“Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group” is a regular series where we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we’re featuring Sara J. Scherr, who is the President and CEO of Ecoagriculture Partners.

Sara Scherr

Name: Sara J. Scherr

AffiliationEcoagriculture Partners

Location: Washington DC, United States

Bio: Sara J. Scherr is an agricultural and natural resource economist specializing in land management and policy in tropical developing countries. She’s the founder of Ecoagriculture Partners and currently serves as its President and CEO.

Recent workWorldwatch Report: Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use; Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture

On Nourishing the Planet: Nourishing the Planet will stimulate much-needed dialogue, among diverse groups, about the ways we can and should supply our food as population grows, climate patterns shift, and agricultural land use becomes more critical to healthy and resilient ecosystems.

What is the relationship between forest management and agriculture? Most rural landscapes are dynamic mosaics of forest and agricultural land uses. It is difficult to plan for the future of either farmlands or forests without thinking about their relationship. Agricultural development is the main driver of forest conversion, not just on the so-called ”agricultural frontier”, but within long-settled agricultural landscapes that are losing remaining habitat networks that are critical for biodiversity and watershed management. A key strategy for saving forest biodiversity and ecosystem services is to modify agricultural production systems to support those services. Meanwhile, well-managed forest in critical areas can benefit farming by protecting watersheds, providing farm inputs, moderating micro-climate, reducing flood risks, etc.

What role can agriculture play in climate change mitigation? Agriculture plays a pivotal role in climate change mitigation. To begin with, agriculture is responsible for a sizable share of total global emissions, so reducing emissions from farming is essential. Key ways of doing that are to reduce and improve efficiency of fertilizer use, to reduce use of fire as a practice, to minimize conversion of high-carbon vegetation to annual crops, to reduce tillage, and to improve livestock manure management. But at the same time, there is huge potential in the agriculture and land use sector to mitigate climate change through large-scale carbon sequestration, in ways that also improve production. Major mechanisms include increasing soil organic matter and soil vegetative cover; increasing the proportion of land planted to perennial crops and grasses that sequester and store carbon in roots and stems; improving pasture management; and restoring degraded watersheds through re-vegetation.

What immediate steps would you like to see taken to better integrate conscientious land use in agriculture? The single most important action—on the ground—would be to mobilize stakeholders from agriculture, environment and other key sectors in agricultural landscapes to establish platforms for dialogue and collaborative planning to find ways to meet agricultural production and income challenges while also sustaining ecosystems and biodiversity. The second most important action—in the policy arena—is to establish mechanisms for cross-sectoral policy and program planning across agriculture, water, environment, rural development, climate, etc. to identify areas where these need to be aligned, where they need to be coordinated and where they need to integrated to achieve multiple goals on the land.

Can you give an example from your research of a situation where farmers and the environment were equally benefiting from environmentally sustainable land use practices? We have identified many dozens of landscapes around the world where collaborative efforts to promote farm production and livelihoods and conserve key environmental values have been documented to achieve goals. Take a look at the Ecoagriculture Partners website in the section called “snapshots” for more examples.

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Treadle pumps are foot-powered pumps that sit on top of a well and irrigate small plots of land. (Photo: IDE)

In 1999, when he purchased his first treadle pump, Robert Mwanza, a farmer in Lusaka, Zambia, was struggling to make ends meet and without reliable access to water. As his country dealt with drought and economic weakness, Robert lacked the necessary resources to irrigate his farm and “couldn’t grow enough to eat, let alone sell.” 

Access to water is a luxury that many rural households, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, do not have. Farmers must often travel long distances to collect water from streams or public wells, making it impossible to irrigate crops or have enough water for cooking and bathing.

But affordable technologies such as the treadle pump (a foot-powered pump that sits on top of a well and irrigates small plots of land), the rope pump (a manually powered alternative to the treadle pump), and a variety of water storage systems (made of plastic and used as sources for sprinkler or drip irrigation systems) are changing all of that. The systems are developed and supported by International Development Enterprises (IDE), an organization working to improve the livelihoods of farmers in 13 countries in Asia and Africa through improved agriculture technology and market access. (See also: Harnessing Too Much of a Good Thing, Addressing Soil Erosion to Improve Production, Income, and Nutrition, and Persistently Innovative: One Farmer Teaches by Example.)

