America has corn and Asia has rice. It’s time Australia had a native staple food



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Angela Pattison, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, University of Sydney

Most countries have a staple food: native, fast-growing and easy-to-store plants high in carbohydrates.

In Africa, it’s sorghum. In Asia, rice. In the Americas, corn and potato. Around the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Europe, it’s wheat and barley.

Australia is an exception – we do not have a staple food. But native grasslands provide ample opportunity to produce grains. In fact, Aboriginal people once used native grasses to make bread, and there is evidence they were the world’s first bakers.

We argue it’s time to resurrect Australia’s ancient breadmaking tradition. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why.

Loaf of brown bread.
Bread with 10% button grass.
Author provided

Australia’s ancient grain

In an area known as the Panara, located in a ring around central Australia, Aboriginal people used sophisticated fire-based techniques to manage grasslands and harvest grain. They collected the grain in bulk several times a year, then stored it in the off-season.

The grains harvested were from native grasses – species well suited to growing in local conditions. They were ground, mixed with water then baked in hot coals, to produce a bread resembling damper.

So why doesn’t this collection and preparation of native grains still happen today? There’s no clear answer, however preparing seed for food was very time- and labour-intensive. Also, as Aboriginal groups were massacred or forcibly removed from Country, such practices, and associated knowledges, largely disappeared.

An indigenous person grinding native grain.
Indigenous grain grinding was common before European settlement.
Wikimedia

The benefits of staple food

A native, staple Australian crop would allow us to grow food suited to our environment.

The benefits of producing food from native grasslands are well known. Grasslands need limited, if any, fertiliser, no pesticides, and can tap into groundwater so they don’t need irrigation or land cultivation.

While native grasslands yield less seed than conventional cropping systems (more on this later), fewer resources are needed to produce it. What’s more, grasslands simultaneously provide essential environmental “services” including supporting plant and animal diversity, covering bare ground, and enabling water infiltration, recycling of nutrients and carbon sequestration.




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Australia’s total agricultural production is currently worth about A$60.8 billion a year, and we export about 65% of what we produce. A staple Australian food might not contribute directly to the value of our agricultural exports, at least in the short term. But it may reduce the cost of pest control by increasing habitat for beneficial predators. It also represents a low-risk venture that provides returns to growers who want to increase the native vegetation on their properties.

We are not advocating the wholesale adoption of native grasses as a staple food crop in Australia. But it would be prudent to investigate how native grasses grow and produce seed, to better understand how current farming practices might be improved.

Collection of labelled jars containing grasses.
Native grasses.
Author provided

Connection to Country

Returning to native grasslands would provide a way to understand Indigenous perspectives on looking after Country.

Indigenous land managers used burning techniques to grow and maintain local grass crops. Grasslands are culturally and spiritually significant to Indigenous Australians. Their protection and regeneration could create new business opportunities for Aboriginal people and promote reconciliation.

A number of grasses were used by Aboriginal people, all of which might be a good staple food for Australia. The best approach would be to grow a range of species matched with local customs, soil types, rainfall and season.

Bread re-imagined

Growing, processing, and making bread from native grass will involve new technologies and challenge current methods.

For example, native Mitchell grass, found across northern Australia, produces between a half and one tonne of grain per hectare – less than a quarter the yield of wheat.

This productivity can be increased by identifying and cultivating the plants producing more seed than their neighbours. These individuals have the best chance of producing the next generation of high-yield plants.




Read more:
The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers


Processing of native grains presents another challenge. The current grain-processing system receives bulk deliveries of wheat with known milling requirements at a set time of year. The timing, size and milling requirements of native grain deliveries would be far less predictable.

To be efficient, modern machine-processing of grain requires that the seed is clean, uniform in size and is not mixed with other types of seeds.

Bread on supermarket shelves
Modern bread making processes differ from that used to make bread from native grain.
Paul Miller/AAP

While the commercial process of making flour is relatively inflexible, in contrast, an experienced baker can work with many types of flour and adjust the dough as they go. This is how Aboriginal people baked loaves from native seed for thousands of years. Creating unique products from native grain will require flexible baking methods, including making them by hand.

In recent years, “ancient grains” such as quinoa, chia and spelt have grown in popularity among food consumers. These crops grow on their own and have been genetically improved for quality, so are relatively consistent when sold as seed, flour or in a baked product.

But Australia’s native grain products may contain multiple species that are grown and harvested together. So at the point of sale, consumers would have to accept that every loaf or biscuit or cake may have a different taste, and contain several types of grain.

Who earns the dough?

When developing native grain as an Australian staple food, we must also be careful not to exploit the knowledge of native grain production at the expense of the traditional caretakers of the knowledge and species. This would be repeating the mistakes of the past.

Native grain production offers potential economic gains. These should go first to the traditional custodians, countering current trends where only 1% of Australia’s native food industry is generated by Indigenous people.




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The Conversation


Angela Pattison, Research scientist at Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, Associate Professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

While towns run dry, cotton extracts 5 Sydney Harbours’ worth of Murray Darling water a year. It’s time to reset the balance



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Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The rains have finally arrived in the Northern Murray Darling Basin. Hopefully, this drought-easing water will flow all the way down to the parched communities and degraded habitats of the lower Darling.

How much water goes downstream, however, does not just depend on how much it has rained.

It also greatly depends on how much is extracted and consumed upstream, and the rules and enforcement around these water extractions.

Simplistic or knee-jerk responses to water insecurity, such as banning irrigation for “thirsty crops” such as cotton, will not fix the water woes of the basin.

The harder and longer path is to deliver real water reform as was agreed to by all governments in the 2004 National Water Initiative and that includes transparent water planning enshrined in law.




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Basin cotton irrigators extract about five Sydney Harbours’ worth a year

Irrigation accounts for about 70% of all surface water extracted in the basin.

Australia’s water accounts tell us that in 2017-18, basin cotton irrigators extracted some 2,500 billion litres (about five Sydney Harbours’ worth) or equivalent to about 35% of all the water extracted for irrigation.

