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.

 

 

Makutano Junction Soap Opera

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

The last place most of us look to for useful information is television soap operas. But Makutano Junction, a Kenyan-produced soap opera set in the fictional town of the same name is not your average TV drama. Broadcast in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and throughout English-speaking Africa on Digital Satellite Television (DSTV), Makutano Junction doesn't deal with the evil twins, amnesia, and dark family secrets typical of U.S. daytime dramas. Instead, the show's plot lines revolve around more grounded (although not necessarily less dramatic) subjects like access to health care and education, sustainable income-generation, and citizens' rights.

Funded by the U.K. Department for International Development, produced by the Mediae Trust, and broadcast by the Kenya Broadcast Corporation, the show was originally designed as a 13-part drama in 2004. But Makutano Junction was since developed into a six-season TV phenomenon, with over 7 million viewers in Kenya alone. Its website provides all the information one might expect from a television show site, including episode summaries and character profiles. It also features "extras" on themes from specific episodes and encourages viewers to text the producers for more information.

In Episode 8 of Season 6, which aired in 2008, the character Maspeedy gets into trouble for soaking seeds. Seed soaking works by essentially tricking the seed into thinking it has been planted, allowing it to soak up in one day as much water as it would in a week in the soil. This speeds up germination and significantly shortens the time between planting and growth, leading to a vegetable harvest in a quick amount of time.

But the other characters in the show are unfamiliar with this practice and, when they discover Maspeedy's project, have him thrown in jail because they are convinced that he is brewing alcohol illegally. After some plot twists and a little slapstick humor involving two trouble-making characters who attempt to drink the water in order to get drunk, the truth comes to light and Maspeedy is released from jail. He then teaches the rest of the town the simple technique of soaking seeds to speed plant-growth time.

After the episode aired in May 2008, thousands of viewers sent texts to Mediae  requesting more information about seed-soaking techniques. These viewers were sent a pamphlet with detailed instructions on how to soak their own seeds. Follow-up calls- which were part of a study to test the effectiveness of the show's messaging- revealed that 95 percent of those who had texted for more information had found the pamphlets helpful. And 57 percent had tried out seed soaking even before the pamphlet arrived, just based on the information provided on the show. Ninety-four percent said that they had shared the information with up to five other people.

By peppering the drama-infused lives of its characters with demonstrations of agricultural practices, trips to the doctor for tuberculosis tests, and Kenyan history, Makutano Junction serves to both entertain and provide reliable information for families throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This is soap opera drama that people can actually relate to-and learn from.

To read more about innovations that use entertainment and media to alleviate poverty and hunger see: Using Digital Technology to Empower and Connect Young Farmers, Acting it out for Advocacy and Messages from One Rice Farmer to Another.

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 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.

 

 

Fighting for Farm Workers’ Rights for More Than 40 Years

By Ronit Ridberg

This is the first of three parts of an interview with Baldemar Velasquez, President and Founder of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. In Part One, Mr. Velasquez describes the biggest challenges and abuses farm workers face in the U.S., and what it was like for his family to work in America's agricultural sector. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Name: Baldemar Velasquez

Affiliation: President and Founder, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, FLOC, AFL-CIO

Location: Toledo, Ohio

Bio: Incensed by the injustices suffered by his family and other farm workers, Baldemar Velasquez founded the union of migrant farm workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) in 1967. FLOC works tirelessly to give voice to migrant farm workers across the country and include them in decision-making processes on conditions that affect their lives. Mr. Velasquez is a highly respected national and international leader, not only in the farm labor movement, but also in the Latino and immigrant rights movements.

What is your background, and how did you come to found FLOC?

My family was recruited into the migrant worker stream back in the early 50s from South Texas to harvest tomatoes, sugar beets and other hand-harvest crops in Ohio, Michigan and the Midwest. That began my long odyssey to this work, getting stranded in Ohio and not making enough money to get back to Texas. In those early years we didn't even have our own transportation and we got so in debt one fall, we had to stay the winter and borrow more money from the local farmers just to stay alive. Then we worked off the winter debt the next summer- working for free in the fields. We then stayed another winter and were in debt again, we sort of became like indentured workers for about seven years.

Just to get out of debt we traveled the summers around the mid-west to find the back-to-back-to-back crops. In Michigan with the cherries and the strawberries, and trimming Christmas trees then back to Ohio for the sugar beets and the tomato and cucumber harvest, right into the fall and picking potatoes for the local farmers. So that's how we just tried to keep out of debt and try and survive the winter so we could survive the following summer.

The silver lining in all of this was that I was able to learn English and stay in school - it was cold at home and warm in the schoolhouse so I kept going back to school. I ended up going to college - almost by accident! I didn't think that college was for Mexican kids, I thought it was for white kids, and my senior literature teacher said, "Why not?" My grades were good enough. During college vacations I would go back to the fields to work and by my senior year I was already organizing my dad and his friends, and my mom and her comadres in the fields.

