Innovation of the Week: Providing an Agricultural Answer to Nature’s Call

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

It’s hard to believe, but an estimated 2.6 billion people in the developing world—nearly a third of the global population—still lack access to basic sanitation services. This presents a significant hygiene risk, especially in densely populated urban areas and slums where contaminated drinking water can spread disease rapidly. Every year, some 1.5 million children die from diarrhea caused by poor sanitation and hygiene.

It is in these crowded cities, too, that food security is weakened by the lack of clean, nutrient-rich soil as well as growing space available for local families.

But there is an inexpensive solution to both problems. A recent innovation, called the Peepoo, is a disposable bag that can be used once as a toilet and then buried in the ground. Urea crystals in the bag kill off disease-producing pathogens and break down the waste into fertilizer, simultaneously eliminating the sanitation risk and providing a benefit for urban gardens. After successful test runs in Kenya and India, the bags will be mass produced this summer and sold for U.S. 2–3 cents each, making them more accessible to those who will benefit from them the most.

In post-earthquake Haiti, where many poor and homeless residents are forced to live in garbage heaps and to relieve themselves wherever they can find privacy, SOIL/SOL, a non-profit working to improve soil and convert waste into a resource, is partnering with Oxfam GB to build indoor dry toilets for 25 families as well as four public dry toilets. The project will establish a waste composting site to convert dry waste into fertilizer and nutrient-rich soil that can then be used to grow vegetables in rooftop gardens and backyards.

In Malawi, Stacia and Kristof Nordin’s permaculture project (which Nourishing the Planet co-director Danielle Nierenberg visited during her tour of Africa) uses a composting toilet to fertilize the crops. Although these units can be expensive to purchase and install, one company, Rigel Technology, manufactures a toilet that costs just US$30 and separates solid from fluid waste, converting it into fertilizer. The Indian non-profit Sulabh International also promotes community units that convert methane from waste into biogas for cooking.

On a larger scale, wetlands outside of Calcutta, India, process some 600 million liters of raw sewage delivered from the city every day in 300 fish-producing ponds. These wetlands produce 13,000 tons of fish annually for consumption by the city’s 12 million inhabitants. They also serve as an environmentally sound waste treatment center, with hyacinths, algal blooms, and fish disposing of the waste, while also providing a home for migrating birds and an important source of local food for the population of Calcutta. (See also “Fish Production Reaches a Record.”)

Aside from cost and installation, the main obstacles to using human waste to fertilize crops are cultural and behavioral. UNICEF notes in an online case study that a government-run program in India provided 33 families in the village of Bahtarai with latrines near their houses. But the majority of villagers still preferred to use the fields as toilets, as they were accustomed to doing their whole lives. “It is not enough just to construct the toilets,” said Gaurav Dwivedi, Collector and Bilaspur District Magistrate. “We have to change the thinking of people so that they are amenable to using the toilets.”

Thank you for reading! If you enjoy our diary every day we invite you to get involved:

1. Comment on our daily posts—we check comments everyday and look forward to a regular ongoing discussion with you.

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Innovation of the Week: Providing an Agricultural Answer to Nature’s Call

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

It’s hard to believe, but an estimated 2.6 billion people in the developing world—nearly a third of the global population—still lack access to basic sanitation services. This presents a significant hygiene risk, especially in densely populated urban areas and slums where contaminated drinking water can spread disease rapidly. Every year, some 1.5 million children die from diarrhea caused by poor sanitation and hygiene.

It is in these crowded cities, too, that food security is weakened by the lack of clean, nutrient-rich soil as well as growing space available for local families.

But there is an inexpensive solution to both problems. A recent innovation, called the Peepoo, is a disposable bag that can be used once as a toilet and then buried in the ground. Urea crystals in the bag kill off disease-producing pathogens and break down the waste into fertilizer, simultaneously eliminating the sanitation risk and providing a benefit for urban gardens. After successful test runs in Kenya and India, the bags will be mass produced this summer and sold for U.S. 2–3 cents each, making them more accessible to those who will benefit from them the most.

In post-earthquake Haiti, where many poor and homeless residents are forced to live in garbage heaps and to relieve themselves wherever they can find privacy, SOIL/SOL, a non-profit working to improve soil and convert waste into a resource, is partnering with Oxfam GB to build indoor dry toilets for 25 families as well as four public dry toilets. The project will establish a waste composting site to convert dry waste into fertilizer and nutrient-rich soil that can then be used to grow vegetables in rooftop gardens and backyards.

