Innovation of the Week: Handling Pests with Care Instead of Chemicals

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet. Between the years of 1975 – 1976, the Cambodian farmer, Name Name, like most farmers in the country during that time, grew vegetables and rice to feed the soldiers of the Lon Nol regime. 

Using his bare hands, Name mixed the chemicals DDT, Folidol, Phostrin and Kontrin in order to keep the pests away from his crops. As a result, he suffered from strange and uncomfortable physical symptoms. Sometimes he was unable to move or feel his hands and lower arms, and he experienced pain in his lungs and heart. His short term memory was also affected. All of these symptoms often persisted for up to six months after exposure to the chemicals. When the regime ended, Name went back to farming for himself and his family, and decided that he would do so without the use of any of the harmful chemical fertilizers that he realized are so dangerous to his health. With training from organizations supported by the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its Regional Vegetable IPM Program in Asia—in addition to some of his own research—

Name learned how to prepare botanical insecticides and organic composts from animal wastes and other materials already available on his farm. Now he is now able to avoid expensive and dangerous insecticides almost completely. This alternative approach is called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and it combines various strategies and practices to grow healthy crops, reduce damage from pests and minimize the use of artificial inputs. The FAO Regional IPM Program uses informal farmer training schools, facilitated by extension staff or other local farmers, to help train and implement field experiments. Local farmers learn new techniques from each other— as well as develop their own methods through facilitated field experiments—to minimize the use of chemical inputs on their farm. In addition to raising animals and growing vegetables and rice, Name also produces several varieties of mushrooms organically which he sells at local markets.

Though he does not yet receive a higher price for his organic produce, his crops are marketed to an increasingly conscious consumer base as being chemical free. And Name hopes that as awareness about the dangers of many chemical fertilizers increases, so will the value of his crops. For now, he is happy to be producing enough food to feed his family and earn a significant portion of their income, without endangering his own health, or the health of those that enjoy his crops.

To read more about how farmers can reduce the financial –as well as environmental and health—costs of chemical inputs, see: and For Pest Control, Following Nature’s Lead, Tiny Bugs to Solve Big Pest Problem, 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 19 countries and visited 130 projects highlighting stories of hope and success in the region. She will be in Gabon 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.

A Conversation About Organic Agriculture with Chuck Benbrook

In this regular series we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we feature Chuck Benbrook, Chief Scientist at the Organic Center.

Name: Chuck Benbrook

Affiliation: The Organic Center

Location: Enterprise, Oregon

Bio: Dr. Charles Benbrook is Chief Scientist at the Organic Center. He worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997. He served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration. Following the election of Ronald Reagan, he moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues. In 1984 Benbrook was recruited to the job of Executive Director, Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, a position he held for seven years. In late 1990 he formed Benbrook Consulting Services.

On Nourishing the Planet: Promoting agricultural and economic development in Africa requires intimate understanding of the resources people have to work with, and the factors shaping the decisions farmers make about what to grow and how.  Such understanding is a prerequisite to cost-effectively relax multiple constraints in unison.  The "Nourishing the Planet" project excels at gathering and sharing this sort of key information and, for this reason, has much to contribute in shaping development assistant programs that produce meaningful, sustained results.

Can you describe the possible ways that organic agriculture methods can help improve farmers' income, increase food security, and decrease world hunger?

If you dispassionately look at what is needed to promote productivity and food security in chronically food short regions, core organic farming principles and practices have much to contribute, and certainly far more than the GMO and chemical-intensive corn-soybean production system in the U.S. corn belt.   This is particularly true in restoring soil fertility and reversing the steady decline in soil organic matter.

Six core principles and objectives of organic farming must form the foundation of sustainable food systems, and hence food security in Africa -

   * Build the quality of the soil by increasing soil organic matter;
   * Promote above and below-ground biodiversity for its inherent, multiple benefits (biological control, more diverse diet, lessening risk of catastrophic crop loss, etc);
   * Integrate crop and livestock operations to exploit synergies between the two;
   * Use crop rotations, cover crops, multi-cropping systems, and agro-foresty to utilize available sunlight and moisture more fully, especially in the spring and fall months;
   * Avoid the use of toxic chemicals and hot fertilizers because of their potential to burn up organic matter, kill or reduce populations of non-target organisms that play valuable roles in food chains ultimately helping to feed people, and pose risks to people living in close proximity to treated areas; and
   * Produce high-quality, nutrient dense products that will hopefully command a premium price in the market place, reflecting their true value.

What are some specific innovations, policies and techniques that could be implemented to promote organic agriculture while also improving livelihoods?

Obviously, the combination of new practices, inputs, and technologies needed will vary tremendously based on local conditions.  Nearly everywhere, soil quality must be restored, a process that will require a number of years and a proper sequence of changes in management systems and inputs.  What a farmer does in the first three years of this journey will differ considerably from common practices ten years down the road.

Early steps will be dependent to a greater degree on fertilizer and organic soil amendments from outside the farm, and will often need to be shipped hundreds of miles into the region, while in later years, much more of the organic materials needed to sustain soil quality will be generated on the farm or locally.

Unfortunately, many projects and policy initiatives have delivered uneven, unsustainable results because they stopped at just subsidizing fertilizer, and failed to support the farmer's evolution toward more biologically-based methods to sustain soil fertility.

It is critical to support this incremental evolution, because the real and sustainable economic benefits to farm families kick in only after the transition is well along toward systems that have a high level of internal self-sufficiency, stability, and resilience.

It would be helpful for researchers and development organizations to provide recommendations for cost-effective trajectories of change in soil quality, including recommendations for the most cost-effective steps, and investments that will promote sustainable progress during each stage of the process.

More efficient capture and use of water, especially through micro-irrigation schemes, will also deliver significant benefits in many areas.  Diversifying rotations to include small plots of several short season vegetable crops in various combinations will also deliver multiple benefits.  Diversifying livestock enterprises to include more small livestock like chickens and rabbits is also a promising addition to the development assistance tool kit.

The lack of safe storage and markets for new crops, or difficulties in storing and utilizing new foods, often emerges as a major constraint to positive changes on the farm, and in terms of the diversity and quality of diets.  It seems to me that this is an obvious area for development assistance programs to target resources.

Why should wealthy consumers care about hunger in other parts of the world?

For the same reason that everyone should - helping assure everyone has enough to eat is a universal moral imperative.  There is no chance for peace and stability in a world where chronic poverty and hunger afflicts one-sixth of mankind. Hungry people are desperate people, and the actions they sometimes take, or embrace, to feed themselves and their families erode the fabric of civilization, just as erosion saps soil quality.

In your chapter, "Biotechnology: Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem-or Both?" you make the point that developed nations should use biotechnology to better understand "the linkages between indigenous resources and knowledge and agricultural production and farm family well being." Can you elaborate on this statement?

Some people are convinced that breakthroughs in plant breeding in Africa depend on access to, and use of a set of genes, markers and molecular technologies discovered and now used in the U.S. and Europe by plant biotech companies. I doubt it.  I just don't see Roundup Ready or Bt GE crops making much of a difference on most of the African continent.

Instead, I think that the modern tools of molecular biology should be deployed to understand and better utilize the genetic diversity that exists on the African continent. These tools are also extremely valuable in rooting out the subtle interactions between soil microbes, plants, pests, and the environment that can make or break a crop, and turn a nutritionally deficient diet into one that is both rich in nutrients and robust across seasons and circumstances.

There are many ways to work toward this goal that fully exploit cutting-edge science and technology.  We need to find the pathways that will deliver tangible results more quickly and cost-effectively than creating a new food like Golden rice, which remains after many years and millions of dollars an intriguing technical challenge, but not a sound investment if the goal is to promote food security where it is currently lacking.

Can biotechnology be used to improve sustainable agriculture and farming in the developing world?

Sure, but the biotechnology applications will be very different than the GE crops now planted around the world.

In the publication, "The Impacts of Yield on Nutritional Quality: Lessons from Organic Farming," you conclude that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally produced fruits and vegetables. Can you give a few examples of why organic produce is more nutritious and how this knowledge can help farmers in the United States and Europe, as well as the developing world?

In the U.S. and Europe, there has been a steady decline over 40-plus years in the nutrient density of conventionally grown foods, driven largely by incrementally higher nitrogen fertilizer levels and crop yields.  Agronomists call this essentially unavoidable relationship between yields and nutrient density the "dilution effect."  Organic farmers do not have access to the cheap sources of readily available nitrogen that serve as the fuel driving the dilution effect.

On average across most plant-based foods, organically managed crops mature a bit more slowly and produce fruit and vegetables that are somewhat smaller. But in terms of nutrient content per ounce or gram of apple, lettuce, carrot, or grapes, smaller is better.

