Agro-Imperialism in the New York Times

In case you missed it, check out Andrew Rice's piece on land grabs in Africa- a very new and potentially troubling consequence of our globalized economy- in the New York Times Magazine. Rice touches on some of the same things I've seen during my trip to sub-Saharan Africa--Chinese and the Middle Eastern investment in not only road construction, but also agricultural land, particularly in Ethiopia and Kenya. According to Rice, the global economic and food crises have spurred countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and India to invest heavily in African land. By controlling the areas of production, they hope to secure future supplies of food for their own populations. But as sub-Saharan Africa faces increasing hunger--at least 23 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk of starvation--its role as a food exporter becomes increasingly hard to justify. And this increasing foreign investment in African land has largely stayed under the global radar. Stay tuned for more on land grabs in the upcoming State of the World 2011.

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It's more than about trees at the World Agroforestry Centre

This is the second in a two-part series about my visit to the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

I'm always excited to meet with researchers who are passionate about their work. Dr. Dennis Garrity, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre, assembled three members of his team to meet with me last week to talk about some of the innovations the Centre is helping support in Africa.

Dr. Maimbo Malesu, the director of Water Management Research, described the Centre's work on water. "One of the biggest challenges in Africa," says Maimbo, "is the lack of rainwater harvesting." Many countries, he says, are only utilizing 2 to 5 percent of their rainwater potential. To help reverse this, the World Agroforestry Centre is helping train farmers and agricultural extension officers in places like Rwanda to build lined ponds that can catch and store rainwater. In 2007, there were just 65 of these demonstration ponds in Rwanda; now there are more than 400.

About 40 kilometers outside of Nairobi, the Centre is working with UNEP on a multidisciplinary project that incorporates water storage tanks, agroforestry, more efficient stoves, and microfinance projects to help communities deal with water shortages, deforestation, fuel shortages, and lack of credit for women.

Dr. Frank Place, an economist and head of impact assessment, explained the World Agroforestry Centre's research on fertilizer trees--leguminous trees and shrubs that are grown along with or before or after crops--can improve soil, increase yields, and eliminate the need for artificial fertilizers. In some places, intercropping fertilizer trees with crops can be most beneficial for farmers who want to add nutrients to maize and other crops that need fertilizer, while in other areas indigenous trees that shed their nitrogen-rich leaves during the rainy season are the best way of increasing yields.

In addition, Dr. Place explained how fodder shrubs can help increase milk production in Kenya. There are nearly two million small dairy farmers in the country and lack of high quality food is their biggest challenge. And concentrated grain feeds are too expensive for most producers. But growing nitrogen-fixing fodder shrubs can provide a nutritious--and inexpensive--feed that helps dairy producers increase their income. Five hundred shrubs can feed a cow for a whole season and increase daily milk production by one to two liters a day, which, says Dr. Place, results in an additional income of $USD .50 per day and $USD 100 per year.

Dr. Delia Catacutan, a social scientist, is working with the Centre and Landcare International to help farmer and community groups work together to decide how land should be managed. In Uganda, Land Care has helped 40 different community-based organizations to negotiate and access services from the government. In addition, they've helped with conflict resolution and eased the tension between farming and wildlife. "Innovations," Dr. Catacutan said, "don't walk by themselves." But by helping farmers work together and giving them a greater voice in decision-making, agricultural innovations such as agroforestry, are more likely to spread, as well as raise farmer income and protect the environment.

Stay tuned for more stories about how agroforestry can help improve food security in Africa.

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An Evergreen Revolution? Using Trees to Nourish the Planet

This is the first of a two-part series on my trip to the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Hunger in the North and South

You can view this post and others at the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet blog.  

As a North American traveling and doing research on hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, I'm often struck by the contrasts between the United States and whichever country I happen to be in. The abundance and cheapness of food in the U.S. is something, I have to admit, I miss.

In Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, where I've spent the last month, drought has exacerbated already high food prices, millions of livestock have starved to death, and 23 million people in the horn of Africa are at risk for starvation. But when I opened the paper on Monday, I was struck by the irony of just how similar Africans and Americans can be.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food insecurity in the United States, the richest country in the world, is at a 14-year high. Forty-nine million people in the U.S. lack what the USDA calls consistent access to adequate food. This increase of 13 million over the last year, according to the New York Times, was more dire than even the most pessimistic predictions about how the economy was impacting peoples' daily lives.

While Americans aren't starving because of lack of access to food, it's troubling that poor families are cutting back on food purchases, which can have a whole range of impacts on child health. Single family homes headed by women, says USDA, are the worst off--another reminder that, just as here in Africa, women and children tend to suffer the most from poverty and food insecurity.

Meanwhile the World Food Summit is wrapping up in Rome this week and very little has been said, so far, about environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty in rich and poor countries alike. As the effects of climate change become more and more evident and the global economic crisis continues, the world needs better ways of producing food that nourish both people and the planet.

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Maintaining Links to Tradition in a Changing World

This is the second post in a two part series about pastoralists in Samburu, Kenya. To read part one see The Keepers of Genetic Diversity.

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