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Natural fibre is your cup of tea
30 January 2009 / 12:02

[Dateline: New York | Author: iSeek]

Video on the international year As you read this piece, chances are that you are wearing wool, cotton, silk, cashmere or a blend of these natural fibres or others. If not, chances are that the tea bag in your cup or the filter used for your coffee this morning was made from abaca, a natural fibre. There is also a very high chance that a small scale farmer in a remote farming community in Asia or Africa might have produced the raw material used for the product.

Natural fibres, produced from plants and animals, are an important component of clothing, upholstery and other textiles that are essential to society. Many of them also have industrial uses and they are largely renewable. Yet, little is known about natural fibres and their benefits, thanks to the influx of synthetic fibres in the last four decades or so.

On 22 January 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) officially launched at its headquarters, the International Year of Natural Fibres (IYNF) 2009, which aims to highlight the importance, significance and continuing relevance of a sector that produces close to 30 million tonnes of natural fibres, worth some $40 billion annually, and provides a living for many subsistence farmers in developing countries. The year was declared by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 December 2006, at the request of the FAO.

Abaca, native to the Philippines, is pulped and processed into tea bags, casing for sausages, banknotes, cigarette papers and high-quality writing paper, among other products | Credit: FAO"The IYNF is a unique opportunity to expand the use, and promote more innovative uses of natural fibres," said the FAO, the lead agency coordinating activities to celebrate the year.

The Rome-based UN agency is leading a global celebration through the year, aiming, among other things, to raise awareness and stimulate demand for natural fibres; promote the efficiency and sustainability of the industries; encourage appropriate policy responses from governments to the problems faced by the industries; and foster an effective and enduring international partnership among the various natural fibres industries.

Almost all countries produce some form of natural fibres, a major source of income to farmers around the world. In many subsistence farming communities, change in weather patterns mean the raining season is getting more erratic and shorter, and farm land is getting dryer, leading to failed crops and loss of income.

Cashmere is obtained from the very fine undercoat of the Kashmir goat | Credit: FAONatural fibres, some of which are drought resistant, serve as a major source of income for many small scale farmers. Examples are cotton in some West African countries, jute in Bangladesh and sisal in Tanzania.

Producers and processors of natural fibres, however, face the challenge of developing and maintaining markets in which they can compete effectively with synthetics. In some cases, this has involved defining and promoting market niches. In others, where their natural advantages allow them to compete effectively with synthetics, basic research and development is needed to facilitate the use of natural fibres in new applications.

The main goal of the International Year of Natural Fibres is to raise the profile of these fibres and to emphasize their value to consumers while helping to sustain the incomes of the farmers.

An IYNF Coordination Unit at the FAO is mounting a global information campaign to support IYNF partners' activities and will sponsor an international conference on natural fibres during 2009. An International Steering Committee, with representatives from various fibre organizations, consumer bodies, and funding agencies, will meet from time to time to guide the programme. Governments and the private sector are being urged to provide funding to help FAO ensure the success of the International Year.

The UN agency is hopeful that highlighting the many potentials of natural fibres through the IYNF 2009 observation will lead to the discovery of new markets and uses for natural fibres - especially those produced by small scale farmers, to sustain farmers’ income and eventually reduce poverty, thus fulfilling a major component of the Millennium Development Goals.

The efforts will also contribute to green farming in an era of climate change and concerns about renewable and non-renewable resources.

In recent years, the FAO at the request of the General Assembly has coordinated a number of international years, including the International Year of MountainsInternational Year of Rice and International Year of the Potato.

Related links

Meet the fibres

Webcast of the FAO launch of IYNF 2009

Calendar of events for the global celebration