There is also convincing evidence supporting the conclusion that in some years for some organic crops, a higher level of pest pressure, coupled with the lack of conventional pesticide applications, forces plants to divert energy from growth to defense mechanisms, which typically entail increased biosynthesis of plant secondary metabolites.  Many of these are potent antioxidants and account for a significant slice of the unique health-promoting benefits - and flavors - of fruits and vegetables.

Supporters of biotechnology often make the argument GE crops are necessary to fight food insecurity as climate change and population growth put increased pressure on the food system.  Can you give your thoughts on why or why not biotechnology can feed the world?

Today's commercially significant GE crops are herbicide-tolerant corn, soybeans, and cotton, and Bt corn and cotton.  These crops are designed to simplify weed and insect pest management and are planted, for the most part, in specialized, chemical-intensive systems.  Alternative technology exists to produce the same amount of crops per acre, and likely a bit more at lower cost to the farmer.  Based on these realities, I conclude that today's commercial GE crops are making no unique contribution to world food security needs.

An argument could be made, in addition, that today's GE crop technology has actually undermined progress toward increasing production and meeting global food security needs.  The discovery and commercialization of today's GE crops have totally dominated public and private plant breeding investments for nearly 30 years in three major crops, slowing the pace of progress in other areas of plant genetic improvement that would likely be of more direct benefit to a wider range of farmers around the world.

No one technology or farming system will emerge as universally optimal.  Progress toward global food security will be accelerated by systemic efforts to promote diversity in farming systems and technologies.  A healthy measure of experimentation is desirable in searching for optimal cropping patterns and production practices in a given region.

We must resist the enticing prospect that science and technology will deliver a magic bullet, or even a magic arsenal, that will miraculously optimize yields, stop pests in their tracks, always build soil quality, and thrive despite climate change.  A sober reading of history suggests strongly that this is a pipedream.

Those arguing that global food security will be assured if we just unleash the powers of biotechnology are doing the world's poor a grave disservice.  I know that many biotech promoters feel the same way about people like me who feel just as strongly that the most rapid and sustained progress will come from agricultural development programs and investments grounded in the principles of organic farming and agroecology.

One would hope and expect that the World Bank, FAO, CGIAR, foundations, and development assistance programs will insist that fair and unbiased assessments are made of the net returns to alternative paths to development in the years to come, but thus far I see little evidence of this happening on the ground.  The "Nourishing the Planet" project should do all it can to encourage the major funders and development organizations to sponsor credible, independent assessments.  May the best approach emerge, and let's hope that funders have the courage and political freedom to put the dollars behind the best system, in the hope of accelerating progress toward a goal shared by all.

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 Togo 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.

 

 

Despite Financial and Political Challenges, Conserving Natural Resources and Improving Livelihoods in Madagascar

 Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Madagascar has had more than its share of bad luck in the last year. In 2009, a military coup deposed the government. But the government wasn’t the only thing that collapsed. The island nation’s $400 million per year tourism revenue also disappeared, which has led to increased logging and deforestation of Madagascar’s forests.  And many of the NGOs and aid agencies that were working in Madagascar for decades have found their projects hindered by new regime’s policies—as a result, many have scaled back or left the country.

One NGO, however, the Italian-based Reggio Turzo Mundo (RTM), has continued to work with farmers in the country, despite the challenges. RTM works with farmers and farmers groups to develop alternatives to slash and burn agriculture, including organic farming practices that help build up soils.

RTM is also helping develop a manual for organic agriculture for farmers. “Organic agriculture,” says Tovohery A. Ramahaimandimbisoa, RTM’s organic agriculture coordinator, “is not promoted by the government.” In 2009 the former government provided farmers with a subsidy for fertilizer, but the current government won’t be providing farmers with fertilizer or other inputs, forcing many to burn forests to provide nutrients to the soil.

By teaching farmers how to compost, prevent erosion, and keep nutrients in the soil, RTM hopes to prevent slash and burn agriculture and help improve livelihoods. According to  Ramahaimandimbisoa, “many small producers in the field are already organic, but they’re not making money.”

And RTM is also helping farmers develop certification collectives for organic products, such as cloves, ginger, black and white pepper, and vanilla. These collectives, says, Lorena Iotti, RTM program coordinator, will help make it possible for farmers to develop their own certification standards and make it easier to export products to Italy and other countries.

Stay tuned for more about agriculture in Madagascar later this week

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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Protecting Wildlife While Improving Food Security, Health, and Livelihoods

This is the first in a two-part series about Nourishing the Planet co-director Danielle Nierenberg’s visit with COMACO in Zambia. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

One of the first things you notice about grocery stores in Zambia is the plethora of processed foods from around the world, from crackers made in Argentina and soy milk from China to popular U.S. breakfast cereals. Complementing these foreign foods, however, are a variety of locally made and processed products, including indigenous varieties of organic rice, all-natural peanut butter, and honey from the It’s Wild brand.

