Agriculture: The Unlikely Earth Day Hero

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

For over 40 years, Earth Day has served as a call to action, mobilizing individuals and organizations around the world to address these challenges. This year Nourishing the Planet highlights agriculture—often blamed as a driver of environmental problems—as an emerging solution.

Agriculture is a source of food and income for the world’s poor and a primary engine for economic growth. It also offers untapped potential for mitigating climate change and protecting biodiversity, and for lifting millions of people out of poverty.

This Earth Day, Nourishing the Planet offers 15 solutions to guide farmers, scientists, politicians, agribusinesses and aid agencies as they commit to promoting a healthier environment and a more food-secure future.

1. Guaranteeing the Right to Food. Guaranteeing the human right to adequate food—now and for future generations—requires that policymakers incorporate this right into food security laws and programs at the regional, national, and international level. Governments have a role in providing the public goods to support sustainable agriculture, including extension services, farmer-to-farmer transmission of knowledge, storage facilities, and infrastructure that links farmers to consumers.

2. Harnessing the Nutritional and Economic Potential of Vegetables. Micronutrient deficiencies, including lack of vitamin A, iodine, and iron, affect 1 billion people worldwide. Promoting indigenous vegetables that are rich in micronutrients could help reduce malnutrition. Locally adapted vegetable varieties are hardier and more dependable than staple crops, making them ideal for smallholder farmers. Research organizations like AVRDC/The World Vegetable Center are developing improved vegetable varieties, such as amaranth and African eggplant, and cultivating an appreciation for traditional foods among consumers.

3. Reducing Food Waste. Experts continue to emphasize increasing global food production, yet our money could be better spent on reducing food waste and post-harvest losses. Already, a number of low-input and regionally appropriate storage and preservation techniques are working to combat food waste around the world. In Pakistan, farmers cut their harvest losses by 70 percent by switching from jute bags and containers constructed with mud to more durable metal containers. And in West Africa, farmers have saved around 100,000 mangos by using solar dryers to dry the fruit after harvest.

4. Feeding Cities. The U.N. estimates that 70 percent of the world’s people will live in cities by 2050, putting stress on available food. Urban agriculture projects are helping to improve food security, raise incomes, empower women, and improve urban environments. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) has helped city farmers build food gardens, using old tires to create crop beds. And community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in Cape Town, South Africa, are helping to raise incomes and provide produce for school meals.

5. Getting More Crop per Drop. Many small farmers lack access to a reliable source of water, and water supplies are drying up as extraction exceeds sustainable levels. Only 4 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultivated land is equipped for irrigation, and a majority of households depend on rainfall to water their crops—which climate scientists predict will decline in coming decades. Efficient water management in agriculture can boost crop productivity for these farmers. By practicing conservation tillage, weeding regularly, and constructing vegetative barriers and earthen dams, farmers can harness rainfall more effectively.

6. Using Farmers’ Knowledge in Research and Development. Agricultural research and development processes typically exclude smallholder farmers and their wealth of knowledge, leading to less-efficient agricultural technologies that go unused. Research efforts that involve smallholder farmers alongside agricultural scientists can help meet specific local needs, strengthen farmers’ leadership abilities, and improve how research and education systems operate. In southern Ethiopia’s Amaro district, a community-led body carried out an evaluation of key problems and promising solutions using democratic decision-making to determine what type of research should be funded.

7. Improving Soil Fertility. Africa’s declining soil fertility may lead to an imminent famine; already, it is causing harvest productivity to decline 15–25 percent, and farmers expect harvests to drop by half in the next five years. Green manure/cover crops, including living trees, bushes, and vines, help restore soil quality and are an inexpensive and feasible solution to this problem. In the drought-prone Sahel region, the Dogon people of Mali are using an innovative, three-tiered system and are now harvesting three times the yield achieved in other parts of the Sahel.

8. Safeguarding Local Food Biodiversity. Over the past few decades, traditional African agriculture based on local diversity has given way to monoculture crops destined for export. Less-healthy imports are replacing traditional, nutritionally rich foods, devastating local economies and diets. Awareness-raising initiatives and efforts to improve the quality of production and marketing are adding value to and encouraging diversification and consumption of local products. In Ethiopia’s Wukro and Wenchi villages, honey producers are training with Italian and Ethiopian beekeepers to process and sell their honey more efficiently, promote appreciation for local food, and compete with imported products.

9. Coping with Climate Change and Building Resilience. Global climate change, including higher temperatures and increased periods of drought, will negatively impact agriculture by reducing soil fertility and decreasing crop yields. Although agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for about one-third of global emissions, agricultural practices, such as agroforestry and the re-generation of natural resources, can help mitigate climate change. In Niger, farmers have planted nearly 5 million hectares of trees that conserve water, prevent soil erosion, and sequester carbon, making their farms more productive and drought-resistant without damaging the environment.

10. Harnessing the Knowledge and Skills of Women Farmers. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, women represent 43 percent of the agricultural labor force, but due to limited access to inputs, land, and services, they produce less per unit of land than their male counterparts. Improving women’s access to agricultural extension services, credit programs, and information technology can help empower women, while reducing global hunger and poverty. In Uganda, extension programs are introducing women farmers to coolbot technology, which uses solar energy and an inverter to reduce temperatures and prolong the shelf life of vegetables.

11. Investing in Africa’s Land: Crisis and Opportunity. As pressure to increase food production rises, wealthy countries in the Middle East and Asia are acquiring cheap land in Africa to increase their food productivity. This has led to the exploitation of small-scale African farmers, compromising their food security. Agricultural investment models that create collaborations between African farmers and the foreign investing countries can be part of the solution. In Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, farmers grow green beans for the Dutch market during the European winter months, but cultivate corn and other crops for local consumption during the remaining months.

12. Charting a New Path to Eliminating Hunger. Nearly 1 billion people around the world are hungry, 239 million of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. To alleviate hunger, we must shift our attention beyond the handful of crops that have absorbed most of agriculture’s attention and focus on ways to improve farmers’ access to inputs and make better use of the food already produced. Innovations—such as the human-powered pump that can increase access to irrigation and low-cost plastic bags that help preserve grains—offer models that can be scaled-up and replicated beyond Africa.

13. Moving Ecoagriculture into the Mainstream. Agricultural practices that emphasize increased production have contributed to the degradation of land, soil, and local ecosystems, and ultimately hurt the livelihoods of the farmers who depend on these natural resources. Agroecological methods, including organic farming practices, can help farmers protect natural resources and provide a sustainable alternative to costly industrial inputs. These include rotational grazing for livestock in Zimbabwe’s savanna region and tea plantations in Kenya, where farmers use intercropping to improve soil quality and boost yields.

14. Improving Food Production from Livestock. In the coming decades, small livestock farmers in the developing world will face unprecedented challenges: demand for animal-source foods, such as milk and meat, is increasing, while animal diseases in tropical countries will continue to rise, hindering trade and putting people at risk. Innovations in livestock feed, disease control, and climate change adaptation—as well as improved yields and efficiency—are improving farmers’ incomes and making animal-source food production more sustainable. In India, farmers are improving the quality of their feed by using grass, sorghum, stover, and brans to produce more milk from fewer animals.

15. Going Beyond Production. Although scarcity and famine dominate the discussion of food security in sub-Saharan Africa, many countries are unequipped to deal with the crop surpluses that lead to low commodity prices and food waste. Helping farmers better organize their means of production—from ordering inputs to selling their crops to a customer—can help them become more resilient to fluctuations in global food prices and better serve local communities that need food. In Uganda, the organization TechnoServe has helped to improve market conditions for banana farmers by forming business groups through which they can buy inputs, receive technical advice, and sell their crops collectively.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. To watch the one minute book trailer click HERE.

Large Scale Land Investments Do Not Benefit Local Communities

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

This is the third blog in a series about the increasing prevalence of large-scale land acquisitions, or land-grabs.

In April 2010, more than 120 farmers’ groups and non-governmental organizations all across the world signed a statement declaring their opposition to the guiding principles endorsed by the World Bank, the FAO, IFAD and UNCTAD on “responsible” land investments.

The campaign, spearheaded by NGOs GRAIN, FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), Land Research Action Network (LRAN) and La Via Campesina, calls for an immediate end to land grabbing, claiming that it “denies land for local communities, destroys livelihoods, reduces the political space for peasant oriented agricultural policies and distorts markets towards increasingly concentrated agribusiness interests and global trade rather than towards sustainable peasant/smallhold production for local and national markets.”

The groups also believe that land-grabbing will “accelerate eco-system destruction and the climate crisis” because many of the deals rely on industrial and “mono-culture oriented” production systems.

In an interview with Nourishing the Planet, writer and activist Raj Patel denounced land-grabs as “modern forms of colonialism, except with colonialism there was the argument that the colonizers were bringing civilization to the people they were colonizing. This time around, they don’t bother with that justification. There’s not even the pretense of bringing civilization – now it’s just about efficiency.”

Patel noted that when people tout these land deals as an effective means to end hunger, they often ignore the fact that many deals are not growing food at all, but instead pursuing the rapidly expanding biofuels market. “When you’re talking about turning arable land into zones of cultivation for jatropha, you’ve a hard time arguing that anyone’s belly is going to be fuller as a result,” he said. A 2008 report by the FAO and the International Institute for Environment and Development documents the displacement of households due to this trend in particular. One example the report cites is a multimillion dollar British jatropha project in the Kisarawe district of Tanzania that “has been reported to involve acquiring 9,000 ha of land and the clearing of 11 villages which, according to the 2002 population census, are home to 11,277 people.”

The issue of capturing water in these deals is also often not discussed, but it was mentioned in the April statement, as an example of the many factors that need to be included when assessing the value of the land being leased or sold.

In numerous deals, land under negotiation is described as “idle” or “unused” – a glaring misrepresentation of the indigenous people (including many pastoralists) who in fact live on and have worked the land for years. In an interview with GRAIN, Nyikaw Ochalla, a member of the indigenous Anuak nation in Ethiopia describes the government’s complete disregard for his people’s livelihoods. “There is no consultation with the indigenous population, who remain far away from the deals,” he says. “The only thing the local people see is people coming with lots of tractors to invade their lands. And they have no place to voice their opposition. They are just being evicted without any proper consultation, any proper compensation.”

“There are 1.5 billion small-scale farmers in the world who live on less than 2 hectares of land,” according to Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of The Oakland Institute and member of the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group. “Secure and equitable access to and control over land allows these farmers to produce food, which is vital for their own food security as well as that of rural populations throughout the developing world.”

The signatories of the April statement (of which Patel was one), demand true agrarian reform, which includes investment in research and training programs for small-holder farmers, overhauling trade policies, supporting regional markets, enforcing strict regulations to foreign direct investment, and promoting “community-oriented food and farming systems hinged on local people's control over land, water and biodiversity.”

When asked about alternative business models like contract farming, proposed by many intergovernmental agencies, Raj Patel concluded, “What we need is for people to decide what they want to do with the land. The alternative to contract farming on grabbed-land is if people were able to decide in a community forum, in which women had equal voice with men, what the fate of the land should be. That’s what food sovereignty is about. And anything less than that is really just crumbs from the table.”

To read the second half of the interview with Raj Patel, see Change is Possible in this Complex Food System. For examples of agricultural training programs in Africa, see Girl Up: Helping Girls around the Globe Help Each Other Working with the Root, and Improving African Women’s Access to Agriculture Training Programs.

 

 

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Innovation of the Week: For Pest Control, Following Nature’s Lead

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

It might feel counterintuitive, but the more varieties of vegetables, plants, and insects that are included in a garden, the less vulnerable any single crop becomes. Mans Lanting of ETC Foundation India wrote in LEISA Magazine in 2007 that the best method of approaching pest control is to learn to live in harmony with pests instead of trying to fight them. By harnessing the natural state of vegetation and pests, a farmer can create “a system in which no component can easily dominate” and in which soil and crop quality is greatly improved.

In other words, the tendency for traditional farming to give preference to specific crops, to plant in clean rows, to weed out any invasive plants, and to use chemicals to prevent pests and disease is actually creating a need for these pesticides and fertilizers. Soil fertility decreases when crops are harvested, and growing a single crop means that the soil is further stripped of nutrients with each season, requiring the use of inputs that, according to Lanting, lead to an imbalance in plant nutrition and increase vulnerability to pests and diseases. This introduces the need for pesticides, which cost more money and create toxic runoff that can damage the local environment.

The result is a self-perpetuating war against infertile soil and a burgeoning pest population.

Instead, Lanting recommends taking an alternative approach, mimicking the diversity that takes place in nature and creating a garden that relies on natural systems to provide nutrients as well as pest and disease control.

Farm biodiversity can be improved by integrating border crops, trees, and animals. Farmers can also include trap crops—crops that attract insects away from the main crop—which include Indian mustard, sunflower, marigold, soybeans, and French beans, as well as crops that promote insect predators such as pulses for beetles, okra for lace wing, and coriander, sorghum, and maize for trichogramma (small wasps). Visual barriers can be used to help “hide” crops from pests. The diamond backed moth, for example, has to be able to see cabbage in order to find it—and destroy it before a harvest.

Nourishing the Planet saw some of these techniques being implemented at Enaleni Farm, a demonstration farm run by Richard Haigh in Durban, South Africa. Haigh cultivates traditional maize varieties that are resistant to drought, climate change, and disease, and he practices push-pull agriculture, which uses alternating intercropping of plants that repel pests with ones that attract pests in order to increase yields. He also applies animal manure and compost for fertilizer. Haigh likes to say that his farm isn’t organic, but rather an example of how agro-ecological methods can work. (See Valuing What They Already Have)

Using these methods, a farmer will have a garden with at least 10 crops, creating an ecosystem that resembles one found in nature. The soil is more fertile, and the insects and diseases are distracted and preyed upon so that their impact is less concentrated. In a sense, a farmer needs to let the garden get wild in order to protect it from the wild.

To read more about chemical-free farming practices see: In Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Wildlife Conservation, Malawi’s Real Miracle, Emphasizing Malawi’s Indigenous Vegetables as Crops, and Finding ‘Abundance’ in What is Local.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Benin next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels. If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates. Please don’t hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Innovation of the Week: For Pest Control, Following Nature’s Lead

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

It might feel counterintuitive, but the more varieties of vegetables, plants, and insects that are included in a garden, the less vulnerable any single crop becomes. Mans Lanting of ETC Foundation India wrote in LEISA Magazine in 2007 that the best method of approaching pest control is to learn to live in harmony with pests instead of trying to fight them. By harnessing the natural state of vegetation and pests, a farmer can create “a system in which no component can easily dominate” and in which soil and crop quality is greatly improved.

In other words, the tendency for traditional farming to give preference to specific crops, to plant in clean rows, to weed out any invasive plants, and to use chemicals to prevent pests and disease is actually creating a need for these pesticides and fertilizers. Soil fertility decreases when crops are harvested, and growing a single crop means that the soil is further stripped of nutrients with each season, requiring the use of inputs that, according to Lanting, lead to an imbalance in plant nutrition and increase vulnerability to pests and diseases. This introduces the need for pesticides, which cost more money and create toxic runoff that can damage the local environment.

The result is a self-perpetuating war against infertile soil and a burgeoning pest population.

Instead, Lanting recommends taking an alternative approach, mimicking the diversity that takes place in nature and creating a garden that relies on natural systems to provide nutrients as well as pest and disease control.

Farm biodiversity can be improved by integrating border crops, trees, and animals. Farmers can also include trap crops—crops that attract insects away from the main crop—which include Indian mustard, sunflower, marigold, soybeans, and French beans, as well as crops that promote insect predators such as pulses for beetles, okra for lace wing, and coriander, sorghum, and maize for trichogramma (small wasps). Visual barriers can be used to help “hide” crops from pests. The diamond backed moth, for example, has to be able to see cabbage in order to find it—and destroy it before a harvest.

