old Cuban, recently went into well-deserved retirement, according to FAO. "But the fight against weeds must go on," the FAO expert said, "otherwise more people will starve."

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