IDE is making irrigation more efficient by combining technology specially designed to address the needs of small-scale farmers with on-the-ground support staff to provide training and education. This allows farmers to expand their farms, feed their families, and earn a profit from selling surplus crops.

After just two years of improved irrigation provided by a treadle pump, Robert Mwanza grew more than enough vegetables to feed his wife and eight children. He also earned enough money to purchase an additional pump, doubling the amount of land he could irrigate. He recruited his brother, Andrew Mwanza, to work the additional pump, and in three years, with the help of IDE field staff, Robert began to sell his produce to Agriflora, a company that exports high-quality vegetables to Europe. Now the two brothers are growing enough vegetables to afford a motorized petrol pump for $750, further reducing the labor required to increase production.

To read more about the importance of getting water to crops, as well as other examples of innovations that help farmers do this, see: Innovation of the Week: Water Harvesting, Weathering the Famine, and Persistently Innovative: One Farmer Teaches by Example.

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Have you ever wondered what an hour’s worth of paper grocery store bag usage looks like in America? Answer: like a forest.

Or how about the amount of plastic that enters the world’s oceans every hour? Chris Jordan described his art and the process behind it during the State of the World symposium. Below you can learn about this and how Chris uses art to take truly incomprehensible numbers–the amount of stuff we use in consumer cultures–and makes these numbers into tangible, and surprisingly beautiful, works of art.

Chris continues, detailing his trip to Midway island to look at the more visible effects of our plastic litter.

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(Photo: Bernard Pollack)

(Photo: Bernard Pollack)

By Abby Massey

Noting that “1 billion people now suffer from hunger, the highest number in human history,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the urgent need to focus on the eradication of global hunger and poverty in a speech to the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) Governing Council in Rome on February 17, 2010. Although global agricultural funding increased last year, Mr. Ban called on even more resources to be directed toward innovations and technologies that will help improve food security (for examples of such innovations and technologies, see Farmers Learning From Farmers, Breeding Vegetables with Farmers in Mind, and Malawi’s Real Miracle). Ban also highlighted the importance of building partnerships with small-scale farmers and rural producers who will play an important role in the fight to alleviate poverty and hunger worldwide. For examples of ways that agriculture innovations can help mitigate hunger and poverty, see Investing in Urban Agriculture, How to Keep Kids ‘Down on the Farm,’ and Teacher Turned Farmer. . . Turned Teacher.

Abby Massey is a Food & Agriculture Intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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This is the first in a series of blogs where we’ll be asking policy makers, politicians, non-profit and organizational leaders, journalists, celebrities, chefs, musicians, and farmers to share their thoughts—and hopes—for agricultural development in Africa.

 

U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles Ray.

U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles Ray.

Last week, I had the privilege of meeting with the new U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles Ray. Ambassador Ray was gracious enough to take the time to answer my questions about agricultural development in a country facing political turmoil, high unemployment, and high food prices. 

What do you think is needed in Zimbabwe to both improve food security and farmers incomes?

Over the past decade, Zimbabwean small holder farmers have endured a litany of economic, political, and social shocks as well as several droughts and floods resulting in the loss of their livelihoods and food security. Poverty for small holder farmers has greatly increased throughout the country.

In order to restore farmers’ livelihoods they need to be supported in a process of sustainable private sector-driven agricultural recovery to achieve tangible household-level impact in food security and generate more household income, as well to promote more rural employment.

The U.S. government through USAID is doing this by supporting programs that provide effective rural extension, trainings and demonstration farms in order to improve farm management by small holder producers. The programs also include support for inputs and market linkages between the farmers and agro-processers, exporters and buyers. These programs are broad-based and cover all communal small holder farmers throughout the country.

The result of this work is increased production, and productivity, lowered crop production costs and losses, improved product quality, and production mix and increasing on-farm value-adding. Together these programs are increasing food security and farmer’s incomes as well as generating more farmer income and rural employment of agro-business.