Nourishing the Planet saw some of these techniques being implemented at Enaleni Farm, a demonstration farm run by Richard Haigh in Durban, South Africa. Haigh cultivates traditional maize varieties that are resistant to drought, climate change, and disease, and he practices push-pull agriculture, which uses alternating intercropping of plants that repel pests with ones that attract pests in order to increase yields. He also applies animal manure and compost for fertilizer. Haigh likes to say that his farm isn’t organic, but rather an example of how agro-ecological methods can work. (See Valuing What They Already Have)

Using these methods, a farmer will have a garden with at least 10 crops, creating an ecosystem that resembles one found in nature. The soil is more fertile, and the insects and diseases are distracted and preyed upon so that their impact is less concentrated. In a sense, a farmer needs to let the garden get wild in order to protect it from the wild.

To read more about chemical-free farming practices see: In Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Wildlife Conservation, Malawi’s Real Miracle, Emphasizing Malawi’s Indigenous Vegetables as Crops, and Finding ‘Abundance’ in What is Local.

Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Benin next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels. If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates. Please don’t hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Getting the Most of Out of Groundnuts in Senegal

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

This is the first blog in a series about Action Aid’s work in Senegal.

They are found on nearly every street corner in Western Africa—freshly roasted groundnuts are sold in small plastic bags or by the handful as a quick, protein-rich snack. These small nuts—which are technically legumes—have had a big influence on Africa. “Groundnuts,” says Moussa Faye, of Action Aid Senegal, “have made the wealth of this country.” But he explained that they’ve also created “poverty because of a crisis in groundnut sector after it was liberalized” by the government. One of Action Aid’s priorities in Senegal is to help groundnut farmers collectives find better ways to grow, process, and sell groundnuts and groundnut products. 

When they first started working with groundnut farmers in 2004, according to Faye, there were no good quality seeds available. To solve this problem, Action Aid worked with farmers to develop a seed multiplication program, which Faye says, has been more successful than the government’s seed multiplication program. Why? Because Action Aid’s program involved farmers. They helped groundnut farmers build a stronger network through the national groundnut platform, giving farmers groups the opportunity to communicate with government officials.

And Action Aid is helping link farmers to transporters and processors for groundnuts. Action Aid is also helping correct misconceptions about groundnut production. He says “it’s not just a cash crop, but a food crop” because so many poor people depend on it as an important source of protein. It also serves as the main fodder for horses, cattle, and other livestock—the same animals who help plough groundnut fields. It’s “extremely strategic to have groundnuts that nourish both people and animals,” says Faye. It’s also “not true that [groundnuts] destroy the soil,” according to Faye. Unsustainable farming and harvesting of groundnuts can lead to depletion of carbon in soils.

But when done the right way, groundnut farming can be both profitable and environmentally sustainable. “It’s part of peoples’ cultures,” says Faye, and farmers have mastered innovative ways to grow it. Groundnuts are also well adapted to the hot and dry conditions of Senegal. Farmers are also adding value to groundnuts by processing the crop themselves, instead of selling it to middlemen. In addition to grinding the nuts for butter and paste, farmers are also selling groundnut oil and oil cakes for animal feed. Farmers also developed ovens to burn the shells of the groundnuts for fuel for processing—the shells are very energy efficient, burning up to 12 hours. “Processing brings a lot of profits,” notes Faye and farmers with support from Action Aid are now building small processing plants in rural areas.

Stay tuned for more about Action Aid’s work with farmers in Senegal. Thank you for reading! As you may already know, Danielle Nierenberg is traveling across sub-Saharan Africa visiting organizations and projects that provide environmentally sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty. She has already traveled to over 18 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Benin next, so stay tuned for more writing, photos and video from her travels.

If you enjoy reading this diary, we blog daily on Nourishing the Planet, where you can also sign up for our newsletter to receive weekly blog and travel updates. Please don’t hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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