Innovation of the Week: Reducing Food Waste

Weekly innovations can be found on the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet blog.

In some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 265 million people are hungry, more than a quarter of the food produced is going bad even before it can be eaten because of poor harvest or storage techniques, severe weather, or disease and pests. In the United States on the other hand, food is actually being thrown away by the billions of kilograms (and contributing to 12 percent of total waste), putting stress on already bursting landfills and contributing to the emission of greenhouse gases--in the U.S. landfills are one of the biggest sources of methane, accounting for 34% of all methane emissions.

To prevent the loss of crops after they are harvested in Africa and elsewhere, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is implementing education and technology providing projects. In Kenya, the FAO partnered with the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture to train farmers to take steps to reduce maize crop loss to mycotoxin, a devastating result of fungi growth.

And in Afghanistan, the FAO recently provided household metallic silos to roughly 18,000 households in order to improve post-harvest storage. Farmers use the silos to store cereal grains and legumes, protecting them from the weather and pests, and post-harvest losses dropped from between 15 and 20 percent to less than one or two percent.

Recognizing the need to protect harvest in Africa from weather, disease, pests, and poor storage quality, the African Ministerial Council on Science & Technology is promoting research to analyze and promote various technologies and techniques to prevent post harvest waste and improve food processing. And ECHO Farm, in the United States, where Danielle and I spent some time in August, collects innovations of all kinds to help farmers at all stages of cultivation, including after the harvest. Making these innovations accessible to farmers all over the world is ECHO's mission and we were able to see a demonstration of a number of post-harvest loss prevention techniques that are both simple and affordable.

And progress in waste reduction is being made in the United States, as well. This year San Francisco became the first U.S. city to mandate that all households separate both recycling and compost from garbage. The Department of the Environment expects this single piece of legislation will result in a 90 percent decrease of household waste in local landfills.

Food collection organizations like Urban Harvestcollect food from restaurants, grocery stores and cafeterias that would otherwise be thrown away and deliver it, free of charge, to local food providers for low income families and the homeless.

Minimizing greenhouse gas emissions is a central theme at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen this year as GHG concentrations reached a record high last year. With landfills producing large amounts of greenhouse gases, and as food prices continue to rise worldwide, the reduction of food waste is an inescapable necessity for people everywhere, from restaurant owners in New York City to maize farmers outside Nairobi, Kenya.

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Cultivating a Passion for Agriculture

Crossposted from Nourishing the Planet.

One thing you immediately notice upon meeting Edward Mukiibi and Roger Serunjogi is their passion for kids and agriculture. Their eyes both lit up whenever they talked about the students who are part of DISC, Developing Innovations in School Cultivation, a project they founded after graduating from Makere University in Kampala. When we met Edward, he had just gotten back from the World Food Summit in Rome, where he was representing Slow Food International's Youth Delegation. He works during the week at the Ugandan Organic Certification Company. Roger is a school teacher and administrator at Sunrise School, where DISC launched its pilot project in 2006.

Edward says that after fulfilling their goals of being able to go to university, he and Roger wanted to "help other people realize their dreams." And they wanted to spread their "passion for producing local foods to the next generation." By focusing on school gardens, Edward and Roger are helping not only feed children, but are also revitalizing an interest in--and cultivation of--African indigenous vegetables. The schools don't use any hybrid seeds, but rely on what is locally available. Students and teachers at DISC project schools are taught how to save seed from local varieties of amaranth, sumiwiki, maize, African eggplant, and other local crops to grow in school gardens. They learn how to both dry the seeds and how to store them for the next season. With support from Slow Food International, DISC is establishing a seed bank to, according to Edward, "preserve the world's best vegetables."

Improving nutrition is especially important for boarding school students, who eat all of their meals at school. These children come from all over Uganda and DISC tries to make them feel at home by growing varieties of crops that are familiar to them from both the lowlands and highlands. According to Edward, "a child needs to see what she's used to" in order to appreciate its importance.

At both day and boarding schools, students work with school chefs to learn how to cook foods--giving them the opportunity to understand food production literally from farm to table. And unlike most other schools in Uganda, DISC project schools get local fruits with their breakfast and can harvest their own desert at lunchtime. DISC is planning the "Year of Fruits" for the next school year, which begins in January or February depending on the school--each school will be planting its own fruit trees on campus.

Roger explained that in addition to the monkeys who live around Sunrise School and who like to eat some of the crops from their garden, the biggest challenges for DISC involve transportation and equipment for the schools. Because DISC doesn't have its own vehicle, the coordinators, who need to evaluate gardens and make sure that the children are actually getting the food they help grow, often have to scramble to find transportation. And they lack good ways for the schools to communicate with one another about disease outbreaks and other problems.

But as the project receives more interest--from teachers, students, parents, and policy-makers (the local extension officer for the National Agricultural Advisory Services is a member of the local Slow Food convivium)--and more funding, they're likely to overcome these challenges and make farming a more viable option for youth in Mikuni and other parts of Uganda.

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How to Keep Kids "Down on the Farm"

This is the first in three-part series of blogs about my visit with DISC project schools in Mukono District, Uganda. Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

In Mukono District, about an hour outside of Kampala, Uganda, agriculture used to be considered a "punishment" for young people at school if they didn't behave and something they would be forced to do if they couldn't go to university or find jobs in the city, according to Edward Mukiibi and Roger Serunjogi, coordinators of the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) project. Edward, 23, and Roger, 22 started the project in 2006 as a way to improve nutrition, environmental awareness, and food traditions and culture in Mukono by establishing school gardens at 15 preschool, day and boarding schools. And over the last year, DISC has received global attention for its work--DISC is now partly funded by Slow Food International.