Most of this water was extracted in the Northern Basin (covering southern Queensland and northern New South Wales). But increasingly cotton is becoming a preferred crop in the Southern Basin (southern NSW to South Australia).

Overall, the area of land in cotton and the water extracted for cotton increased by 4% in 2017-18 relative to 2016-17.

Cotton is a thirsty crop. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics cotton uses, on average, more than 7 million litres (or about three Olympic-sized swimming pools) per hectare.

At a global scale, the volume of water extracted by cotton irrigators to produce one kilogram of cotton fabric averages more than 3,000 litres.

Cotton is a thirsty crop.
Shutterstock

Increased water efficiency: good news for some, bad news for others

Concerns over how much water cotton uses, and the high price of water in the basin, has incentivised cotton farmers to increase their cotton yield (in tonnes) per million litres of water extracted.

This has been achieved with improved genetics, management and more high-tech irrigation methods. According to Cotton Australia, much less water (only 19%) is flowing back into streams and groundwater from water applied to cotton fields than two decades ago, when the return flows were 43% of the water applied.

Increased irrigation efficiency is good news for cotton irrigators, especially those that received some of the A$4 billion in public money already spent to increase irrigation efficiency in the basin. But it is bad news for downstream irrigators, communities and the environment.

This is because a much greater proportion of the water extracted by cotton farmers now gets consumed as evapo-transpiration, and thus is unavailable for anyone or anything else.

We need to change the rules of the game

Given these cotton facts, would banning the growing of cotton in Australia increase the water available? No – because the problem is not cotton irrigation per se, but rather the “rules of the game” of the who, how, and when water is extracted. These water sharing rules are determined at a state level in what are called Water Sharing Plans.

Proper water planning is the only way to ensure a fair deal, deliver on the intent of the 2012 Basin Plan and keep levels of water extraction at sustainable levels.

Water sharing plans are supposed to be consistent with the 2012 Basin Plan. But NSW has, so far, failed to provide its plans for auditing by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, missing the key July 1, 2019 deadline.

Following an expose of alleged water theft in July 2017, the NSW government created a specialised agency, the Natural Resources Access Regulator, that has greatly helped water monitoring and compliance in NSW. Despite its best efforts, there is still inadequate metering in the Northern Basin. And across the basin as a whole, most groundwater extractions are not properly monitored.

The actual rules about how much water can be extracted are substantially influenced by some irrigators in the consultation process before plans are implemented.

Such influence has resulted in some water sharing plans favouring upstream irrigators at the expense of downstream communities, such as Walgett and Wilcannia. These towns have been left high and dry despite the fact NSW law gives priority to town water supplies over other water uses.

According to the NSW Natural Resources Commission, the current Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan “effectively prioritises upstream water users” and also does not provide protection for environmental water from extraction.

The Natural Resources Commission also observed that extraction permitted under the plan:

has affected those communities and landholders reliant on the river for domestic and stock water supplies, town water supply, community and social needs.

A consultant’s report from 2019, written for the NSW government, also found no evidence in the Barwon-Darling water planning processes of reporting on performance indicators such as changes in stream flow regimes, ecological values of key water sources or water utility (for town supply) access requirements.

Sadly, the problem of poor water planning is not exclusive to the Barwon-Darling, but exists in other basin catchments in NSW, and beyond.

Holding governments responsible

Any effective solution to the water emergency in the basin must, therefore, hold governments responsible for their water plans and decisions. This requires that a “who, what, how and when” of water be made transparent through an independent water auditing, monitoring and compliance process.

Simplistic responses to water insecurity, such as banning irrigation for cotton, will not fix the water woes of the basin. The harder and longer path is to deliver real water reform as was agreed to by all governments in the 2004 National Water Initiative and that included transparent water planning enshrined in law.




Read more:
Fish kills and undrinkable water: here’s what to expect for the Murray Darling this summer


Three things that would make a difference

As a nation we must hold decisionmakers accountable so the rules of the game do not favour the big end of town at the expense, and even the existence, of towns.

We also need to:

  1. stop wasting billions on irrigation subsidies that reduce flows to streams and rivers
  2. monitor, measure and audit what is happening to the water extracted and in streams
  3. actually deliver on the key objects of the federal Water Act and state water acts.

Enforcing the law of the land would ensure those who have the legal right to get the water first (such as town water supplies) are prioritised in the implementation of water sharing plans. It would mean state water plans are audited and actually deliver environmentally sustainable levels of water extraction.The Conversation

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Snakes make good food. Banning farms won’t help the fight against coronavirus


Daniel Natusch, Macquarie University; Graham Alexander, University of the Witwatersrand; Ngo Van Tri, and Patrick Aust, University of Oxford

The wildlife trade has long been closely linked to disease outbreaks. It has been implicated in the SARS epidemic of 2002, Ebola in 2013 and now in the COVID-19 coronavirus.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, China has tentatively banned the farming of many wildlife species. The move has been celebrated by many in the international community.

But our work in Asia over the past ten years tells a different story. Banning legitimate snake farms might prove counterproductive to disease suppression.

Though snakes were early suspects as the source of the Wuhan coronavirus, reptiles have never been linked to any of the World Health Organisation’s top ten infectious diseases which pose the greatest threat of epidemics.

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Snakes are different

One reason is straightforward. Snakes are cold-blooded (more correctly “ectothermic”) and have a very different physiology to humans. Viruses co-evolve highly specialised relationships with their hosts and are often species-specific.

Occasionally, a chance mutation might allow a virus to infect another species, but the more different the new and old hosts are to each other, the less likely that is.

Compared with transmission between mammals, or even from birds to mammals, the probability of a virus crossing from a cold-blooded reptile to a warm-blooded human is remote.

In parts of Asia where H5N1-type viral outbreaks such as bird and swine flu are now endemic, hundreds of snake farmers rely on waste protein such as pork and poultry by-products as feed.