At present, the U.S. is the largest provider of direct food aid in Zimbabwe. We are working with our partners to move from food aid to food security assistance which will use more market oriented approaches and combine livelihoods programs as noted above, which will reduce the need for food distribution.

Do you think Zimbabwe needs more private sector investment? If so, what are ways the U.S. government and other donors can help encourage both domestic and foreign investment?

Zimbabwe certainly needs more foreign direct investment. There is little chance that the country can internally generate the investments required to promote the economic growth it needs without it. But it is the government of Zimbabwe that is responsible for creating the business enabling environment to attract investment including both foreign and national.

At present, much more needs to be done in policy and the legal and regulatory framework and in the rhetoric and actions by the government in order to create the environment conducive to attract investment. Without the clear will of the government to be FDI-friendly there is not much that the donors can do.

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Check out this opinion-editorial about a project I visited in Lilongwe, Malawi, published today in Wisconsin.

For the Wausau Daily Herald
By Danielle Nierenberg

Stacia and Kristof Nordin have an unusual backyard, and it looks a lot different from the Edgar yard in which Kristof grew up.

Rather than the typical bare dirt patch of land that most Malawians sweep “clean” every day, the Nordins have more than 200 varieties of mostly indigenous vegetables growing organically around their house. They came to Malawi in 1997 as Peace Corps volunteers, but now call Malawi home. Stacia is a technical adviser to the Malawi Ministry of Education, working to sensitize both policymakers and citizens about the importance of using indigenous foods and permaculture to improve livelihoods and nutrition. Kristof is a community educator who works to train people at all levels of Malawian society in low-input and sustainable agricultural practices.

The Nordins use their home as a demonstration plot for permaculture methods that incorporate composting, water harvesting, intercropping and other methods that help build organic matter in soils, conserve water, and protect agricultural diversity. Most Malawians think of traditional foods, such as amaranth and African eggplant, as poor-people foods grown by “bad” farmers. But these crops might hold the key for solving hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Malawi — as well as in other African countries.

Nowhere needs the help more than Malawi, a nation of 14 million in southeast Africa that is among the least developed and most densely populated on Earth.

The country might be best known for the so-called “Malawi Miracle.” Five years ago, the government decided to do something controversial and provide fertilizer subsidies to farmers to grow maize. Since then, maize production has tripled and Malawi has been touted as an agricultural success story.

But the way they are refining that corn, says Kristof, makes it “kind of like Wonder Bread,” leaving it with just two or three nutrients. Traditional varieties of corn, which aren’t usually so highly processed, are more nutritious and don’t require as much artificial fertilizer as do hybrid varieties.

“Forty-eight percent of the country’s children are still nutritionally stunted, even with the so-called miracle,” Kristof says.
Rather than focusing on just planting maize — a crop that is not native to Africa — the Nordins advise farmers with whom they work that there is “no miracle plant — just plant them all.” Research has shown that Malawi has more than 600 indigenous and naturalized food plants to choose from. Maize, ironically, is one of the least suited to this region because it’s highly susceptible to pests, disease and erratic rainfall patterns.

Unfortunately, the “fixation on just one crop,” says Kristof, means that traditional varieties of foods are going extinct — crops that already are adapted to drought and heat, traits that become especially important as agriculture copes with climate change.

“Design,” says Kristof, “is key in permaculture,” meaning that everything from garden beds to the edible fish pond to the composting toilet have an important role on their property. And although their neighbors have been skeptical, they’re impressed by the quantity — and diversity — of food grown by the family. More than 200 indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown on their small plot of land, providing a year-round supply of food to the Nordins and their neighbors.

In addition, they’re creating a “model village” by training several families who rent houses on the property,) to practice and teach others about the permaculture techniques that they use around their homes. They also have built an “edible playground,” where children can play, eat and learn about various indigenous fruits.

More important, the Nordins are showing that by not sweeping, burning and removing all organic matter, people can get more out of the land than just maize and reduce their dependence on high-cost agricultural inputs in the process.