In Malawi, Stacia and Kristof Nordin’s permaculture project (which Nourishing the Planet co-director Danielle Nierenberg visited during her tour of Africa) uses a composting toilet to fertilize the crops. Although these units can be expensive to purchase and install, one company, Rigel Technology, manufactures a toilet that costs just US$30 and separates solid from fluid waste, converting it into fertilizer. The Indian non-profit Sulabh International also promotes community units that convert methane from waste into biogas for cooking.

On a larger scale, wetlands outside of Calcutta, India, process some 600 million liters of raw sewage delivered from the city every day in 300 fish-producing ponds. These wetlands produce 13,000 tons of fish annually for consumption by the city’s 12 million inhabitants. They also serve as an environmentally sound waste treatment center, with hyacinths, algal blooms, and fish disposing of the waste, while also providing a home for migrating birds and an important source of local food for the population of Calcutta. (See also “Fish Production Reaches a Record.”)

Aside from cost and installation, the main obstacles to using human waste to fertilize crops are cultural and behavioral. UNICEF notes in an online case study that a government-run program in India provided 33 families in the village of Bahtarai with latrines near their houses. But the majority of villagers still preferred to use the fields as toilets, as they were accustomed to doing their whole lives. “It is not enough just to construct the toilets,” said Gaurav Dwivedi, Collector and Bilaspur District Magistrate. “We have to change the thinking of people so that they are amenable to using the toilets.”

Thank you for reading! If you enjoy our diary every day we invite you to get involved:

1. Comment on our daily posts—we check comments everyday and look forward to a regular ongoing discussion with you.

2. Consider donating—For a limited time only when you donate $36 dollars (tax deductible) to support the Worldwatch Institute to support our, we will mail you a signed copy of our flagship publication "State of the World 2011" when it comes out in January. To make sure you receive your copy of the book just be sure to enter the code “NTP2011” when you make your donation.

3. Receive weekly updates—Sign up for our "Nourishing the Planet" weekly newsletter at the blog by clicking here and receive regular blog and travel updates.

Building a Methane-Fueled Fire: Innovation of the Week

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

For half the world’s population, every meal depends on an open fire that is fueled by wood, coal, dung, and other smoke-producing combustibles. These indoor cookfires consume large amounts of fuel and emit carbon dioxide and other dangerous toxins into the air, blackening the insides of homes and leading to respiratory diseases, especially among women and children.

Biogas, however, takes advantage of what is typically considered waste, providing a cleaner and safer source of energy. Biogas units use methane from manure to produce electricity, heat, and fertilizer while emitting significantly less smoke and carbon monoxide than other sources of fuel. Access to an efficient, clean-burning stove not only saves lives—smoke inhalation-related illnesses result in 1.5 million deaths per year—it also reduces the amount of time that women spend gathering firewood, which the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates is 10 hours per week for the average household in some rural areas.

The IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project (GBLADP) helped one farmer in Eritrea, Tekie Mekerka, make the most of the manure his 30 cows produce by helping to install a biogas unit on his farm (similar to the unit that Danielle saw in Rwanda with Heifer International). Now, says Mekerka, “we no longer have to go out to collect wood for cooking, the kitchen is now smoke-free, and the children can study at night because we have electricity.”Additionally, Mekerka is using the organic residue left by the biogas process as fertilizer for his family’s new vegetable garden.

In Rwanda, the government is making biogas stove units more accessible by subsidizing installation costs, and it hopes to have 15,000 households nationwide using biogas by 2012. While visiting with Heifer Rwanda, Danielle met Madame Helen Bahikwe, who, after receiving government help to purchase her biogas unit, is now more easily cooking for her 10-person family and improving hygiene on the farm with hot water for cleaning. In China, IFAD found that biogas saved farmers so much time collecting firewood that farm production increased. In Tanzania, the Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development (SURUDE), with funding from UNDP, found that each biogas unit used in their study reduced deforestation by 37 hectares per year. And in Nigeria, on a much larger scale, methane and carbon dioxide produced by a water purifying plant is now being used to provide more affordable gas to 5,400 families a month, thanks to one of the largest biogas installations in Africa.

To read more about how waste can be turned into a source of fuel, energy, and nutrition see: Making Fuel Out of Waste, Growing Food in Urban “Trash,” ECHOing a Need for Innovation in Agriculture, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, and Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera.

If you know of other ways people are making the most of their waste and would like to share it with us, we encourage you to leave a comment or fill out our agriculture innovation survey here

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Reversing Climate Change, One Bite at a Time

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

On the nine hour bus ride from Johannesburg, South Africa to Maputo, Mozambique yesterday, I had a chance to read the latest TIME Magazine and was surprised—and pleased—to see an article on an issue that Worldwatch has been covering for a long time—the benefits of grass-fed livestock systems for the climate.