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How to feed nine billion people, and feed them well


Disease outbreaks regularly wreak havoc with conventional livestock industries but never, to our knowledge, with snake farming.

In this context, reptiles represent a natural biological barrier to viral diseases.

They enable farmers to build financial resilience through diversity, dampening the many risks associated with livestock monocultures.

And the benefits don’t end there.

They’re tailor-made for sustainability

Commercial snake farming has developed rapidly in China. The first experimental farms were set up in 2007; by 2019 the industry was producing large-scale high-quality protein.

Some snakes have highly desirable agricultural traits including rapid growth, early maturation and rapid reproduction. They are comparatively simple cognitively, and do not suffer the complex behavioural stresses seen in many caged birds and mammals.

Many are semi-arboreal, spending time in trees, allowing farms to maximise available space.

They do require a high-protein diet but, since their cold-blooded metabolic demands are very low (less than 10% of similar-sized mammals), food can be more directly channelled to growth.

The energy efficiency is achieved mainly by employing solar energy (e.g., basking) to drive metabolic processes, and by powerful digestive systems capable of breaking down even bone.

It means they produce low volumes of biological waste and greenhouse gases, and require minimal fresh water.




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China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world


Chinese snake farms rely on two principal sources of feed inputs: waste protein from agricultural food chains, and natural prey such as harvested rodents.

This means they both recycle agricultural waste and control economically important rodent pests.

Their cold-blooded physiology allows them to survive for considerable time without food and water – far longer than similarly-sized warm blooded animals.

This allows farmers to effectively exploit seasonal abundances during times of plenty, and downscale inputs during times of famine.

Snake farming therefore provides a resilient livelihood in the face of economic volatility and the extremes of Climate Change.

It would be a shame if concern about coronavirus snuffed out an industry that is unlikely to be the problem, but could very well be a solution.The Conversation

Daniel Natusch, Honorary Research Fellow, Macquarie University; Graham Alexander, Professor of Herpetology, Environmental Physiology and Physiology, Ecology and Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand; Ngo Van Tri, Conservation biologist, Institute of Tropical Biology, and Patrick Aust, Research Associate, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Supermarkets are not milking dairy farmers dry: the myth that obscures the real problem


Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology

Australia’s federal agriculture minister, David Littleproud, has called for a boycott of supermarket-branded milk. He is angry about lack of support for a “milk levy” of 10 cents a litre wanted by the dairy industry to support drought-stricken farmers.

Fellow National Party colleagues have called for nothing less than a royal commission into the supermarkets’ support for farmers. Nationals leader, and deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, has said he is open to the idea.

Amid intense price competition across many supermarket categories, the price of milk stirs passions like nothing else.

But calls to boycott supermarket-branded milk are misguided; and a royal commission would not be money well-spent.

The widely held belief that supermarkets are hurting dairy farmers by driving down the price of milk is incorrect.

It overlooks basic supply chain dynamics and the findings of the 18-month-long inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which was ordered by then federal treasurer Scott Morrison to investigate the low milk prices paid to dairy farmers.




Read more:
Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


Indirect relations

Looking at the supply chain for fresh milk helps show why the retail price of supermarket-branded milk does not determine the price paid to farmers as some claim.

There are many players within a food supply chain: producers, processors, wholesalers, retailers and consumers.


Fresh dairy supply chain volume map:
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Dairy farmers typically sell their milk to processors, who then sell to supermarkets. There is a relationship between the supermarket and processor, not supermarket and farmer. Whether the supermarket sells a litre of milk at $2, $3 or $4 has no direct relationship on the price the processor pays to the farmer.

In the words of the final report of the competition watchdog’s Dairy Inquiry, “the farm-gate price paid to farmers for milk used to fulfil private label milk contracts is not directly correlated with private-label milk retail prices”.

Blame dairy processors

The ACCC’s report does identify a range of market failures due to bargaining power imbalances and information asymmetry, but these are crucially between dairy farmers and processors.




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Dairy farmers’ weak bargaining power means any higher price paid by supermarkets to processors would not necessarily result in higher farm-gate prices. The ACCC report notes that farmers get no more money for the milk that is sold at higher retail prices (such as branded milk).

Processors, not supermarkets, set farm-gate prices in response to market conditions (global and domestic demand), at the minimum level required to secure necessary volumes. Farmers are not paid according to the type or value of the end product their milk is used in. They are paid the same price for their raw milk regardless of what brand goes on the container.


Distribution of revenue from sale of private label vs branded fresh drinking milk:
ACCC Dairy Inquiry

Also blame consumers

Supermarkets are under pressure to keep food prices low, particularly on staples such as bread, milk and eggs. This is evident from the fact that campaigns to get shoppers to exercise their power as ethical consumers quickly run out of steam.




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We are what we eat: the demise of the ethical grocery shopper


In April 2016, for example, national attention on the plight of dairy farmers led to a campaign encouraging shoppers to leave “supermarket branded milk” on the shelves. In a single month the supermarket brands’ share of milk sales dropped from 66% to 51%. Then it began to rise again. Within a year it was back to nearly 60%.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/NyTIZ/1/


Adding to confusion

While a milk levy to directly help farmers during the drought has many supporters, the disconnect within the supply chain means it is near impossible for retailers to pass the money directly to the intended beneficiaries. That, again, depends on those who buys the milk from the farmers – the processors.

Despite this, and because the ACCC inquiry’s findings have so far done little to dispel myths about the price of milk, retailers such as Woolworths have seen it as prudent to embrace the levy idea and publicly demonstrate support for dairy farmers.




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Time to get regulation back into Australian dairy?


All the additional proceeds from its “Drought Relief” milk go back to processor Parmalat, who is responsible for distributing the money to suppliers in drought-affected areas. Coles, meanwhile, has slapped a 30 cent levy on its three-litre milk containers, with the funds going to the Coles Drought Relief Fund.

These measures arguably add to continuing confusion about how the milk market works and the relationship between farm-gate and retail prices.

