As adults become incapacitated by disease, they stop planting many varieties of crops, according to a major new study of subsistence agriculture in Mozambique.
Some 45 percent of those surveyed from HIV/AIDS-affected households said they had reduced their area under cultivation, and 60 percent said they had reduced the number of crops they grow.
"This study documents an alarming trend affecting millions of the poorest rural households," said Marcela Villarreal, an HIV/AIDS expert with FAO. "The problem affects not only Mozambique, but also countries across southern and eastern Africa, where HIV/AIDS is just as big a problem."
About 25 million of the 38 million people worldwide infected with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease, which has infected more than 1.3 million of Mozambique's 18 million people, is decimating farming communities across the region.
By 2020, FAO predicts Mozambique will have lost over 20 percent of its agricultural labor force to HIV/AIDS. Tanzania stands to lose 13 percent, and Namibia 26 percent.
The study documents the loss of many traditional varieties of grains, tubers, legumes and vegetables due to a combination of HIV/AIDS, floods and drought in Mozambique.
Such crops act as an insurance policy against hunger since they are adapted to local conditions and will produce a minimal harvest even during the region's recurrent droughts, FAO said.
Moreover, hybrid seeds, which do not withstand drought as well as their traditional counterparts, require inputs such as fertilizer and plentiful water that are often beyond the means of the poorest farmers.
As adults stop planting the traditional crops, they also stop passing key farming know-how to the next generation, FAO said.
"Most of the farmers use seeds that they produce themselves to grow their own crops. The way they pass on knowledge about how to identify, improve and conserve that seed from parent to children," said study author Anne Waterhouse. "So what happens if you stop producing a certain seed type is that the knowledge around it is not passed on."
The government estimates that over 600,000 children have already been orphaned by the disease. FAO is field-testing ways to help them learn farming and other life skills.
The study, commissioned by FAO, was based on interviews with about 90 men and women in three communities in the southern Chokwe District in late 2003. It was conducted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics.