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

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.”

 

 

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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Nourishing the Planet in USA Today: In a world of abundance, food waste is a crime

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Check out the op-ed on preventing food waste that Nourishing the Planet has in this mornings USA Today. We describe how both the United States and sub-Saharan Africa waste enormous amounts of food. In the U.S. we waste food often by simply buying too much and then throwing it away, while in many parts of Africa food rots in fields or in storage before it ever reaches consumers. But there are ways to prevent food waste and the impact it has on the environment-including buying less food, composting food scraps, and developing better storage systems, such as the PICS bag that protects cowpeas from pests in Niger.

We'll also be highlighting more innovative ways to prevent food waste in the upcoming State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet. Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, will author a chapter addressing innovations that can help prevent waste in the food system from farm to fork.

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. 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.

 

 

Getting “More Crop Per Drop” to Strengthen Global Food Security

 

 

 

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