Can you describe some of the biggest challenges and most common abuses faced by farm workers in the United States?

Well there's the outward abuses, like stealing your wages, getting cheated in your pay, employers cooking the books and falsely reporting the wages of workers. And a lot of times they hide it - like in our family, our whole family worked together but only my dad and my mom would get a paycheck. So they reported it as individual earnings, but it was really the collective earnings of all of us who worked on piece-rate crops. We were regularly cheated out of minimum wages. And as long as people were working piece-rates, getting paid by the bucket, by the acre, by the lug, by the crate, by whatever container or unit we were working and getting paid for, the record keeping of hours was very sporadic and very distorted.

Then there's the disregard for the health environment of the workers, the labor camps where many times the legislation was so lax that you could house people in chicken coops and barns, and still qualify to have registered labor camps. And even then, whatever laws were in the books were never enforced anyway. So we grew up in very bad labor camp conditions. So there's that environmental factor.

And then the human abuse, the tongue lashings that workers would get, that women would get from unscrupulous labor contractors, crew leaders, field men, and even some farmers. One of the things that would really shock me and anger me was the way they would talk to my mom, in ear shot of my little sisters who were all smaller. Well, it makes a young man very angry, and you want to do something but you don't know what to do.

So those are the kinds of abuses that we grew up with. By the time I was old enough to think about this seriously, I thought well, when I grow up, if I can do something about this, I'm going to do something!

How common is child labor is in agricultural production today and do you think labor policies can address the problem?

You know, we've had child labor laws on the books for a long time. And the problem with any kind of laws governing the agriculture sector is the lax enforcement, or no enforcement at all. I started working the fields when I was six. By the time I was eight or nine, I was already carrying an adult load in terms of ability to harvest the number of lugs or crates or baskets or hampers or whatever.

And as far as putting more inspectors in the fields to enforce child labor laws, it's a two-edged sword. The reason parents have their kids in the field is not because they like child labor, but really in our family, the alternative to that was not eating. And that's what it boils down to. And it's very easy to say, "yeah let's pass some laws and get really tough enforcement and big fines for those who have kids in the fields," but if you get the kids out of the fields - okay, so then what? You let them languish in the labor camps all by themselves? They have nothing to do. Or you take away an adult wage-earner to stay home and baby-sit him? Take away that income from the family?

You cannot talk about eliminating child labor without dealing with the other family impacts - for instance family income. The kids may not create as much income as an adult worker, but it is income. And we used to pool our income as a whole family to make ends meet, to stay alive. And so you've got to deal with the wage issue. You've got to make the job where adults can earn a living so the kids don't have to be in the fields and you can still provide for them, you can still give them food. All of these have to be answered together - you can't just say, let's eliminate child labor. All these advocates in Washington talking about child labor laws and so on, well-intentioned as it is, they're not addressing the other issues.

What are some of the health hazards that farm workers face?

Every crop has different foliage and its own chemical make-up, and sometimes people have allergies and react to them. Not to mention the residue that might be on some of those crops - the fungicides, the pesticides that they spray on them, and the lack of enforcement on reentry time in the field. You can have all the regulations you want - if you don't have a way in which workers can police that and be able to decisively do something without fear of retaliation, then the laws aren't going to do you a lot of good.

I've watched over the years well-intentioned efforts like the Environmental Protection Agency's Worker Protection Standards, and the required training of workers around pesticides and so on. And they have put millions into funding organizations to train workers about pesticide safety. Well, here's my question: a worker gets out of bed in the morning, and he sees a farmer who just finished spraying a field, and the crew leader takes him out there and says, "Okay - time to go to work". And he's educated about the reentry time, and knows it is too early to go back in. (The more toxic ones have longer reentry periods - two, three-day reentry period). And sitting on the edge of the field - the difference between a trained worker and an untrained worker, is either that you're knowingly going to go in and get poisoned, or you're not knowingly going to get poisoned. The guy that knowingly goes in and gets poisoned, what's his choice? What are his options? Not go and maybe get fired? And get retaliated against? What do you have on the books to protect him from being retaliated against, and how is he going to process that - file a complaint with the Department of Labor, who might respond in two weeks? And then you have to pack up and go make a living with your family somewhere else. Where is the follow-up on that particular incident? What good does it do you that day? That's the problem.

So there's the problem in terms of the chemicals, the residues on the plants. There's also the climate issue. We have had nine deaths in the fields of North Carolina in recent years, and seven of them from heat stroke. This summer already, among our membership, we've had two heat stroke cases: One guy is still in a coma, and the other fellow just came out of a coma. We have him in a hospitality place down where we're working on his workers' compensation case and in the past those workers who didn't have an organization, well they were out of luck. They were forgotten, put on the bus and sent back to Mexico, or just left to languish wherever they are.

So a lot of that is just due to pure neglect. The farmers can be held accountable, but workers have to have a right to make decisions about when they can walk out of a field, when they can file a complaint or a grievance with the employer. Already this summer we've probably processed a couple of hundred complaints from workers.

Stayed tuned to parts two and three of this series, which will focus on how FLOC helps farmworkers gain a seat at the negotiating table, and ways consumers can get involved. To read more about workers in our food system, see In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers and Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees.

Ronit Ridberg is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

Beating the Heat to Reduce Post-Harvest Waste

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

For a farmer in a hot country like Sudan, a big harvest can end up being just a big waste. A fresh tomato off the vine will only last about 2 days in the stifling heat, while carrots and okra might last only 4 days. Despite being perfectly capable of producing abundant harvests, without any means to store and preserve crops, farmers in Sudan are at risk for hunger and starvation. They are also losing money that could be made by selling surplus produce at markets if they had a way to keep vegetables longer.

The organization, Practical Action-a development non-profit that uses technology to help people gain access to basic services like clean water, and sanitation and to improve food production and incomes- provides a simple solution to this problem in the form of homemade clay refrigerators.  Practical Action's clay refrigerators are called zeer pots and can be made out of mud, clay, water, and sand. To make one a farmer uses molds made out of mud to create two pots of different sizes. Once dry, the small pot is fitted into the larger pot and the space between them is filled with sand. By placing this structure on an iron stand so that air can flow underneath and all around, and by adding water to the sand between the pots daily, a farmer can use evaporation to keep the pots-and whatever is inside-cool.

In a zeer pot, tomatoes and carrots can last up to twenty days while okra will last for seventeen days. And this can make a huge difference for a small scale farmer who is trying to feed her family. One farmer, Hawa Abbas, featured in a Practical Action case study, used to regularly expect to lose half her crop to the inescapable heat. But now, "[zeer pots] keep our vegetables fresh for 3-4 weeks, depending on the type of crop," she said. "They are very good in a hot climate such as ours where fruit and vegetables get spoiled in one day."

Practical Action provides trainings and demonstrations to teach small scale farmers how to make and use the pots in developing countries like Sudan and Darfur. And an instruction manual about how to make the pots can be found on its website.

To read more about innovations that reduce crop waste to alleviate hunger and improve livelihoods see: It's All About the Process, Reducing Food Waste,  Investing in Better Food Storage, and In a World of Abundance, Food Waste is a Crime.

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.

 

 

There's more...

Turning the Catch of the Day into Improved Livelihoods for the Whole Community

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet and written by Christi Zaleski.

Leaving Gambia's capital city, Banjul, you'll find a group of women standing road side offering up oysters for 15 dalasis a cup, or about 55 cents for approximately 75 pieces of oyster meat. These women in the community have been harvesting oysters from the extensive mangrove wetlands of Gambia for decades. Much of the harvesting is concentrated in Tanbi National Park, a Ramsar site, or wetland of international importance. Surprisingly, the mangroves themselves have undergone little change during the last thirty years, even as the population of the country, increasingly concentrated around Tanbi in the Greater Banjul Area, more than doubled during that period.

Although the mangroves remain healthy, the oyster harvesters have witnessed the effects of increased pressure on the oyster population first hand. The women report that oysters today are smaller and harder to find than thirty years ago or even ten years ago. Even with the increased effort required to harvest, more women are harvesting today than in the past. These women rely on oysters for their livelihoods and contribute to food security in a country that is heavily dependent on seafood for protein.

In 2007 a group of oyster harvesters organized themselves into a producer association called TRY Women's Oyster Harvesting Association. The first members decided to call the organization TRY, because it was an effort to do just that - try to improve the situation for oyster harvesters without much certainty that their efforts would pay off. After some initial success fund raising to buy boats, membership in TRY grew rapidly from fourteen women in just one village to 500 oyster harvesters from fifteen communities across the Greater Banjul Area today. This growth was no small feat. Although the women are all Jola, a minority ethnic group in Gambia, they are divided into different sects with distinct languages and heritages. Through TRY, the harvesters have been able to put aside these differences and work as a cohesive community making decisions by consensus and collectively prioritizing needs.

Two years later in fall 2009, TRY became linked with the USAID funded Sustainable Fisheries Project, Ba Nafaa. Ba Nafaa has helped TRY expand the scope of its mission and has worked to create a sustainable co-management plan for the oyster fishery that respects the needs of harvesters, consumers, and the environment.

In their short time together TRY and Ba Nafaa have already made some important strides in working toward improved livelihoods and fisheries practices. The women have collectively agreed to practices that may be difficult in the short run, but pay off over time. Traditionally, oysters are harvested during the dry season, with the wet months of July through December closed for harvesting. This year, the communities agreed to extend the closed season until March. When harvesting resumed in the spring, the women saw the benefits of the extended closure immediately, noticing a marked increase in the size of oysters for harvest. Additionally, each community agreed to close one bolong, or tributary, in their territory for the entire year to encourage regeneration of the oyster population there.

The women are also adopting practices to ensure that Tanbi remains a healthy mangrove ecosystem. Harvesters are learning about the ecological importance of mangroves and how destructive practices like cutting roots with machetes to collect the attached oysters damages the capacity of the ecosystem to support oyster populations and fish nurseries. They are sharing these lessons with one another and the Gambian public through short plays demonstrating proper harvesting techniques and sharing information about mangrove ecology. In a country stretched for resources, the oyster harvesters are also helping the Department of Parks and Wildlife Management police the wetlands by reporting observations of illegal fuel wood harvesting to local officials. The women are experimenting with shellfish aquaculture to help relieve pressure on wild stocks and limit the harm to mangroves.

One of the first accomplishments of TRY was to raise the price of oysters from ten dalasis per cup to fifteen. Customers have been willing to pay the new price, a partial acknowledgment of the value of these harvesters' effort. One of the big goals for Ba Nafaa and TRY, however, is to see that number grow exponentially by opening up new markets in the high end retail outlets serving tourists. This would be greatly aided by establishing a permanent market for harvesters who now must rely on customers stopping by the side of the road or at temporary markets in the major cities in the Greater Banjul Area. Eventually, the harvesters could develop an export market to the United States or European Union, which could yield prices high enough to create living wages for harvesters. In the meantime the oyster harvesters will continue to be found selling their catch along the road outside of Banjul, and working together to try to improve their situation.

Christi Zaleski is concentrating in environmental studies at Brown University and is spending the summer in Gambia working with the Gambia-Senegal Sustainable Fisheries Project Ba Nafaa.

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 Burkina Faso 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.

 

 

Creating Food Sovereignty for Small-Scale Farmers

This interview with Raj Patel, award-winning writer, activist and academic, was originally featured as a two part series on Nourishing the Planet.

Name: Raj Patel

Affiliation: Visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for African Studies, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a fellow at The Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First.

Location: San Francisco

Bio: Raj Patel has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world. He has testified about the causes of the global food crisis to the US House Financial Services Committee and is an Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. In addition to numerous scholarly publications, he regularly writes for The Guardian, and has contributed to the LA Times, NYTimes.com, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Mail on Sunday, and The Observer. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and most recently, The Value of Nothing.

Can you please explain the concept of food sovereignty, and what policies and programs will help encourage it?

Food sovereignty is about communities', states' and unions' rights to shape their own food and agricultural policy. Now that may sound like a whole lot of nothing, because you're actually not making a policy demand, you're just saying that people need to be able to make their own decisions. But, actually, that's a huge thing. Because in general, particularly for smaller farmers in developing countries, and particularly for women, decisions about food and agricultural policy have never been made by them. They've always been imposed.

That's why La Via Campesina, the organization that really invented the term, says that one of the visions behind food sovereignty is that food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women. That may sound something not at all to do with food, but of course, if we're serious about people being able to make choices about how their food comes to them and what the food system looks like, then the physical and the structural violence to which women are exposed in the home, in the economy and in society, all need to be tackled. Otherwise we will continue with a situation in which 60 percent of the people going hungry today are women or girls. So food sovereignty, to boil it down, is really about power - who has it in the food system, and how to redistribute it so that those who have concentrated it, have it taken away from them.

In terms of specific policies, what Via Campesina are calling for is for agriculture to be removed from the World Trade Organization, which is a way again in which local countries' sovereignty is already been given away. They also call for large corporations to be booted out of agriculture. There's strong opposition to Monsanto for example, and the way that they've been behaving in many developing countries, and many Via Campesina members are campaigning against Monsanto in their home countries.

Will another Green Revolution or more food subsidies help reduce hunger?

To answer the question, let's look at Malawi. It's the poster child for what a new green revolution in Africa might look like, with widespread subsidies of inorganic fertilizer for farmers. When I went there, late last year, what you found was long lines at the gasoline pump, because all Malawi's foreign exchange had been spent on importing this fossil fuel-based fertilizer. The country had bankrupted itself in order that it might be a showcase for the new green revolution in Africa. And of course, there are alternatives right there in Malawi, driven by farmers - invariably by women who are innovating around sustainable systems like poly-culture - growing lots of crops simultaneously together, building soil fertility for the long run.

What this shows is that there are some basic incompatibilities between varieties of ways of addressing agrarian problems in Africa. Some organizations, Worldwatch included, adopt a 'big tent' approach, in which solutions that keep the status quo but improve it marginally sit alongside far more radical approaches. Ultimately, you can't promote genetically modified monoculture or techniques that make large-scale commercial farming less destructive at the same time as wanting something like food sovereignty, which calls for much more of a deeper structural rethink of the way the food system operates. Food sovereignty is about democracy in our food system so that everyone gets to eat - industrial agriculture involves a food system run by technocrats for profit. At the end of the day, you can have one or the other -not both.

How does global agricultural policy affect small-scale farmers across the world?

In general the policies foisted on developing countries through organizations like the World Bank is that large scale agriculture is the way to go: that small farmers are a relic of the past. They are of purely cultural significance but economically, socially, and agriculturally, they stand in the way of development. So the policies that are essentially designed to increase farm size and kick off rural populations to the cities are ones that you see in pretty much every country around the world. And yet of course, it is the poor in rural communities that are being forced to bear the brunt of these policies and these are the communities that are least able to afford it. And again - you can never say it too often - it is on women's shoulders that the bulk of the pain of moving from agrarian society to a so-called modern industrial society one, falls.

Why should American food consumers care about the fate of agricultural producers halfway across the world?

Not out of any sense of pity or charity, but because the struggle that farmers in developing countries face are very similar to the struggles that farmers in the United States face. Industrial agriculture wreaks havoc. We've seen the deaths from E. coli, we've seen industrial agriculture and the rise of BSE, we've seen the massive dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico because of the run-off from animal feeding operations flowing down the Mississippi. If you're in America and you're concerned about the quality or safety of your food, or about the consequences of the way your food is produced, then you're not alone. Those are all things that farmers elsewhere in the world are worried about, and that consumers elsewhere in the world are worried about too.

There's a proven way in which those concerns can be addressed. It is to wrench power away from the corporations that profit from low standards, from the ability to off-shore pollution, and the ability to evade the costs of defective products. So I think in the US, if you're at all concerned about food safety, health, obesity - any of these things, then you would want to have more control of your food system. And wanting more control over your food system is exactly what food sovereignty is about. In a globalised world, you can't have control over your food system in this country while people elsewhere don't, and this is what makes it a common struggle.

Funding for agricultural research has declined in recent decades. Where should funding for agricultural innovation and research come from?

Funding for agriculture ought to come from the places where research used to come from: the government. I don't have any stars in my eyes when I think about governments in developing countries having a ton of cash in their coffers for research into this. But governments that are net food importing developing countries, found themselves after the last food crisis in very dark times. They're keen to develop new ways of doing things. A lot of these countries haven't had the money to be able to invest in agricultural extension and research, and so what we need are two things: One is a cancellation of the illegitimate debt that these countries have racked up with organizations like the World Bank. There's a huge debt that rich countries owe poor ones - for colonialism, for the ecological damage we have caused and continue to cause by the way we consume. Yet through the World Bank, the debt has been flipped over, and has become an agent for controlling these economies.

So we definitely need a change in the way international development and finance work, but we also need to support change within developing countries so that agricultural extension becomes something that once again is funded and is geared towards the kinds of research that is about low-carbon, that is about democratic control over resources, rather than about pushing a particular kind of product and particular kind of vision of agriculture that is ultimately unsustainable for the majority of countries in Africa.

To learn more about food sovereignty and fair trade, see Depending on A Global Workforce,  In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers and Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees.

Editor's Note: Many thanks to Raj Patel for allowing us to profile him on the Nourishing the Planet blog. We're a big fan of his work with Food First and promoting food sovereignty. While we're grateful to Raj for highlighting the importance of protecting the livelihoods of millions of farmers all over the world, we would like to respectfully disagree with his suggestion above that Worldwatch has promoted "genetically modified monoculture" systems. Worldwatch has a long history of writing about sustainable agriculture systems that encourage crop diversity and support the livelihoods of small-scale farmers, including our early writing on the local food movement in Brian Halweil's book, Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Solutions in a Global Supermarket; our first-hand reporting in 2001 on why genetically modified crops are not necessarily the best, or most appropriate, or only available solution to agricultural challenges; and Danielle Nierenberg's writing on the spread of factory farming into the developing world and how it could be stopped in Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.

This blog has taken a "big tent" approach, so to speak, in that we've featured many voices as we scour Africa for examples of farmers, scientists, politicians and others doing great work. This doesn't mean we think all solutions are equally worthy of attention or support. In fact, we have tried to make clear in our posts that we think current investments in agricultural development are irrationally skewed towards crop breeding and big infrastructure projects, like dams for irrigation. Many of the innovations we have profiled-from low-cost ways to cut waste in the food system, to mixed-cropping systems with livestock, to farmer-organized marketing and research cooperatives-aren't making "large-scale commercial farming less destructive," as Raj writes. But, used widely, they could change the very structure of the food economies throughout the world. And that's what will successfully eliminate hunger and poverty.

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 Burkina Faso 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.  Also, please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.

 

 

Fighting Global Malnutrition Locally

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet blog.

Every year, 5 million children worldwide die from malnutrition-related causes, including immune-system deficiency, increased risk of infection, decreased bone density, and starvation. But a variety of local efforts are hoping to turn things around.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country struggling with internal conflict, food shortages, and poverty, thousands of lives are threatened by acute malnutrition. When a child is brought to one of the therapeutic Stabilization Centers at regional hospitals, run by the Congolese Ministry of Health with support from the organization Action Against Hunger, they receive rations of specially formulated Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTF). RUTF-such as Plumpy'nut, a peanut butter-based food produced by the French company Nutriset-is infused with vitamins and minerals and is used to quickly rehabilitate children suffering from malnutrition.

RUTF is packaged and requires no preparation or refrigeration. It can be administered at home, allowing families to avoid having to travel to far-off medical centers or pay for long and expensive stays at hospitals. It is also very effective. After about 40 days of two or three servings of RUTF per day, a child can reach a healthy weight. During the 2005 food crisis in the Maradi region of Niger, the non-profit Doctors Without Borders treated 40,000 severely malnourished children using RUTF and saw a recovery rate of 90 percent.

In addition to obtaining Plumpy'nut from UNICEF or directly from Nutriset in France, Action Against Hunger purchases it from Amwili, a local producer that has partnered with Nutriset. By providing a local source of RUTF, Lubumbashi-based Amwili frees the treatment centers from dependency on supplies imported from Europe. Local production also improves livelihoods by creating jobs, and many organizations around the world are working to link local farmers to RUTF production in order to provide an improved and consistent source of income.

In Haiti, the Zanmi Agrikol Program, run by the organization Partners in Health, is improving agricultural capacity and household food security, in addition to treating malnutrition, by training and contracting with local peanut farmers who provide the ingredients for locally produced RUTF. Currently the project provides malnutrition treatment and prevention for 5,000 children; agriculture training and support to 1,240 families; and has contracts with over 100 local peanut farmers. Additionally, the organization Meds & Food for Kids relies on local ingredients and Haitian producers to make its own brand of RUTF, called Medika Manba or "peanut butter medicine." Meds & Food for Kids saw a significant increase in demand for Medika Manba after the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti earlier this year, and many malnourished children were treated with a locally made RUTF that provides the additional benefit of helping to restore the country's fragile economy.

Companies like Nutriset in France and Valid International in the United Kingdom offer instruction manuals for local production of their specific RUTF products and partner with local producers in countries struggling with malnutrition across sub-Saharan Africa. Action Against Hunger, for example, also purchases Plumpy'nut from a producer in Nairobi, Kenya, called INSTA-a partner of Valid International-to distribute RUTF to its programs throughout East Africa.

In Ghana, the New Frontier Farmers and Processor group is processing the leaves of moringa trees, which are high in protein and other valuable nutrients, into powder that can be manufactured into formula for malnourished children. This effort, along with other crop-processing projects, is helping to add value to small-scale farmers' crops and improve the livelihoods of the nearly 5,000 participating farmers.

To read more about how farmers can produce ingredients for local products to improve livelihoods, nutrition, and food security see: Locally Produced Products for Locally Consumed Products, Using Small Businesses to Create Local Markets, and Protecting Wildlife While Improving Food Security, Health, and Livelihoods.

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 Burkina Faso 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.  Also, please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.

 

 

Depending on A Global Workforce

This is the second and third parts in a series of blogs Nourishing the Planet will be writing about workers in the food system. Nourishing the Planet research intern Ronit Ridberg recently spoke with Erik Nicholson, National VP of the United Farm Workers of America. In the first part of this two-part interview, Erik talks about the global agricultural system and the role American consumers play in it. Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

Name: Erik Nicholson

Affiliation: National Vice President, United Farm Workers of America; International director of the Guest Worker Membership Program. Founded in 1962 by Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers of America is the nation's first successful and largest farm workers union currently active in 10 states.

Location: Tacoma, Washington

Bio: Erik Nicholson has worked extensively on pesticide issues affecting farm workers and their families as well as child labor, housing, consumer outreach, education and legislative issues. He currently serves as one of two national farm worker representatives to the Environmental Protection Agency's national pesticide advisory committee, the Pesticide Program Dialog Committee.

Nicholson led the two-and-a-half year organizing campaign at the national guest worker labor-contracting firm Global Horizons, resulting in the first national guest worker union contract in the history of the United States. He currently is working to develop an international infrastructure to better advocate on behalf of guest workers.

Can you please contextualize the work you do, in what has become a global system of agriculture?

We are now importing the majority of the food we eat. The overwhelming majority of workers who harvest the food we eat in the United States are not from this country. And many if not most of the workers employed in the fields in the United States are displaced farmers from their own countries (mostly Mexico but not exclusively.)  So we're seeing that many of the same pressures and challenges that are facing farmers in the US are the very same ones that are displacing small farmers in the global South and resulting in them coming in search of employment to the United States, Canada, Australia, and European Union. At the same time, farmers and sometimes their spouses in the US are looking for second jobs in more urban settings.

When Vietnam entered the global market with coffee we saw an unprecedented exodus of coffee farmers out of eastern Mexico. When NAFTA was signed, mass exodus of corn farmers - so we see a direct correlation between these international trade policies and agricultural practices and kind of the global crisis of agriculture that we're facing.