In the court of public opinion the supermarkets probably had no option but to go along with the charade.

A minister for agriculture, however, should know better.The Conversation

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We must look past short-term drought solutions and improve the land itself


David Lindenmayer, Australian National University and Michelle Young, Australian National University

With drought ravaging Australia’s eastern states, much attention has been given to the need to provide short-term solutions through drought relief. But long-term resilience is a vital issue, particularly as climate change adds further pressure to farmers and farmland.

Our research has found that helping farmers improve the rivers, dams, native vegetation and trees on their land increases productivity, the resilience of the land to drought, and through this the health and well-being of farmers.




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Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


Now is the time to invest more heavily than ever in vital networks in regional Australia, such as Landcare and natural resource management groups like Local Land Services and Catchment Management Authorities.

Research shows that trees, dams and native vegetation are essential to increase agricultural productivity.
Shutterstock/Olga Kashubin

Growing pressures on agricultural land

Some researchers suggest that up to 370 million hectares of land in Australia and the Pacific is degraded. This diminished productivity across such a large area has significant implications for the long-term sustainability of agricultural production.

Australia also has one of the worst records for wildlife diversity loss, including extensive loss of biodiversity across much of our agricultural land. The problems of degradation and biodiversity loss are often magnified under the pressure of drought.




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Is Australia’s current drought caused by climate change? It’s complicated


The good news is that there are ways to strengthen the resilience of the farmland. One key approach is to invest in improving the condition of key natural assets on farms, like shelter belts, patches of remnant vegetation, farm dams, and watercourses.

When done well, active land management can help slow down or even reverse land degradation, improve biodiversity, and increase profitability.

Better lands make more money

Many studies have shown improving the natural assets on an farm can boost production, as well as avoid the costs of erosion and flood control. For example, restored riverbank vegetation can improve dry matter production in nearby paddocks, leading to greater milk production in diary herds and up to a 5% boost in farm income.

Lines of trees, called windbreaks or shelterbelts, can protect and improve the fields next to them.
Peter Fenda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Similarly, shelter belts (tree lanes planted alongside paddocks) can lower wind speeds and wind chill, and boost pasture production for livestock by up to 8%, at the same time as providing habitat for biodiversity.




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Recent Australian droughts may be the worst in 800 years


Our own long-term work with farmers who invested in their natural assets prior to, or during, the Millennium Drought in New South Wales suggests these farmers are currently faring better in the current drought.

Investing in resilience for the long-haul

Groups like Landcare bring their expertise to land management.
Shutterstock/Darryl Smith

Well-supported and resourced organisations like Landcare groups are pivotal to supporting effective land management, which improves degraded land and helps farmland (and farmer) through tough times.

However, Landcare and other natural resource management agencies have been subject to major budget cuts over the past decade.

They are also a key part of the social fabric of rural communities, bringing together landowners to exchange ideas and support each other. Indeed, the Australian Landcare model is so well regarded globally it has been adopted in 22 other countries.




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This drought is a critical decision point. The need to invest in maintaining and improving our vegetation, water and soil has never been more apparent than it is now. We have a chance to determine the long-term future of much of Australia’s agricultural land.The Conversation

David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Michelle Young, Director, Sustainable Farms, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Farming the suburbs – why can’t we grow food wherever we want?



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Some local councils are more tolerant than others in allowing residents to grow food where they want.
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Jennifer Kent, University of Sydney

Food provides the foundations for human flourishing and the fabric of sustainability. It lies at the heart of conflict and diversity, yet presents opportunities for cultural acceptance and respect. It can define neighbourhoods, shape communities, and make places.

In parts of our cities, residents have embraced suburban agriculture as a way to improve access to healthier and more sustainably produced food. Farming our street edges and verges, vacant land, parks, rooftops and backyards is a great way to encourage an appreciation of locally grown food and increase consumption of fresh produce.

Despite these benefits, regulations, as well as some cultural opposition, continue to constrain suburban agriculture. We can’t grow and market food wherever we like, even if it is the sustainable production of relatively healthy options.

While good planning will be key to a healthier, more sustainable food system, planning’s role in allocating land for different uses across the city also constrains suburban agriculture.

Two steps towards healthier food systems

Making our food systems healthier and more sustainable requires a two-step approach.

  • First, we need to fortify the parts of the system that enable access to healthy food options.

  • Second, we need to disempower elements that continuously expose us to unhealthy foods.

Although food is a basic human need, the way we consume food in many countries, including Australia, is harmful to the environment and ourselves. Many of us don’t eat enough fresh and unprocessed foods. The foods we do eat are often produced and supplied in carbon-intensive and wasteful ways.

Primarily through land-use zoning, town planners can help to shape sustainable and healthy food systems. For example, good planning can:

  • protect peri-urban agricultural lands;

  • encourage farmers’ markets, roadside stalls and community gardens;

  • prevent the location of fast-food outlets near schools; and

  • even help regulate food advertising environments.

Why have land-use zones?

Modern town planning originated in the 19th century out of the need and ability to separate unhealthy, polluting uses from the places where people lived.

This was a direct response to the Industrial Revolution, which brought with it both an upscaling of the noisy, smelly and dirty uses to be avoided, and the emergence of new ways to travel relatively long distances away from these uses.

As a result, our urban areas are made up of a mosaic of what we call zones. Within each zone, certain uses are permitted and others are prohibited. If a piece of land is zoned as commercial, for example, that land can be used for a shop, but not for a house.

While this might seem logical to us today, to those living in housing scattered among the factories and tanneries of Manchester in the 1800s it would have been quite radical.

It is this function of planning that means we cannot grow food anywhere in the city. Instead, we have regulations that attempt to ensure related activities occur only in areas where such a use is compatible with the surrounding uses.

Where food gardens are next to roads these should not carry heavy traffic, which could be a source of contamination.
ACFCGN

Incompatibility might relate to safety. For example, in some cities it is prohibited to locate a community garden on a main traffic-generating road due to concerns about contamination of produce.