It’s Wild was started by the Community Markets for Conservation(COMACO), an organization founded over 30 years ago to conserve local wildlife. COMACO helps farmers improve their agricultural practices in ways that can protect the environment—such as through conservation farming—while also creating a reliable market for farm products. It organizes the farmers into producer groups, encouraging them to diversify their skills by raising livestock and bees, growing organic rice, using improved irrigation and fisheries management, and other practices, so that they don’t have to resort to poaching elephants or other wildlife.

By targeting hard-to-reach farmers that live near protected areas, "we’re trying to turn things around," says Dale Lewis, Executive Director of COMACO. For decades, many farmers in eastern Zambia practiced slash-and-burn agriculture and were involved in widespread elephant poaching. Farmers killed elephants and burned forests not because they were greedy, but because it was their only alternative, Lewis explains. Degraded soils, the lack of effective agricultural inputs, and drought left many farmers in the region desperate, forcing them to turn to poaching and environmentally destructive farming practices.

By training more than 650 "lead" farmers to train other farmers, COMACO hopes to not only protect the environment and local wildlife, but also help farmers increase their incomes by connecting them to the private market.

COMACO supports the creation of regional processing centers and trading depots to make it easier for farmers to process their crops and transport them to market. The group also offers a higher price to farmers who grow rice and other products organically, and for those use the conservation farming techniques they’ve learned from COMACO trainers and lead farmers. Where farmers "comply with COMACO, they see benefits," Lewis says, including improvements in food security and health.

The resulting products are then sold under the It’s Wild brand in major supermarket chains across Zambia, such as ShopRite, Checkers, and Spar. Next year, COMACO plans to export its products to Botswana. The organization is trying to do as much of the product distribution as possible so that the money stays with the farmers and not middlemen.

COMACO has also gotten technical support from multinational food giant General Mills. The company paid for a COMACO food technician to visit its headquarters in early 2009 to learn how different food processing techniques can increase the nutritional and economic value of the foods that the organization is selling.

Lewis hopes that eventually COMACO will be self sufficient—and profitable—without the current heavy dependence on donor funding. But that’s not easy for an organization that works with thousands of farmers and has high administrative, transport, and salary costs.

Stay tuned this week for more about Dale Lewis and COMACO’s work.

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Feeling Dirty?

We all know that we need clean air and water to live. But what many of us DON’T realize is that there is another resource we depend on just as much to survive: dirt. Yes, that stuff you played in as a kid and obsessively clean off your car. Believe it or not, dirt is an essential element to our existence on Earth, and DIRT! The Movie aims to teach us all about it. This acclaimed documentary goes beyond preaching about the dangers of pollution, educating the viewer on why we need dirt to survive, how it affects our daily life, and what we can do to improve it.

Every person on Earth, regardless of age, race, or social status depends on healthy dirt to survive. However, it is one of the elements of our planet we take most for granted. DIRT! The Movie does a great job of mixing facts, personal anecdotes, and animation to create a film that educates as well as entertains. Experts from all over the world weigh in on just how important dirt is to us, and they do so in a way everyone can understand- no scientific mumbo jumbo. The animation is clever and cute while remaining relevant, and lets be honest, how could you NOT love little Digby? (If you don't get it, watch the movie)

Although the film does a great job describing why dirt is important to human kind, the real takeaway from this film is that everyone can help to restore it to a healthy state. The movie highlights people from all different ages and backgrounds. A young couple owns their own organic farm that provides vegetables to inner-city people. Children attend a sustainable school and learn about composting. Inmates learn the environmental and personal benefits of gardening. A woman in the Bronx creates her own green rooftop. The possibilities are endless and range from small lifestyle changes to huge worldwide movements. But it is clear after watching DIRT! The Movie that people from all walks of life can really make a difference.

It is that balance of teaching as well as motivating the viewer to take action that makes DIRT! The Movie unique and fun. In fact, that sense of involvement has been pushed beyond the movie into local communities with DIRT!’s program that sets up screenings all over the country. On the DIRT! The Movie website, it is simple and free to create your own screening to bring the movie to your own town or find a showing near you. These screenings make the dirty, fun, and relevant DIRT! The Movie available to people everywhere, and hopefully also creates an impact so that people can work toward restoring our dirt to a healthy state, and save the planet in the process.

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