The article highlights how not all meat is created equal. All of the ingredients used to raise livestock conventionally—including artificial fertilizers and monocultures of maize and soybeans—are highly dependent on fossil fuels. In addition, modern meat production requires massive land use changes that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, including the destruction of grasslands and rainforests in South America and the degradation of ranging lands in Africa (See the Worldwatch report: Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use).

Rotational grazing systems, on the other hand, can actually sequester carbon in soils. And because the animals are eating grass, not grain, artificial fertilizer isn’t required to produce feed. These systems also don’t have to rely on the long-distance transportation of fertilizer, grain, or other inputs. And while the manure produced at confined animal feed operations, or CAFOs, is often considered toxic waste because it is produced in such massive quantities, the manure produced on smaller-scale farms is considered a valuable resource, helping to fertilize crops.

While raising—and eating— grass-fed beef might not completely reverse climate change, it’s a valuable tool for producers and consumers alike in helping lower the amount of GHGs emitted because of our food choices.

Organic farming is carbon sequestration we can believe in

The phrase "carbon sequestration" is often used in connection with so-called "clean coal" technology that doesn't exist. Scientific debate over the best methods of carbon capture and storage tends to weigh the costs and benefits of various high-tech solutions to the problem.

But Tim LaSalle, CEO of the non-profit Rodale Institute, reminds us in a guest column for the Des Moines Register that an effective means of sequestering carbon in our soil already exists:

By using organic agricultural methods and eliminating petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pest-and-weed control, we build - rather than destroy - the biology of our soil. While improving the health of the soil we also enhance its ability to diminish the effects of flooding, as just one example. In some laboratory trials, organically farmed soils have provided 850 percent less runoff than conventional, chemically fertilized soils. This is real flood prevention, not sandbag bandages for life-threatening emergencies.

When the soil is nurtured through organic methods, it allows plants to naturally pull so much carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil that global warming can actually be reversed. Farms using conventional, chemical fertilizer release soil carbon into the atmosphere. Switching to organic methods turns a major global-warming contributor into the single largest remedy of the climate crisis, while eliminating toxic farm chemical drainage into our streams, rivers and aquifers.

Using such methods, we would be sequestering from 25 percent to well over 100 percent of our carbon-dioxide emissions. Microscopic life forms in the soil hold carbon in the soil for up to 100 years. This is much more efficient than inserting foreign genes. Healthy soil already does that at such remarkable levels it usually can eliminate crop disasters, which means greater food security for all nations. And the beauty is, investing in soils is not patentable, enriching just some, but instead is free to all.

Where has this science, this solution, been hiding? It has been intentionally buried under the weight of special interests - that are selling chemicals into our farming system, lobbying Congress, embedding employees in government agencies and heavily funding agricultural university research.

A few years ago, the Rodale Institute published a detailed report on how Organic farming combats global warming. Click that link for more facts and figures.

For more on how groups promoting industrial agriculture lobby Congress, see this Open Secrets report and this piece from the Green Guide on The New Food Pyramid: How Corporations Squash Regulation.

Expanding organic farming and reducing the amount of chemicals used on conventional farms would have other environmental advantages as well, most obviously an improvement in water quality both in farming states and downstream. Last week the National Academcy of Sciences released findings from the latest study proving that chemicals applied to farms are a major contributor to the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico:

The study, conducted at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, recommends setting pollution reduction targets for the watersheds, or drainage areas, that are the largest sources of the pollution that flows down the Mississippi River to the gulf.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was urged to help fund a series of pilot projects to test how changes in farming practices and land use can reduce the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. The report, written by a panel of scientists, did not say how much money would be needed. Agricultural experts and congressional aides said it wasn't clear whether there was enough money in federal conservation programs to fund the necessary projects.
[...]

The government has been debating for years about how to address the oxygen-depleted dead zone, or hypoxia, in the gulf. The dead zone reached 8,000 square miles this year, the second-largest area recorded since mapping began in the 1980s.
[...]

Agricultural groups don't want mandatory controls put on farms.

However, a scientific advisory board of the EPA has recommended reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the gulf by 45 percent. More than 75 percent of those two pollutants originates in nine states, including Iowa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Here's a link to more detailed findings about how agricultural states contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Organic farming is also good for rural economic development because it employs more people. I'll write more soon on the economic benefits of implementing other sustainable agriculture policies.

There's more...

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