It could also be related to amenity. For example, in some areas local produce cannot be sold on the roadside due to concerns about creating additional traffic and parking.

These are two fairly obvious examples, but problems arise when definitions of what is safe and amenable differ within the community. Does a verge planted with an over-enthusiastic pumpkin vine detract from or enhance the visual appeal of the street? Should a locality embrace a roadside produce stall even if it means traffic is slowed and parking is less available?

How do we resolve planning conflicts?

Town planners attempt to grapple with these issues by developing new policies and regulations to respond to changing demands, or by assessing applications for food growing and distribution on a case-by-case basis.

In cities that are rapidly densifying, and in a cultural environment where growing one’s own produce is enjoying a renaissance, it’s not surprising some local authorities are struggling to keep up.

This struggle is ostensibly the result of local authorities failing to recognise and prioritise their role in supporting sustainable and healthy food systems. There are immense benefits – biophysical, economic and social – to be gained from local government giving priority to urban agriculture.

Yet a recent study of the content of local community strategic plans across New South Wales found that only 10% of strategies mentioned anything about food systems as a community priority. In this sense, Australia is part of an international trend.

The ConversationSurprisingly, the local authorities in New South Wales doing the most for better food systems were regional councils. These saw food security and the opportunities presented by local food production as urgent issues. There is obviously room for our metropolitan councils to catch up and capitalise on increased cultural interest in farming our suburbs.

Jennifer Kent, Research Fellow, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Egyptian Couple Shot by Muslim Extremists Undaunted in Ministry


Left for dead, Christians offer to drop charges if allowed to construct church building.

CAIRO, Egypt, June 9 (CDN) — Rasha Samir was sure her husband, Ephraim Shehata, was dead.

He was covered with blood, had two bullets inside him and was lying facedown in the dust of a dirt road. Samir was lying on top of him doing her best to shelter him from the onslaught of approaching gunmen.

With arms outstretched, the men surrounded Samir and Shehata and pumped off round after round at the couple. Seconds before, Samir could hear her husband mumbling Bible verses. But one bullet had pierced his neck, and now he wasn’t moving. In a blind terror, Samir tried desperately to stop her panicked breathing and convincingly lie still, hoping the gunmen would go away.

Finally, the gunfire stopped and one of the men spoke. “Let’s go. They’re dead.”

 

‘Break the Hearts’

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, lay pastor Shehata and his wife Samir were ambushed on a desolate street by a group of Islamic gunmen outside the village of Teleda in Upper Egypt.

The attack was meant to “break the hearts of the Christians” in the area, Samir said.

The attackers shot Shehata twice, once in the stomach through the back, and once in the neck. They shot Samir in the arm. Both survived the attack, but Shehata is still in the midst of a difficult recovery. The shooters have since been arrested and are in jail awaiting trial. A trial cannot begin until Shehata has recovered enough to attend court proceedings.

Despite this trauma, being left with debilitating injuries, more than 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills and possible long-term unemployment, Shehata is willing to drop all criminal charges against his attackers – and avoid what could be a very embarrassing trial for the nation – if the government will stop blocking Shehata from constructing a church building.

Before Shehata was shot, one of the attackers pushed him off his motorcycle and told him he was going to teach him a lesson about “running around” or being an active Christian.

Because of his ministry, the 34-year-old Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, was arguably the most visible Christian in his community. When he wasn’t working as a lab technician or attending legal classes at a local college, he was going door-to-door among Christians to encourage them in any way he could. He also ran a community center and medical clinic out of a converted two-bedroom apartment. His main goal, he said, was to “help Christians be strong in their faith.”

The center, open now for five years, provided much-needed basic medical services for surrounding residents for free, irrespective of their religion. The center also provided sewing training and a worksite for Christian women so they could gain extra income. Before the center was open in its present location, he ran similar services out of a relative’s apartment.

“We teach them something that can help them with the future, and when they get married they can have some way to work and it will help them get money for their families,” Shehata said.

Additionally, the center was used to teach hygiene and sanitation basics to area residents, a vital service to a community that uses well water that is often polluted or full of diseases. Along with these services, Shehata and his wife ran several development projects, repairing the roofs of shelters for poor people, installing plumbing, toilets and electrical systems. The center also distributed free food to the elderly and the infirm.

The center has been run by donations and nominal fees used to pay the rent for the apartment. Shehata has continued to run the programs as aggressively as he can, but he said that even before the shooting that the center was barely scraping by.

“We have no money to build or improve anything,” he said. “We have a safe, but no money to put in it.”

 

Tense Atmosphere

In the weeks before the shooting, Teleda and the surrounding villages were gripped with fear.

Christians in the community had been receiving death threats by phone after a Muslim man died during an attack on a Christian couple. On Feb. 2, a group of men in nearby Samalout tried to abduct a Coptic woman from a three-wheeled motorcycle her husband was driving. The husband, Zarif Elia, punched one of the attackers in the nose. The Muslim, Basem Abul-Eid, dropped dead on the spot.

Elia was arrested and charged with murder. An autopsy later revealed that the man died of a heart attack, but local Muslims were incensed.

Already in the spotlight for his ministry activities, Shehata heightened his profile when he warned government officials that Christians were going to be attacked, as they had been in Farshout and Nag Hammadi the previous month. He also gave an interview to a human rights activist that was posted on numerous Coptic websites. Because of this, government troops were deployed to the town, and extremists were unable to take revenge on local Christians – but only after almost the
entire Christian community was placed under house arrest.

“They chose me,” Shehata said, “Because they thought I was the one serving everybody, and I was the one who wrote the government telling them that Muslims were going to set fire to the Christian houses because of the death.”

Because of his busy schedule, Shehata and Samir, 27, were only able to spend Fridays and part of every Saturday together in a village in Samalut, where Shehata lives. Every Saturday after seeing Samir, Shehata would drive her back through Teleda to the village where she lives, close to her family. Samalut is a town approximately 105 kilometers (65 miles) south of Cairo.

