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Local Innovation to Help Nourish the Planet

Sunday 16 January 2011
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Perhaps the most dominant question in global environment and development discussions these days is how the world will feed 9 billion people by 2050. This question has become even more prominent given that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Food Prices Index reached a record high for the third month in succession in December 2010.


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The integrated index (which takes into account commodity prices for meat, dairy, cereals, oils and fats, and sugar) has now reached a value of 215, well above the last record high of 181 registered at the height of the 2008 food price crisis.

However, according to the World Bank the situation is not currently quite as dire as it was in 2008 because, as chronicled in the organisations just-released Global Economic Prospects 2011, developing countries have recovered better from the global financial crisis than high-income ones and are expected to contribute 46% of the global economy’s growth this year. According to the report, in many economies, dollar depreciation, improved local conditions, and rising prices for goods and services means that the real price of food has not risen as much as the US dollar price of internationally traded food commodities. Nonetheless, the rapid increases are of concern as they obviously represent an unneeded setback for many (such as in rural Uganda).

On the solutions front, much of the global discourse on food security has revolved around the feasibility of unleashing a second fertilizer and biotechnology-reliant green revolution. There are, of course, a wide spectrum of viewpoints held about this question.

Broadly, however, we can say that on one side of the debate are initiatives like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. On the other side of the debate sit activists like Indian ecologist/feminist/physicist/philosopher Vandana Shiva and members of Slow Food International who believe a sustainable and prosperous future lies in more traditional and organic forms of agriculture.

Global nourishment

In attempting to answer the question of how to feed the 9 billion, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute on Wednesday launched its flagship report State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.

According to the 37-year-old organisation, this compendium “provides a practical vision of the innovations that will allow billions of people to feed themselves, while restoring rural economies, creating livelihoods, and sustaining the natural resources base on which agriculture depends”.

The report brings together 20 truly diverse food policy thinkers with a myriad of viewpoints. To illustrate this diversity, even though the report is produced with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,  Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity Secretary General Serena Milano has contributed a chapter entitled Safeguarding Local Food Biodiversity.

Putting aside, for a moment, attempts to understand the causes or project the outcome of any future global food crises, Our World 2.0 would like to share some inspiring examples of agricultural innovation compiled by Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet blog. Here are three stories we like from the blog’s What Works series.


From one farmer to another

As the global community spends fortunes looking for silver-bullet, high technology solutions to end hunger and poverty, African-led innovations are already helping farmers address these issues across the continent. Farmers know what they need and are sharing solutions with each other — farmer to farmer.

By supporting farmer-led knowledge sharing, governments, development, and aid organizations can help them value — and invest in — their own local knowledge.

The Africa Rice Centre (AfricaRice), for example, has developed a simple solution to help farmers share knowledge: farmer to farmer videos. From Bangladesh to Benin, farmers are developing different solutions to improve the process of rice production. AfricaRice has developed an instructional video series with farmers demonstrating techniques on film. The videos include demonstrations of seed sorting by flotation, drying, and preservation in Bangladesh; improving rice quality and parboiling in Benin; land preparation for rice planting in Burkina Faso; and seedbed preparation, transplanting, weeding and soil fertility management in Mali.

A farmer to farmer instructional video series includes demonstrations like seed sorting by flotation, drying, and preservation in Bangladesh; and seedbed preparation, transplanting, weeding and soil fertility management in Mali.

In collaboration with Farm Radio International (FRI), the videos were also used for radio scripts.  The scripts were sent to more than 300 rural radio stations, making the videos more widely known and linking distant farmers with common interests.

In Maputo, Mozambique, Prolinnova, Spanish NGO Centro de Iniciativas para la Cooperación (Batá), and the National Farmers Union of Mozambique (UNAC) organized a workshop for farmers to share their experiences and learn from each other about different innovations they were practicing in their communities.

Energindo Paulo from Nicassa province, for example, was there to explain how to make and use natural, non-toxic pesticides from Neem tree leaves to protect crops. Other farmers talked about how to prevent crop disease and how to raise farmed fish.

Prolinnova, Batá, and UNAC plan to identify 12 to 14 practices highlighted in the workshop for a book to be translated into three of Mozambique’s languages, helping farmers’ innovations spread throughout the country.

At their training centre 35 miles outside of Bamako, ECOVA MALI is encouraging farmers to use environmentally sustainable agricultural techniques by sharing home grown knowledge. By building local expertise, ECOVA is helping farmers get the skills they need to be better stewards of the environment, as well as better businesswomen and men.

Local experts teach farmers about intercropping, water conservation, agroforestry, seed saving, processing shea butter, and other practices that are both eco-friendly and profitable. ECOVA holds workshops based on requests from farmer communities on topics like basic business, accounting, and marketing skills. They also provide small loans and “mini-grants” to allow farmers to buy tools and equipment they need to start businesses.

(The above example was written by Matt Styslinger.)


Improving food production from livestock

For most of these African farmers, in fact for most poor people in the world, meat is a luxury — the average person in the developing world eats just over 30 kilograms of meat a year. But with global population expected to reach over nine billion by 2050 and demand for animal foods in developing countries projected to double over the next 20 years, livestock production is becoming agriculture’s most economically important subsector.