Within that context you look at agriculture in the United States and pretty much anyone born in this country has no aspirations to work in the fields. And I think if we're honest with ourselves, the reason is because we all know the conditions are not good, the pay is pretty bad, and there's really no benefits. As a result we have depended on immigrant workers to come up and do the work that we haven't wanted to do. And so if you look at the history of the United Farm Workers, we've had workers literally from around the world as members - from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Yemen, African Americans and of course, Mexicans, Central Americans, and the internationalization of the work-force continues. We now have workers working under contract from Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, and it's very much become a global workforce that is harvesting the food we eat.

UFW recently hosted an international gathering of farm workers from 14 different countries. Can you share some of your impressions of that gathering?

It was just amazing to have people who are doing the same work we've been doing for fifty years in the United States, together in the same room. We were in awe of just how bad it is out there. We think it's bad here, and then you talk to folks from Ecuador or Peru, who come to the States telling us, "What are you guys complaining about? You don't know the half of it." And so as we really compared notes, the contexts were different but it was appalling just how bad it is for farm workers across the world. That was sobering.

But at the same time, it was tremendously exciting to meet people who give a damn, and who are actually out there in the trenches trying to make a difference. It was a very lively conversation. We did a lot of work just getting to know each other and the different contexts in which we're working and actively looking for ways to collaborate. One of the first things that came to mind for all of us was that we need to educate the world about how bad it is for farm workers and why everyone who eats should care! We've established relationships that have never existed before, and are actively working to build upon those to see what we can do for workers globally.

What do the popular "food movements" of today have to do with farm workers' rights, and how can individual consumers get more involved in supporting change around the world?

Just look at the whole conversation about "sustainability", the Buy Local fad, and that was preceded by the organic fad, and the whole mythology that was erected around those concepts that included somehow that workers were going to be treated better. When the reality is there are local farmers I would never ever in a million years buy something from, and gladly pay a premium to have it flown in 2000 miles because I know workers are treated well. And while workers aren't exposed to as many toxins in organics, there are still toxins in the organic world that are allowed, and organics does nothing on the labor front. So I think we need to make sure that labor is part of the equation.

I've found that people are frequently reluctant to dirty their hands because you're dealing with three very politically charged issues: the sustainability of small farmers, immigration policy, and labor. If you really want to stand with the people who are out there right now in the field, rather than projecting a better future theoretically, find out who's picking your food and how you can stand with them. Boycott Arizona and let your voice be heard that those types of laws are unacceptable. Support immigration reform, so we can provide legal status to the hundreds of thousands of people that put food on our table. And then really be an advocate to help support the people that are here, now, in their struggle to make a better life for themselves.

It is incumbent on us as people who care about food and care about the viability of small farmers, to understand that these realities are the same for hundreds if not millions of people worldwide.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing farm workers?

Two of the biggest issues are a lack of legal status and lack of economic viability. And so you have hundreds of thousands of people that we depend on, that have no vehicle currently to obtain legal status. And they're literally dying to be able to be here legally, but we've offered them no way to do it.

We find labor is still one of the few costs that growers consider to be a flexible cost, rather than a fixed cost. There's not a lot of space in terms of negotiating what you're going to pay for diesel fuel, or what the newest and greatest pesticides are going to cost, but there's a constant search for the cheapest labor. And as a result we continue to see, from our perspective, widespread violations of workers' rights in the fields. So things like 15 workers literally dropping dead in the fields in California, just under the administration of our current governor, due to farmers' failure to provide a shaded rest area and adequate drinking water. On top of that, and depending on who's statistics you're looking at, you add that agriculture has  a 4-7 times higher injury and fatality rate than non-agricultural industries, and you get a sense of just how bad it is out there.

We're not unsympathetic to the economic pressures that US producers are facing. But unfortunately the way that the response has been is for farm workers literally to subsidize the cost of our cheap food with their lives, with their family's well-being, and make this industry a profoundly unsustainable one. Documented or undocumented, the average wage in agriculture is somewhere between $15,000-18,000 a year. That's just not economically sustainable. So we've got to figure out a way that the folks that pick our food can have a true livelihood.

The other issue that I guess we shouldn't beat around the bush is, is race. It's not a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of people that work in the fields are people of color. I would put out that if we had a majority of Anglos out there, there would be an absolute outrage if 15 people dropped dead in the fields in California due to heat stress. But there's barely a sound made. So I think we've got some serious obstacles in terms of making sure that literally everybody is at the table in this conversation. We need to raise those sensibilities and the awareness that workers have an important voice - that is the foundation on which any kind of true sustainability in our food production has to be based.

What kinds of changes would you like to see in agricultural, labor, or immigration policies?