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, Shehata and his wife were on a motorcycle on a desolate stretch of hard-packed dirt road. Other than a few scattered farming structures, there was nothing near the road but the Nile River on one side, and open fields dotted with palm trees on the other.

Shehata approached a torn-up section of the road and slowed down. A man walked up to the vehicle carrying a big wooden stick and forced him to stop. Shehata asked the man what was wrong, but he only pushed Shehata off the motorcycle and told him, “I’m going to stop you from running around,” Samir recounted.

Shehata asked the man to let Samir go. “Whatever you are going to do, do it to me,” he told the man.

The man didn’t listen and began hitting Shehata on the leg with the stick. As Shehata stumbled, Samir screamed for the man to leave them alone. The man lifted the stick again, clubbed Shehata once more on the leg and knocked him to the ground. As Shehata struggled to get up, the man took out a pistol, leveled it at Shehata’s back and squeezed the trigger.

Samir started praying and screaming Jesus’ name. The man turned toward her, raised the pistol once more, squeezed off another round, and shot Samir in the arm. Samir looked around and saw a few men running toward her, but her heart sank when she realized they had come not to help them but to join the assault.

Samir jumped on top of Shehata, rolled on to her back and started begging her attackers for their lives, but the men, now four in all, kept firing. Bullets were flying everywhere.

“I was scared. I thought I was going to die and that the angels were going to come and get our spirits,” Samir said. “I started praying, ‘Please God, forgive me, I’m a sinner and I am going to die.’”

Samir decided to play dead. She leaned back toward her husband, closed her eyes, went limp and tried to stop breathing. She said she felt that Shehata was dying underneath her.

“I could hear him saying some of the Scriptures, the one about the righteous thief [saying] ‘Remember me when you enter Paradise,’” she said. “Then a bullet went through his neck, and he stopped saying anything.”

Samir has no way of knowing how much time passed, but eventually the firing stopped. After she heard one of the shooters say, “Let’s go, they’re dead,” moments later she opened her eyes and the men were gone. When she lifted her head, she heard her husband moan.

 

Unlikely Survival

When Shehata arrived at the hospital, his doctors didn’t think he would survive. He had lost a tremendous amount of blood, a bullet had split his kidney in two, and the other bullet was lodged in his neck, leaving him partially paralyzed.

His heartbeat was so faint it couldn’t be detected. He was also riddled with a seemingly limitless supply of bullet fragments throughout his body.

Samir, though seriously injured, had fared much better than Shehata. The bullet went into her arm but otherwise left her uninjured. When she was shot, Samir was wearing a maternity coat. She wasn’t pregnant, but the couple had bought the coat in hopes she soon would be. Samir said she thinks the gunman who shot her thought he had hit her body, instead of just her arm.

The church leadership in Samalut was quickly informed about the shooting and summoned the best doctors they could, who quickly traveled to help Shehata and Samir. By chance, the hospital had a large supply of blood matching Shehata’s blood type because of an elective surgical procedure that was cancelled. The bullets were removed, and his kidney was repaired. The doctors however, were forced to leave many of the bullet fragments in Shehata’s body.

As difficult as it was to piece Shehata’s broken body back together, it paled in comparison with the recovery he had to suffer through. He endured multiple surgeries and was near death several times during his 70 days of hospitalization.

Early on, Shehata was struck with a massive infection. Also, because part of his internal tissue was cut off from its blood supply, it literally started to rot inside him. He began to swell and was in agony.

“I was screaming, and they brought the doctors,” Shehata said. The doctors decided to operate immediately.

When a surgeon removed one of the clamps holding Shehata’s abdomen together, the intense pressure popped off most of the other clamps. Surgeons removed some stomach tissue, part of his colon and more than a liter of infectious liquid.

Shehata could not eat normally and lost 35 kilograms (approximately 77 lbs.). He also couldn’t evacuate his bowels for at least 11 days, his wife said.

Despite the doctors’ best efforts, infections continued to rage through Shehata’s body, accompanied by alarming spikes in body temperature.

Eventually, doctors sent him to a hospital in Cairo, where he spent a week under treatment. A doctor there prescribed a different regimen of antibiotics that successfully fought the infection and returned Shehata’s body temperature to normal.

Shehata is recovering at home now, but he still has a host of medical problems. He has to take a massive amount of painkillers and is essentially bedridden. He cannot walk without assistance, is unable to move the fingers on his left hand and cannot eat solid food. In approximately two months he will undergo yet another surgery that, if all goes well, will allow him to use the bathroom normally.

“Even now I can’t walk properly, and I can’t lift my leg more than 10 or 20 centimeters. I need someone to help me just to pull up my underwear,” Shehata said. “I can move my arm, but I can’t move my fingers.”

Samir does not complain about her condition or that of Shehata. Instead, she sees the fact that she and her husband are even alive as a testament to God’s faithfulness. She said she thinks God allowed them to be struck with the bullets that injured them but pushed away the bullets that would have killed them.

“There were lots of bullets being shot, but they didn’t hit us, only three or four,” she said. “Where are the others?”

Even in the brutal process of recovery, Samir found cause for thanks. In the beginning, Shehata couldn’t move his left arm, but now he can. “Thank God and thank Jesus, it was His blessing to us,” Samir said. “We were kind of dead, now we are alive."

Still, Samir admits that sometimes her faith waivers. She is facing the possibility that Shehata might not work for some time, if ever. The couple owes the 85,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,855) in medical bills, and continuing their ministry at the center and in the surrounding villages will be difficult at best.

“I am scared now, more so than during the shooting,” she said. “Ephraim said do not be afraid, it is supposed to make us stronger.”

So Samir prays for strength for her husband to heal and for patience. In the meantime, she said she looks forward to the day when the struggles from the shooting are over and she can look back and see how God used it to shape them.