Meeting protein demands, while also adapting to climate change, will require livestock keepers to come up with creative, sustainable ways to adapt their production practices.

The development of teams of community-based animal health workers is a promising innovation in many poor livestock-keeping communities. Vaccines that allow disease control officers to “differentiate infected from vaccinated animals” — known as DIVA vaccines — and traditional knowledge has improved disease surveillance. Somali and Maasai herders in East Africa, for example, are accurately recognizing symptoms of Rift Valley fever, such as high abortion rates.

Meeting protein demands, while also adapting to climate change, will require livestock keepers to come up with creative, sustainable ways to adapt their production practices.

Herders in Kenya’s arid north can now purchase insurance policies for their livestock, based on a new program that anticipates — through satellite imagery of grass and other vegetation — whether drought will put their animals at risk of starvation. Payments to livestock herders and others for environmental services — such as maintaining populations of wild animals and other forms of biodiversity or storing carbon — represent major opportunities to help poor households diversify their livelihoods and increase their income.

Innovations in the use of feed are helping farmers raise livestock more sustainably. Feed blocks made from crop residues and agro-industrial by-products are becoming more widely available among poor farmers in Africa. In India, farmers are trying to improve the quality of their feed — by using grass, sorghum stover, and bran, for example — to produce more milk with fewer animals.

(This example was written by Matt Styslinger.)

Feeding cities

While much of the focus on agricultural innovations is on how to support rural farmers, today more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. And while agriculture is usually associated with rural areas, over 800 million people worldwide depend on food grown in cities for most of their diet.

Currently, the majority of urban farmers live in Asia, but as Africa’s cities continue to grow — by 14 million people every year — they are increasingly becoming centres for food production and innovation.

In Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, women are not only producing enough food to feed their families, they are also able to sell the surplus and earn an income. With the help of the non-profits Urban Harvest and Soladarités, women are growing spinach and other crops in sacks full of dirt that they poke full of holes and plant seeds. They are also growing gardens in abandoned plots of land, collecting and saving the seeds, and sharing them with other farmers in the area.

In 2007 and 2008, when there was conflict in the city and all roads were shut down, preventing any food from being brought in or out, most of the families did not go hungry because they were growing food in sacks, vacant lots, or elsewhere.

Currently, the majority of urban farmers live in Asia, but as Africa’s cities continue to grow they are increasingly becoming centres for food production and innovation.

In the settlements outside Cape Town, South Africa — where almost 40 percent of the over 1 million people living in the makeshift huts and abandoned buildings are unemployed — one organization, Abalimi Bezekhaya, is helping to create a community of farmers. Providing training and materials, Abalimi Bezekhaya helps people to turn school yards and empty plots of land into gardens. Each garden is run by 6 to 8 farmers who, with support and time, are soon able to produce enough food to feed their families.

With support from the Ackerman Pick n’Pay Foundation, and in partnership with the South African Institute of Entrepreneurship (SAIE) and the Business Place Philippi, Abalimi Bezekhaya founded Harvest of Hope (HoH) in 2008. Now, HoH purchases the surplus crops from 14 groups of farmers working in Abalimi Bezekhaya’s community plots, packages them in boxes and sells them in Cape Town, providing an additional income for the settlement farmers and fresh produce for families in the city.

In Accra, Ghana, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a non-profit organization working in Asia and Africa to improve water and land management for farmers and the environment, is working with farmers to increase harvests and improve sanitation. Many urban farmers use waste water to irrigate their crops and to clean their produce, causing a sanitation concern.

IWMI’s extension workers are meeting with urban farmers to discuss simple and affordable steps that can be taken to reduce waste water contamination during planting and harvesting, as well as when crops are taken to markets to be sold.

Urban farmers in Accra are now irrigating with water collected in “waste sedimentation ponds” — ponds built specifically to allow sediment to sink to the bottom so farmers can irrigate with the cleaner surface water — and with simple containers of filtered water. Some are now also using drip irrigation from kits produced by International Development Enterprises, allowing them to use water more precisely and to conserve clean water (see also Slow and Steady Irrigation Wins the Race).

(The above example was written by Danielle Nierenberg.)

These initiatives are proof that diverse food producing communities are using local know-how and passion to alleviate themselves from hunger. Do you know of any other examples, perhaps outside of the media spotlight, of citizens working together to nourish the planet?

Certainly the local food solutions above may not be silver bullet solutions in themselves. However, they could be part of a menu of tried and tested ideas from which communities and policy-makers can learn about and adapt for their own unique environments.

The alternative is to continue to wait for national governments, international institutions and large agricultural corporations to figure out how to fix a broken global system that they themselves have created. Metaphorically, by the time real reform happens, everybody’s food would have gone cold. But in reality, for some people, that could mean no nourishment at all.

Article by Mark Notaras, Matt Styslinger and Danielle Nierenberg. Originally published on January 14, 2011 on Our World 2.0.

This story has been published under a Creative Commons license. You are free to re-publish this article provided the original authors and publishers are attributed correctly. The article may not be used for any commercial gains. To view the full legal license, click the banner below.


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