Sue Edwards, director of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD), picked us up from the ILRI campus in a big 4 X 4 truck, seemingly the preferred form of transportation for the bumpy streets of Addis. Our first stop was the ISD office, to meet with Hailu Araya, an ISD staff member, who thankfully was in charge of coordinating our trip to Aksum, a hotspot of farmer-led agricultural innovations in Ethiopia. Hailu quickly made a few phone calls, arranged our hotel/hostel (more about it later), gave us a brief run down of the practices on the farms we would be visiting (watershed management, integrated pest management, intercropping, mixed-crop livestock systems), and then we hopped back in the truck with Sue for a tour of the city and dinner at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant. One of the things you notice first cruising through Addis is the smell—it’s a mixture of wood burning and berbere, the fiery spice Ethiopians can’t get enough of that flavors everything from meat to vegetables.

We spent the evening eating and chatting about Ethiopian history and politics. The only downside is that Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, the head of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority, and Sue’s husband, couldn’t join us. Tewolde has been a long time environmental activist and leader in Ethiopia, winning the Right Livelihood Award in 2000 for his commitment to the precautionary principle and one of the winners of the United Nations Champions of the Earth award in 2006.

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Jacob Wanyama is Coordinator of the African LIFE Network in Kenya and a member of the Nourishing the Planet Project Advisory Group. After reading our post on Chinese investment in Ethiopian agriculture he sent us the following note:

Thanks for sharing your experience in Ethiopia on Chinese investment in Africa. What you have seen applies to every country where China is ”investing”. Suddenly, we are now seeing Chinese colors, idols, etc. in every part of the countries they are supporting. In Nairobi, for example, when you come into the city, you will surely be greeted with a huge monument with the words, “China and Kenya” written on it, spanning across the main highway from the airport and Mombasa–both of which are the main gateway into the hinterland of the country. And in Nairobi city itself you will be greeted at every entrance of major public places, such as supermarkets and recreation centers, with strange lion looking idols with strange inscriptions on them. Rumor has it that these too are a donation from China! A number of Kenyans I talked to recently expressed their deep concern as to whether our country is actually being auctioned off –material and soul.

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farmersoldier

A few miles away from Malede Abreha’s farm lives Abadi Redehey, a former soldier

A few miles away from Malede Abreha’s farm lives Abadi Redehey, a former soldier. Abadi, like the former American soldiers turned farmers we profiled a few weeks ago, finds a sense of peace and fulfillment in farming that he couldn’t find in the military—he told us there is nothing he would rather do than grow food.

Abadi moved his family onto some of the most inhospitable land for farming in the region. Because of underground springs the land was ironically too water-logged to farm. By building a series of underground canals that enter into two wells on the property, Abadi is now able to manage the amount of water available to crops on his farm. And the difference between his farm and a neighboring farm is easy to see—On Abadi’s side the corn is green and healthy, while on his neighbor’s side, the crops are shriveled from the lack of rain that has afflicted the region for nearly four years.

And like Malede, Abadi is also a farmer leader in Prolinnova’s group, teaching other farmers his practices and spreading innovations by example.

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Prolinnova isn’t the only foreign NGO working outside of Aksum. GTZ is also operating programs in the area, helping farmers develop erosion control systems, irrigation, and integrated pest management (IPM). The erosion here is phenomenal—we teetered over gulleys, some as much as 16 meters deep, which have developed over the years because of bad weather, overgrazing, and unsustainable cropping practices.

But over the last five years, GTZ has worked with farmers to develop intercropping systems, helping build soil fertility and prevent erosion by making sure that the soil is not left exposed. The group has also helped farmers develop zero-grazing systems—instead of allowing sheep, cattle, and goats to graze freely on already eroded land, further impacting the health of the soil and disrupting vegetation, animals are corralled or penned and farmers bring fodder, such as elephant grass, to them.

One of the farmer-leaders we sat with chatting in the shade, Hadegue Beyene, told us that before he started using intercropping, IPM, zero-grazing systems, and crop rotations, the soil wasn’t healthy and his family earned very little income. Today that’s changed. Not only is the soil healthier and erosion visibly reduced, but he estimates that on average he earns 3,000-4,000 Ethiopian Birr (ETB) annually from being able to sell tomatoes to the market. His children also all go to school now, which they couldn’t before. And, not surprisingly, the family eats better.

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My colleague Gary Gardner raised the issue of EROIs yesterday; here’s another two cents.

Everyone knows that it takes money to make money, but the same rule applies to a far more important commodity: energy. It takes energy to get energy. This idea is summed up in an increasingly important measure called the energy return on investment (EROI).

