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.

State of the World 2011 Symposium in Washington DC and Live Streaming Online

Today is the Worldwatch Institute’s 15th Annual State of the World Symposium, hosted at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. It is being live streamed on the Nourishing the Planet blog at 1:15PM (EST) for those unable to join the event in person. Bringing together leading thinkers in agricultural development, hunger, and poverty alleviation, the symposium takes place following the release of Worldwatch's flagship publication, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.

Symposium keynote speakers and panelists include Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; David Beckmann, President, Bread for the World; Hans Herren, President, Millennium Institute; Sara Scherr, President and CEO, Ecoagriculture Partners; Catherine Alston, Cocoa Livelihoods Program Coordinator, World Cocoa Foundation; and Stephanie Hanson, Director of Policy and Outreach, One Acre Fund.

Also participating, in keeping with the project’s emphasis on ‘voices from the field,’ are two on-the-ground innovators from sub-Saharan Africa: Edward Mukiibi, co-founder and Project Coordinator of Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) in Uganda and Sithembile Ndema with the Food and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) in South Africa. The DISC project instills greater environmental awareness and understanding of nutrition, indigenous vegetables, and food culture in Uganda’s youth by establishing vegetable gardens at pre-school, day, and boarding schools. FANRPAN's Women Accessing Realigned Markets (WARM) project recently launched a series of Theatre for Policy Advocacy (TPA) campaigns in rural Malawi, using an interactive model to strengthen the ability of women farmers to advocate for appropriate agricultural policies and programs.

State of the World 2011 is full of similar stories of success and hope in sustainable agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. The report draws from hundreds of case studies and first-person examples to offer solutions to reducing hunger and poverty. It's nearly a half-century since the Green Revolution, and yet a large share of the human family is still chronically hungry. Since the mid 1980s when agricultural funding was at its height, the share of global development aid has fallen from over 16 percent to just 4 percent today. Drawing from the world's leading agricultural experts and from hundreds of innovations that are already working on the ground, State of the World 2011 aims to help the funding and development community reverse this trend.

In Kibera, Nairobi, the largest slum in Kenya, for example, more than 1,000 women farmers are growing "vertical" gardens in sacks full of dirt poked with holes, feeding their families and communities. These sacks have the potential to feed thousands of city dwellers while also providing a sustainable and easy-to-maintain source of income for urban farmers. With more than 60 percent of Africa's population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, such methods may be crucial to creating future food security. Currently, some 33 percent of Africans live in cities, and 14 million more migrate to urban areas each year. Worldwide, some 800 million people engage in urban agriculture, producing 15-20 percent of all food.

In 2007, some 6,000 women in The Gambia organized into the TRY Women's Oyster Harvesting producer association, creating a sustainable co-management plan for the local oyster fishery to prevent overharvesting and exploitation. Oysters and fish are an important, low-cost source of protein for the population, but current production levels have led to environmental degradation and to harmful land use changes over the last 30 years. The government is working with groups like TRY to promote less destructive methods and to expand credit facilities to low-income producers to stimulate investment in more-sustainable production.

State of the World 2011 provides new insight into the often overlooked innovations that are working right now on the ground to alleviate hunger and deserve more funding and attention. Its findings will be shared in over 20 languages with a wide range of global agricultural stakeholders, including government ministries, policymakers, farmer and community networks, and the increasingly influential nongovernmental environmental and development communities.

Connect with Nourishing the Planet on Facebook by clicking HERE.

Welcome to the Nourishing the Planet Diary!

Welcome to the Nourishing the Planet project diary on MyDD. As world hunger numbers top 1 billion, we are reporting from on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa to both inform global efforts to eradicate hunger and raise the profile of these efforts. Meeting with farmers, farmers groups, NGO's, journalists, funders, and policy makers, the Nourishing the Planet is assessing the state of agricultural innovations-from cropping methods to irrigation technology to agricultural policy-and highlighting the all too often untold stories of hope and success. To read more, previous MyDD entries by Nourishing the Planet can be found here and to find out more about the project see our blog. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Questions? Comments? Please contact Worldwatch Senior Researcher Danielle Nierenberg at


Welcome to the Nourishing the Planet Diary!

Welcome to the Nourishing the Planet project diary on MyDD. As world hunger numbers top 1 billion, we are reporting from on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa to both inform global efforts to eradicate hunger and raise the profile of these efforts. Meeting with farmers, farmers groups, NGO's, journalists, funders, and policy makers, the Nourishing the Planet is assessing the state of agricultural innovations-from cropping methods to irrigation technology to agricultural policy-and highlighting the all too often untold stories of hope and success. To read more, previous MyDD entries by Nourishing the Planet can be found here and to find out more about the project see our blog. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Questions? Comments? Please contact Worldwatch Senior Researcher Danielle Nierenberg at


New Cassava Varieties Save Zanzibar’s Food Security

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet and written by Catherine Njuguna

Millions of cassava farmers in eastern and central Africa are in distress from viral cassava diseases that are sweeping across the region and ravaging their crops. But their counterparts on the popular tourist island of Zanzibar are undergoing a quiet revolution using new disease-resistant and high-yielding varieties that were introduced three years ago.