“There is a great work the Lord is doing in our lives, we may not know what the reason is now, but maybe some day we will,” Samir said.

 

Government Opposition

For the past 10 years, Shehata has tried to erect a church building, or at a minimum a house, that he could use as a dedicated community center. But local Muslims and Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) agency have blocked him every step of the way. He had, until the shooting happened, all but given up on constructing the church building.

On numerous occasions, Shehata has been stopped from holding group prayer meetings after people complained to the SSI. In one incident, a man paid by a land owner to watch a piece of property near the community center complained to the SSI that Shehata was holding prayer meetings at the facility. The SSI made Shehata sign papers stating he wouldn’t hold prayer meetings at the center.

At one time, Shehata had hoped to build a house to use as a community center on property that had been given to him for that purpose. Residents spread a rumor that he was actually erecting a church building, and police massed at the property to prevent him from doing any construction.

There is no church in the town where Shehata lives or in the surrounding villages. Shehata admits he would like to put up a church building on the donated property but says it is impossible, so he doesn’t even try.

In Egypt constructing or even repairing a church building can only be done after a complex government approval process. In effect, it makes it impossible to build a place for Christian worship. By comparison, the construction of mosques is encouraged through a system of subsidies.

“It is not allowed to build a church in Egypt,” Shehata said. “We can’t build a house. We can’t build a community center. And we can’t build a church.”

Because of this, Shehata and his wife organize transportation from surrounding villages to St. Mark’s Cathedral in Samalut for Friday services and sacraments. Because of the lack of transportation options, the congregants are forced to ride in a dozen open-top cattle cars.

“We take them not in proper cars or micro-buses, but trucks – the same trucks we use to move animals,” he said.

The trip is dangerous. A year ago a man fell out of one of the trucks onto the road and died. Shehata said bluntly that Christians are dying in Egypt because the government won’t allow them to construct church buildings.

“I feel upset about the man who died on the way going to church,” he said.

 

Church-for-Charges Swap

The shooters who attacked Shehata and Samir are in jail awaiting trial. The couple has identified each of the men, but even if they hadn’t, finding them for arrest was not a difficult task. The village the attackers came from erupted in celebration when they heard the pastor and his wife were dead.

Shehata now sees the shooting as a horrible incident that can be turned to the good of the believers he serves. He said he finds it particularly frustrating that numerous mosques have sprouted up in his community and surrounding areas during the 10 years he has been prevented from putting up a church building, or even a house. There are two mosques alone on the street of the man who died while being trucked to church services, he said.

Shehata has decided to forgo justice in pursuit of an opportunity to finally construct a church building. He has approached the SSI through church leaders, saying that if he is allowed to construct a church building, then he will take no part in the criminal prosecution of the shooters.

“I have told the security forces through the priests that I will drop the case if they can let us build the church on the piece of land,” he said.

The proposal isn’t without possibilities. His trial has the potential of being internationally embarrassing. It raises questions about fairness in Egyptian society during an upcoming presidential election that will be watched by the world.

Regardless of what happens, Shehata said all he wants is peace and for the rights of Christians to be respected. He said that in Egypt, Christians have less value than the “birds of the air” mentioned in the Bible. According to Luke 12:6, five sparrows sold for two pennies in ancient times.

“We are not to be killed like birds, slaughtered,” he said. “We are human.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhist Extremists Drive Christians from Village in Bangladesh


Villagers upset with establishment of church break up prayer meetings, invade homes.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, May 3 (CDN) — Four Christian families in southeastern Bangladesh left their village yesterday under mounting pressure by Buddhist extremists to give up their faith in Christ.

Sources told Compass that 20 to 25 Buddhists brandishing sticks and bamboo clubs in Jamindhonpara village, 340 kilometres (211 miles) southeast of Dhaka, began patrolling streets on Friday (April 30) to keep the 11 members of the Lotiban Baptist Church from gathering for their weekly prayer meetings. On Saturday, the Buddhist extremists captured four men and beat one woman who had gathered in a home, threatening to kill them if they did not become Buddhists within 24 hours.

Yesterday, the Buddhist extremists attacked the homes of the Baptists two hours before their 1 p.m. worship service, sources said.

“Just two hours before our church service, a group of people swooped into our houses and drove all of us out so we could not attend the church service,” said one church member who requested anonymity.

The Christians captured Saturday night were released after the extremists, who ripped crosses off the walls of their homes, threatened to kill them if they continued praying and worshipping in the area. After yesterday’s attacks, all Christians in Jamindhonpara fled, taking shelter in another village, source said. Jamindhonpara is located in the Lotiban area, Panchari sub-district of Khagrachari district.

“When they come, they do not listen to us,” said the church member. “They arbitrarily do whatever they like. The situation is indescribable – they hunt us down the same way that one hunts down a mad dog to kill it.”

On Saturday the Buddhist villagers chanted anti-Christian slogans as they formed a procession that snaked through the village.

“They chanted in the demonstration, ‘We will not allow any Christian to live in this area,’ ‘We will not allow them to build a church here,’ and ‘Christians cannot live in Buddhists’ areas,’” said one source. “We did not inform the police or army. Informing them is very dangerous. They could even kill us if we complained about them to police and army or the local administration.”

Local Buddhists were infuriated when Christians established a church in the Lotiban area in December; since then, they have been trying to stop all Christian activities. In the campaign to uproot Christianity, they have tried to expel the pastor of Lotiban Baptist Church by means of various threats, source said.

One of the Christians who fled yesterday, 65-year-old Biraj Kumar Chakma, told Compass that they would not go back to Buddhism whatever pressure might come.

“We left everything,” Chakma said. “We can go through any kind of ordeal, but we will not leave Jesus, even in the face of death. I have not seen in my life a book like the Bible. To stick to it, I left my ancestral house under huge pressure of the Buddhists. They applied much force to give up our faith.”

Chakma said that since his daughter became a Christian, she has not been able to live in the village.

“She is living in a hideout for her safety,” he said.