EROI reflects the fact that energy isn’t free. Even wind and sunlight, which are available for nothing, can’t be harnessed effectively without some sort of technology—whether it’s  as simple as a bit of cloth hung from a boat’s mast, or as complex as a huge hydroelectric facility, a windfarm, or a solar photovoltaic panel array. It takes energy to make the mast, the dam and its generators, the turbines, or the PV panels—sometimes vast amounts of energy. EROI is the ratio of the energy captured and made available by the hardware over its lifetime to the energy required to build, install, and maintain (and, sometimes, to decommission) the hardware.EROImajorfuelsv4

Why is this important? Because civilization runs on the surplus energy—what’s left over after we build, install, and maintain the hardware.

For most of human history, EROIs were very low, because there were no technologies (apart from a few waterwheels, windmills, and sailing ships) capable of extracting and using the stored energy in coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, sunlight, water, or wind. Civilization ran mostly on human and animal muscle power, and most of that was used just to grow the crops that fed the people and draft animals. The surplus energy was scant.

The industrial revolution changed all that. The invention of machines that ran on coal, (and then oil), and could be used to extract more coal and oil, unleashed a torrent of surplus energy. EROIs soared. As the table to the right (copied from this post to The Oil Drum) suggests, early in the oil age—the heyday of “gusher” fields like Spindletop in Texas—it took only 1 unit of energy to extract 100 units of energy.

Those days are gone, probably forever. Oil’s EROI is declining. Coal’s EROI is still pretty good, but coal is an environmental disaster. Big hydroelectric dams also have good EROIs, but the best sites have already been tapped and the dams have serious ecological problems of their own (including, often, significant greenhouse gas emissions). And while it’s absolutely critical to transition to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, their EROIs are not nearly as favorable. The surpluses we’ve become accustomed to will not be available. Energy will be scarcer and more expensive. Some people think this means economic transformation, because the globalized economy that brings American consumers blueberries from Argentina and bottled water from Fiji will contract sharply when transport costs rise. And since industrial agriculture depends heavily on cheap energy, food prices will probably increase as well.

There is a host of fascinating ramifications to this possibility. For now, suffice it to say that lunch was never free, but it might become more expensive than we like.

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photo credit: RUAF (http://ruaf.iwmi.org/project-overview.aspx)

photo credit: RUAF (http://ruaf.iwmi.org/project-overview.aspx)

Most people don’t usually associate agriculture with cities, but there are over 800 million people worldwide practicing urban farming. More people now live in cities than rural areas, making urban food security more important than ever before.

This increased urbanization typically means more poverty, more overcrowding, increased malnutrition, and water management problems. But farming in the cities can help alleviate many of these problems. A small garden can provide fresh produce for an urban family that might otherwise not have access to vegetables–most urban farmers use their harvest to supplement diets that are dependent on what is available at the market or store and what they can afford.

Farms are also innovative. Backyard gardens or roof top gardens, exposed directly to the sky, maximize water supply where there is often poor access to irrigation. Plastic buckets, tires, and other “trash” can be used to contain soil for smaller gardens. Integrated fish farming has even been used in some areas just outside of cities to both treat human waste and provide fish for human consumption.

While encouraging urban agriculture could help to improve nutrition, sanitation, and resource management in cities, there is often little institutional or official support for farmers in large cities. Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security (RUAF Foundation) introduced a program called Cities Farming for the Future in Accra, Ghana, in 2005, to promote “collaboration between urban authorities with citizens, farmers, civil organizations, private sector companies and other governmental entities in the preparation, implementation and evaluation of policies and related action plans.”

The result has been a general increased awareness of the role urban agriculture can play both in providing food and in creating a more sanitary and sustainable urban environment; increased and improved education regarding urban farming; increased government incentivizing of urban agriculture; a farmers’ association and recognition from the Ghana Agricultural Workers Union; revised agriculture bye-laws; and policy maker outreach.

RUAF is not alone in its work to make urban agriculture an integral part of city planning and infrastructure. The FAO Food for the Cities program promotes dialogue and partnerships between institutions, government agencies, and non-profits as well as grass-roots organizations regarding urban agriculture. And the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) created an initiative to gather and share information on urban agriculture called Urban Harvest. Urban Harvest also helps to create partnerships between national and international efforts to encourage the integration of city life and sustainable food production on a local level. Senior researcher Danielle Nierenberg will be visiting some of these Urban Harvest projects next week when she is in Nairobi, Kenya.

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farmerpriest1

Kes Malede Abreha, described by our guides/interpreters as a “farmer-priest”

We met Kes Malede Abreha, described by our guides/interpreters as a “farmer-priest,” on his farm near Aksum in the Central Zone of Tigray region. A small, wiry, soft-spoken man with a neatly trimmed beard, Kes Malede is one of the leading “farmer-innovators” in his community. Roughly eight years ago, he started digging for water on his very dry farm. His neighbors thought he was crazy, telling him he would never find water on the site. His wife even left him, moving their children into town.

But about 16 meters down, Kes Malede hit water. After his wife returned, he began sketching ways that would make it easier to “push” that water to the surface. He developed a series of pumps, improving on each one. The one he’s using now is built from inexpensive wood, iron, and metal piping, all available locally. It can push or lift water not only to the surface, but also through a system of hoses to irrigate his fruit trees and farm crops, including teff, sorghum, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

As part of a group of farmers who can apply for and receive funding for their innovations from the global, NGO-initiated organization, Prolinnova, Kes Malede is teaching other farmers in the community by example, showing them how small investments in technology can make a big difference on the farm.

Before he developed his water-management system, Kes Malede and his family lived in a one-room house and could grow only enough staple food to feed the household. Today, the family lives in a bigger house, grows a diversity of crops, and raises chickens, cattle, goats, and bees. Kes Malede’s investment in more beehives has not only provided income from honey production, but also helped pollinate his fruit and vegetable crops. He’s now helping other farmers—the same ones who thought he was crazy—by teaching them about his water lifting system and by selling modern, box-style beehives that allow farmers to both manage the bees better and harvest more honey.

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Danielle Nierenberg talks with Alan Duncan at the ILRI campus in Addis

Danielle Nierenberg talks with Alan Duncan at the ILRI campus in Addis

Worldwatch spent the last few months pulling together an Advisory Group for our Nourishing the Planet project, and last Friday we had the opportunity to meet two of the group’s members in person at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) campus in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Alan Duncan, a livestock scientist, and David Spielman, a Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), who has an office on the ILRI campus, gave us their thoughts about why they agreed to be part of NtP.  See below for video.   (Note:  due to technical difficulties, video of Alan Duncan is not available)

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My colleague Gary Gardner raised the issue of EROIs yesterday; here’s another two cents.

Everyone knows that it takes money to make money, but the same rule applies to a far more important commodity: energy. It takes energy to get energy. This idea is summed up in an increasingly important measure called the energy return on investment (EROI).

EROI reflects the fact that energy isn’t free. Even wind and sunlight, which are available for nothing, can’t be harnessed effectively without some sort of technology—whether it’s  as simple as a bit of cloth hung from a boat’s mast, or as complex as a huge hydroelectric facility, a windfarm, or a solar photovoltaic panel array. It takes energy to make the mast, the dam and its generators, the turbines, or the PV panels—sometimes vast amounts of energy. EROI is the ratio of the energy captured and made available by the hardware over its lifetime to the energy required to build, install, and maintain (and, sometimes, to decommission) the hardware.EROImajorfuelsv4

Why is this important? Because civilization runs on the surplus energy—what’s left over after we build, install, and maintain the hardware.

For most of human history, EROIs were very low, because there were no technologies (apart from a few waterwheels, windmills, and sailing ships) capable of extracting and using the stored energy in coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, sunlight, water, or wind. Civilization ran mostly on human and animal muscle power, and most of that was used just to grow the crops that fed the people and draft animals. The surplus energy was scant.

The industrial revolution changed all that. The invention of machines that ran on coal, (and then oil), and could be used to extract more coal and oil, unleashed a torrent of surplus energy. EROIs soared. As the table to the right (copied from this post to The Oil Drum) suggests, early in the oil age—the heyday of “gusher” fields like Spindletop in Texas—it took only 1 unit of energy to extract 100 units of energy.

Those days are gone, probably forever. Oil’s EROI is declining. Coal’s EROI is still pretty good, but coal is an environmental disaster. Big hydroelectric dams also have good EROIs, but the best sites have already been tapped and the dams have serious ecological problems of their own (including, often, significant greenhouse gas emissions). And while it’s absolutely critical to transition to renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar, their EROIs are not nearly as favorable. The surpluses we’ve become accustomed to will not be available. Energy will be scarcer and more expensive. Some people think this means economic transformation, because the globalized economy that brings American consumers blueberries from Argentina and bottled water from Fiji will contract sharply when transport costs rise. And since industrial agriculture depends heavily on cheap energy, food prices will probably increase as well.

There is a host of fascinating ramifications to this possibility. For now, suffice it to say that lunch was never free, but it might become more expensive than we like.

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Last week we responded to the article “Experts Worry About Feeding the World as Its Population Grows” (news article, Oct. 22).   Today, the New York Times printed our letter, which we’ve reposted below:

Dear Editor,

We agree that more agricultural investment is needed to help the billion people on the planet who are hungry. But solving hunger, particularly in Africa, is not an either-or scenario — either focus on seed breeding, artificial fertilizers and genetically modified crops to feed the world or rely on organic farming practices.

There is overwhelming evidence that a combination of approaches is more effective in terms of productivity, income generation and resilience than any one approach, including using conventional practices paired with agro-ecological approaches.

On heavily depleted soils across Africa, for instance, farmers often use some chemical fertilizer in the short term to take full advantage of composting, nitrogen-fixing crops and other agro-ecological approaches that boost yields over the long term.

Yes, more investment is needed from the international donor community to reduce the number of hungry, but we also need to break out of old ways of thinking that haven’t eliminated hunger in the past.

Brian Halweil
Danielle Nierenberg
Senior Researchers
Worldwatch Institute
Washington, Oct. 23, 2009

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