They started with Sunrise School, a preschool taking care of children between the ages of 3 and 6. By teaching these kids early about growing, preparing, and eating food they hope to cultivate the next generation of farmers and eaters who can preserve Uganda's culinary traditions. In addition to teaching the children about planting indigenous and traditional vegetables and fruit trees, DISC puts a big emphasis on food preparation and processing. "If a person doesn't know how to cook or prepare food, they don't know how to eat," says Edward. The kids at Sunrise--and the other schools working with DISC--know how to grow, how to prepare, and how to eat food, as well as its nutritional content.

As a result, these students grow up with more respect--and excitement--about farming. At Sirapollo Kaggwass Secondary School, we met 19 year-old Mary Naku, who is learning farming skills from DISC. This was her school's first year with the project and Mary has gained leadership and farming skills. "As youth we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables," she says, "to support our lives."

Betty Nabukalu, a 16 year-old student at Kisoga Secondary School, manages her school's garden and explained how DISC has taught the students "new" methods of planting vegetables. Before, she says, "we used to just plant seeds," but now she and the other students know how to fertilize with manure and compost. And, she says, they've learned not only that they can produce food, but that they can also earn money from it. DISC is also helping build leadership skills. Betty represents students from her on the local Slow Food Convivium, groups of Slow Food members that are dedicated to preserving local food cultures.

Thanks to DISC, students no longer see agriculture as an option of last resort, but rather as a way to make money, help their communities, and preserve biodiversity.

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Listening to Farmers

This is the second blog in a series about Danielle's visit to the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania.

4140998514_60433ed91b_m.jpg The World Vegetable Center is focusing on "building a sustainable seed system in sub-Saharan Africa." What does that mean? According to Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, Director of the Regional Center for Africa, it requires "bringing farmers voices into the choices of materials they are using."

The Center does this not only by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits--including resistance to disease and longer shelf life--but also by bringing farmers from all over eastern, western, and southern Africa to the Regional Center in Arusha, Tanzania, to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market. Mr. Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, was at the Center when I visited, advising staff about which tomato varieties would be best suited for his particular needs--including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.

The Center works with farmers not only to grow vegetables, but also to process and cook them. Often, vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, Dr. Mel Oluoch, a Liason Officer with the Center's Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (VBSS), works with women to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods by helping them develop shorter cooking times. "Eating is believing," says Dr. Oluoch, who adds that when people find out how much better the food tastes--and how much less fuel and time it takes to cook--they don't need much convincing about the alternative methods.

Dr. Oluoch also trains both urban and rural farmers on seed production. In fact, one of the women farmers we met in Kibera slum in Nairobi had been trained at the Center and is selling seeds to rural farmers, increasing her income. "The sustainability of seed," says Dr. Oluoch, "is not yet there in Africa." In other words, farmers don't have access to a reliable source of seed for indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, spider plant, cowpea, okra, moringa, and other crops. As a result, the Center is working--partly with CNFA, an Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) grantee--to link farmers to input or "agro-" dealers who can help ensure a steady supply of seed.

In addition, the Center is providing how-to brochures to farmers in Swahili and other languages to help them better understand how to grow vegetables in different regions.

Stay tuned for more about our visit to the World Vegetable Center later this week.

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Kigoma, Tanzania

I arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania excited to catch a flight to Kigoma, a region in the northwestern part of the country to visit a Jane Goodall Institute Tanzania project working with small farmers to promote sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately Precision Air, one of only two airlines that flies to the remote region, has suspended all flights for the next several weeks and  the other airline is all booked. It's the first major hiccup after traveling for the last month, so I really don't have anything to complain about.

I did get a chance, however, to meet with JGI staff here in Dar and learn more about their work not only in Tanzania, but all over the world.

Pancras Ngalason is the Executive Director of JGI Tanzania and he explained how the Institute has evolved since it began in the 1970s. They've gone, according to Ngalason, beyond research to address questions of livelihood.

JGI started as a center to research and protect wild chimpanzee populations in what is now, thanks to their efforts, Gombe National Park. But in the early 1990s JGI realized that if it didn't start addressing the needs of the communities surrounding the park, their efforts to conserve wildlife wouldn't work. JGI first started by planting trees in the region, but soon found that communities cut them down, not because they wanted to, but because they needed them for fuel and for making charcoal. It was at that time, says Ngalason, that we "thought beyond planting trees" and more about community-based conservation.

JGI started working with communities to develop government- mandated land use plans, helping them develop soil erosion prevention practices, agroforestry, and production of value-added products, such as coffee and palm oil. They like to say that their products are "Good for All" --good for farmers by providing income, good for the environment by protecting natural resources, and good for the consumer by providing a healthy product.

They're also working training community health practitioners about reproductive health and HIV/AIDS prevention, educating youth, establishing micro-credit programs, and working with UNICEF and USAID to supply clean water to communities.

"These are services," says Ngalason, "people require in order to appreciate the environment," and ultimately helps not only protect the chimps and other wildlife, but also helps build healthy and economically viable communities.

Stay tuned for more about JGI's Roots and Shoots program.

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

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