The four varieties, Kizimbani, Mahonda, Kama, and Machui, have given cassava a new lease on life after the crop was devastated by the two main diseases afflicting the region: brown streak disease and mosaic disease. The diseases, which are spread by white flies, cost Africa’s cassava sector more than US$1 billion in damages every year. Small-scale farmers – among the poorest in the region – bear most of the economic effects.

Cassava mosaic disease first appeared in Uganda in the mid-1980s and spread rapidly in cassava-growing areas of eastern and central Africa through the sharing of infected planting materials and via the white fly vector. Following the development and deployment of resistant and tolerant varieties and widespread awareness-raising on ways to curb the mosaic’s spread, scientists, governments, non-governmental organizations, and farmers were able to bring the disease nearly under control. Then the cassava brown streak struck. This disease had been around for much longer but was confined to the coastal low-altitude areas of Eastern Africa and around Lake Malawi. From 2004, it started spreading rapidly to mid-altitude areas that were recovering from the mosaic, sending scientists back to the drawing board.

Haji Saleh, the head of Zanzibar’s roots and tuber program under the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Environment, says the first survey of cassava brown streak on the island was conducted in 1994 and indicated that 20 percent of the crop had disease symptoms. In a follow-up survey in 2002, the disease was found everywhere. “All the local varieties grown by the farmers were susceptible. The farmer and authorities were crying out for help,” Saleh said.

Heeding the call for help, Zanzibar crop scientists in collaboration with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) started a breeding program to develop cassava varieties that were resistant to the two diseases. Their efforts paid off, and after only four years, four new varieties were released in 2007.

“You have to understand, cassava is a very important staple in Zanzibar, where it comes in second after rice,” Saleh said. “However, it is first in terms of acreage and production with over 90 percent of farmers growing the crop. It is our food security crop as it grows in most of the agro-ecological zones including in the dry parts of the island where other crops do not perform well. So when the diseases hit, they were very devastating to the island’s food security. We had to act fast.”

The research team then started a rapid multiplication program, working with the farmers to spread the improved varieties on the island and beyond. “We selected pilot farmers in each district to help with the multiplication,” Saleh said. “We trained them on how to grow cassava to get good yields and maintain soil fertility, and on business skills, as they were to sell the planting material as a business.”

One farmer, 59-year-old Ramadhani Abdala Ame of Kianga village – a father of 10 – participated in the on-farm trials using the improved varieties. During the trials, the farmers helped the researchers select not only the best performing varieties, but also those that met farmer preferences and requirements for various uses of the crops. Ramadhani said he had given up on cassava, which was suffering from “kensa ya mhogo,” or “cancer of the cassava.” Infected by the brown streak disease, the crop develops a dry rot in its roots – the most economically important part of the plant – which makes it useless for consumption.

“The cassava looked good in the field, but when you harvested, the roots were rotten and useless, with all your labor and efforts going down the drain,” Ramadhani said. He explained that he was given 40 cuttings of the four new varieties to test on his farm. “At that time, they did not have names, only numbers. I was amazed at their performance: the  tubers were huge, and had no disease. I selected the two I liked best that were later renamed Kizimbani and Machui.”

Ramadhani said the sale of cassava roots and planting materials has made a big difference in his life. He has bought two cows to add to his stock, constructed a cowshed, and is now building a better brick and iron-sheet house for his family.

Another pilot farmer, Suleiman John Ndebe of Machui village, had also given up on cassava after 10 years of bad harvests due to the “cancer” and other pests and diseases such as mealy bug and cassava green mite. But the varieties given to him at Kizimbazi research station for testing excited him and motivated him to resume growing the crop. It’s a decision he says he has not regretted.

Suleiman says his involvement in the project has turned his life around. Farming for him is now a serious business. He estimates that he makes profits of between 50 and 100 percent from his cassava, depending on the season, and his income increased more than four times. “Before the training, I did not know agriculture was a business. I did not know whether I made a profit or a loss. Now, I know how much cassava I have planted, the cost of labor and manure, how much I expect to harvest, and how much profit I will make. I am now able to save some money in the bank and my life is less stressful. I even bought a color TV to be able to follow the World Cup!”

Yet there is still a big gap to fill before all the farmers on Zanzibar can enjoy the new cassava varieties. According to Salma Omar Mohamed, a research officer with Kizimbani Research station, only some 10,000 farmers are currently growing these new varieties, out of a potential of more than 1 million. She says the business model of distributing the planting materials has excluded poor farmers who are not able to afford the materials. However, she was thankful for the strides made with funding from donors such as Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which supported the free distribution of planting materials to poor farmers under a voucher program.

Mohamed hopes they can get more such support to spread the improved varieties to all the farmers on Zanzibar and on neighboring Pemba Island, where the disease is also prevalent and penetration of the new varieties is even lower.

Dr. Kanju, a cassava breeder with IITA, says hope is also on the way for farmers in Kenya, mainland Tanzania, and Uganda, as 15 promising cassava varieties that are suitable for the climatic conditions of these areas are in the last testing stages. “With scientists and farmers working together, they can eliminate the diseases in the region, securing the food and livelihoods of over 200 million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who depend on the crop.”

Catherine Njuguna is a communication officer with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.




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