The Rev. Sushil Jibon Tripura, president of Khagrachari district Baptist Fellowship Church, told Compass that the daily life of the Christian villagers has become intolerable, as they have sacrificed their livelihood for their faith.

“Buddhists are not giving them any work,” Tripura said. “They are not allowed to collect drinking water from local deep tube wells. Nobody mixes with them. They are not allowed to shop in the village market. So the Buddhist villagers have ostracized them.”

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) runs various projects in the area for the development of tribal people, but most the committee members are Buddhists who deprive the Christians of UNDP assistance, he said. The aid includes financial help for ginger cultivation and small cattle farming and cooperative money given through a committee selected from among the villagers.

“When they were Buddhist, they used to get all the aid provided by the UNDP,” Tripura said.  “But when they became Christians, they started facing problems. Recently the committee members took away eight passbooks from Christian villagers given by the UNDP for getting financial help.”

Tripura said he informed the district UNDP office, and officials there said they would look into it.

The United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF), an armed group in the hill districts that is also a political party, is active in the area. Tripura said some area Buddhists have mobilized only mid-level activists of the UPDF against the Christians.

“Being an inhabitant of this area, I can say that the high-command of the UPDF is not involved here,” he said.

The tribal people of the area share common ancestors and the same social/cultural milieu, he added.

“We are brothers. But the undercurrent of the hatred is religion,” Tripura said. “We are trying to sit with the Buddhist leaders along with the UPDF leaders for resolving the matter in a peaceful manner.”

The UPDF is one of two main tribal organizations in the hill districts, the other being the United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, or PCJSS). The PCJSS, formed in 1973, had fought for autonomy in the region for 25 years, leaving nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed. After signing a peace accord in 1997 with the Bangladesh government, the PCJSS laid down arms.

But the UPDF, founded in 1998 and based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, has strong and serious reservations against the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord signed in 1997. Claiming that the agreement failed to address fundamental demands of the indigenous Jumma people, the UPDF has pledged to fight for their full autonomy.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts region comprises three districts: Bandarban, Khagrachuri and Rangamati. The region is surrounded by the Indian states of Tripura on the north and Mizoram on the east, Myanmar on the south and east.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Islamic Assailants Kill Hundreds of Christians Near Jos, Nigeria


Fulani herdsmen strike Christian villages, slaying mainly ethnic Berom with machetes.

LAGOS, Nigeria, March 8 (CDN) — An uneasy calm prevailed in Plateau state, Nigeria today following the killing of hundreds of Christians early yesterday morning in three farming villages near Jos by ethnic Fulani Muslims.

The mostly ethnic Berom victims included many women and children killed with machetes by rampaging Fulani herdsmen. About 75 houses were also burned.

State Information Commissioner Gregory Yenlong confirmed that about 500 persons were killed in the attacks, which took place mainly in Dogo Nahawa, Zot and Rastat villages.

“We were woken up by gunshots in the middle of the night, and before we knew what was happening, our houses were torched and they started hacking down people” survivor Musa Gyang told media.

The assailants reportedly came on foot from a neighboring state to beat security forces that had been alerted of a possible attack on the villages but did not act beforehand.

The attack on Sunday is the latest in several religious clashes in the state in recent months that have claimed lives and property. Plateau state is a predominantly Christian state in a country almost evenly divided between Christians and Muslims. The Muslim minority has been contesting ownership of some parts of the state, leading to frequent clashes.

Bishop Andersen Bok, national coordinator of the Plateau State Elders Christian Fellowship, along with group Secretary General Musa Pam, described the attack as yet another “jihad and provocation on Christians.”

“Dogo Nahawa is a Christian community,” the Christian leaders said in a statement. “Eyewitnesses say the Hausa Fulani Muslim militants were chanting ‘Allah Akbar,’ broke into houses, cutting human beings, including children and women with their knives and cutlasses.”

Soon after the militants besieged Dogo Nahawa, the Christian leaders said, at 1:30 a.m. they contacted the military, which is in charge of security in the state.

“But we were shocked to find out that the soldiers did not react until about 3:30 a.m., after the Muslim attackers had finished their job and left,” they stated. “We are tired of these genocides on our Christian brothers and state here that we will not let this go unchallenged.”

Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) President Ayo Oritsejafor decried the attack on the Christian community as barbaric and urged the federal government to stop the killing of innocent citizens or risk a total breakdown of law and order.

“I have just returned from a trip abroad,” he said. “While I was away, I was inundated with reports of another catastrophe in the Jigawa state capital, where several churches were burnt, and just as I was trying to settle down and collate reports from the field, I am hearing of another on Sunday morning.”

Director of Social Communications, Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Rev. Monsignor Gabriel Osu said the Sunday killing in Jos is a major setback for the country’s effort to gain the confidence of the international community.

“Do you know that because of things like these, anywhere Nigerians travel to they are subjected to dehumanizing scrutiny?” he said. “Any act of violence at this time is totally condemned, and the government should make haste to fish out all identified perpetrators of such heinous crimes against God so that we can move forward as a people united under one umbrella.”

On Friday (March 5) the National Youth President of the PFN, Dr. Abel Damina, expressed concern over cases of clandestine killings of Christians in remote parts of Plateau state by Islamic extremists and called on the federal government to retrieve sophisticated weapons in their possession.

“Even as I speak to you now, I am receiving reports that some clandestine killings are still going on in the remote areas of Plateau State by the fundamentalists,” Damina reportedly said. “They pounce on Christians and kill them without anybody knowing much of their identity except that they are Christians.”

He added that recently he visited the governor in Jos regarding the crisis and secured photos of Christian victims.

“Young men, Christians, were going to their farm to harvest their produce and the fundamentalists pounced on them,” he said. “They were called infidels. At the last conference, we received reports with photographs of the fundamentalists using AK-47 rifles to destroy our churches. Where did they get the arms from? We have reports of truck loads of arms that had been intercepted, and we did not hear anything about them.”

Report from Compass Direct News