First of all, we need to break down the national barriers, and recognize that it is a global system, regardless of what we think about it. That is just a reality - people are in boats right now, crossing to the Canary Islands, they're in boats right now, crossing to the Dominican Republic and Haiti to Puerto Rico, and crossing the desert as we speak. And so the first thing we need to figure out is how to support those people who, due to primarily economic desperation, are searching for better lives for their families, and minimize the deaths, the debt peonage, the trafficking that's occurring.

We have got to start talking to each other across boundaries. Respect the national differences and the work, and how we do it, but understand for us and Mexico, we're tied at the hip. And so it's incumbent upon us to care about a small Mexican producer who's scrounging up $5000 to pay a recruiter so he can get a H2A guest worker visa, and then he shows up here and is subjected to slave-like conditions. That reality is bi-national, and our work needs to reflect that. So I think that's the first challenge.

The second challenge is to recognize that we have global opportunities as a result of this global system. We could work collaboratively to hold multinational companies accountable and raise the standards for workers and producers in all those countries. Same goes for supermarket chains: There are very few supermarket chains that are only active now in one country. Increasingly, they're active in a multitude of countries. That's an opportunity for us to approach those chains and say hey, it's not okay for you to be sourcing products from workers who are mistreated or held in debt peonage or worse. And to collaborate across borders to hold those supermarket chains accountable.

And then I think the third component is we've got to figure out a way to support these producers so their livelihoods can be sustainable. And that the workers they employ, regardless of the country, also have a sustainable future. Because at the end of the day, we need people to work the fields. And our perspective is it's a very dignified job and one of the most important jobs out there because absent those folks, we don't eat. But we've got to get to a point where at a minimum, those working in the fields need to earn a fair wage, get fair benefits, and have improved working condition. That's a responsibility that we all bear throughout the supply chain from consumers to retailers to farmers, all the way through. If we were to boil it down to economics and immigration, and be able to make changes there, that would revolutionize the industry.

To learn more about innovations in fighting for farm workers' rights and livelihoods, and how consumers can get involved, see Giving Farm Workers a Voice,  New Frontier Farmers and Processor Group: Reviving Farmland and Improving Livelihoods, Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees and Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Shayna Bailey

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 Burkina Faso 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.  Also, please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.

 

 

Locally Produced Crops for Locally Consumed Products

Cross posted from Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet.

In Zambia, sorghum-a drought resistant cereal that thrives in the country- was considered a "poor man's crop" in the past, often shunned by small-scale farmers for the more commercially viable maize. But an article in the June issue of Farming Matters explains how a Zambian brewery with a new brand of beer is changing the way small-scale farmers think about sorghum.

While most clear beers such as lagers and pilsners are made with expensive, imported malts, the Zambian Breweries' Eagle Lager is made from sorghum. A subsidiary of the South African-based SABMiller, Zambian Breweries purchases sorghum  from local farmers, increasing farmers' income and providing local grocery stores with an affordable lager.

To help farmers partner with the brewery, the Cooperative League of the United States of America (CLUSA), with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), provides loans for farmers' start-up expenses, as well as agricultural training to make sure their crops meet the brewery's quality standards. With CLUSA's support, the brewery gets a consistent supply of sorghum to produce its beer and farmers gain access to a secure market, a fixed price for their crop, and a consistent income.

To produce larger crop yields of higher quality sorghum, CLUSA and the brewery, encourage farmers to implement conservation agriculture-a combination of simple techniques such as minimal or zero-tillage, ground cover, crop rotation and inter-planting.  Conservation agriculture can reduce the need for inputs, including artificial fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. And it benefits the other crops farmers are growing by helping improve soil fertility, controlling pests and weeds, and improving water management. In Zambia, maize yields have been increased by 75 percent and cotton yields by 60 percent thanks to conservation agriculture. (See also: Using the Market to Create Resilient Agriculture Practices, To Improve Competitiveness of Rural Businesses, Linking Farmers to the Private Sector, and a Sustainable Calling Plan.)

While Zambia Breweries' collaboration with local farmers is working, not all partnerships between companies and farmers go so well. Without appropriate regulation, companies may take advantage of a monopoly; farmers can become indebted to the company and lose control of their farms and crops;  and A BIG financial incentive to grow a specific crop can threaten overall crop diversity.

But  in Zambia, more than 4,500 small-scale farmers in 14 districts are currently seeing an increase in their incomes due to their contract with Zambia Breweries. Recognizing the significance of this benefit, the Zambian government recently lowered taxes on Eagle Lager in order to encourage Zambian Breweries to continue working with local small-scale farmers.  And SABMiller is trying to form similar partnerships with sorghum farmers in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Mozambique.

To read more about how partnerships between local companies and small-scale farmers can improve livelihoods and provide other benefits to the environment and community see: Protecting Wildlife While Improving Food Security, Health, and Livelihoods, Improving African Women's Access to Agriculture Training Programs, and Using Small Businesses to Create Local Markets.

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 Burkina Faso 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.  Also, please don't hesitate to comment on our posts, we check them daily and look forward to an ongoing discussion with you.

 

 

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