And indigenous crops can be an important source of income for farmers. Rather than import amaranth, sorghum, spices, tamarinds and other products from India, South Africa and other countries, the Nordins are helping farmers find ways to market seeds, as well as value-added products, from local resources. These efforts not only provide income and nutrition, but fight the “stigma that anything Malawian isn’t good enough,” says Kristof. “The solutions,” he says, “are literally staring us in the face.”

And as a visitor walked around seeing and tasting the various crops at the Nordins’ home, it became obvious that maize is not Malawi’s only miracle.

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IRRI researchers examine a wild rice variety in the Philippines. (Photo: IRRI)

IRRI researchers examine a wild rice variety in the Philippines. (Photo: IRRI)

By Sara Delaney

At the launch of the new book Science and Innovation for Development on 19 January, co-author Sir Gordon Conway said: “It doesn’t matter where the technology comes from, it matters that it is appropriate.”

Too often international development researchers, policymakers, and practitioners get caught up in the source of a technology, and use this as the metric for whether it will be successful. The way a technology is designed, the country it comes from, the type of institution that produced it—while all important considerations—are not as important as whether the product is appropriate.

An appropriate technology is accessible, affordable, easy-to-use and maintain, effective—j and most importantly, it serves a real need.

A rice seed, for example, that has been bred or engineered to mature faster can be appropriate anywhere the variety thrives. Local farmers have a need for such characteristics and will usually want to buy this seed, regardless of whether it comes from local seed breeding and seed saving efforts or from global centers like the International Rice Research Institute.

Many scientists and policymakers in developed countries also often hold on to the idea that you can’t apply different types of technology to the same problem. In fact, this is often exactly what is needed.

For example, in drought-prone areas, where farmers deal with persistent and increasing water shortages, they need “traditional” water conservation techniques and planting methods such as the zai system in West Africa, where farmers use small holes filled with manure and the extensive underground termite tunnels that result, to both capture water and recycle soil nutrients.

But there are also “intermediate” technologies such as drip irrigation, where plastic tubing is used to apply small amounts of water to each individual plant, and existing and upcoming “new platform” technologies, such as cereal varieties that are genetically modified to survive, and even prosper, in drought conditions.

Farmers should have access to all types of solutions. In fact, farmers around the

 world are constantly looking for ways to tweak, invest in, and improve their land and what it yields. And they are often positioned to pick and choose the best combination for their own field, and adapt and innovate as conditions change.

Women weeding a field in Mali. (Photo: Jessie Canon)

Women weeding a field in Mali. (Photo: Jessie Canon)

I came across a telling example of the strong bias that some hold for particular sources of technology at a recent plant biotechnology conference. A number of presenters at the event introduced the methods they had been working on to control weeds, in particular the parasitic weed Striga.

On one side was the biological systems approach: intercropping the maize crop with plants that suppress Striga. The other side advocated a technological solution: breeding resistance to the herbicide that kills the weed into the maize seeds themselves, so that the seeds can be dipped into the herbicide. The treated maize seeds kill the parasitic seeds in the ground, allowing the maize to grow and the environmental impact to be minimized.

Both systems have drawbacks—more labor and skilled management needed for biological control, and higher research costs and risk of resistance developing for the seed modification approach.

So why not use both? Why not work together?

Instead, I saw the two sides actively arguing. Then, when another presenter introduced the idea of increasing the use of conventional herbicides in Africa, it was met with immediate derision, due partly to the source of the herbicides (U.S. manufacturers). Most did not consider the fact that, if applied in an educated and selective manner, conventional herbicides may be a great tool for poor farmers.

But this may be changing. As Science and Innovation for Development’s other co-author Jeff Waage stated in the book: “Between the extremes of a technological ’silver bullet’ approach to development science, and the belief that local and intermediate technologies are the only legitimate approach, there is emerging today a new community of scientists dedicated to an inclusive view of appropriate science for development.” 

Sara Delaney joined Imperial College in July 2009 to work on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded project “Africa and Europe: Partnerships in Food and Farming.” She is assisting Gordon Conway with the writing of a second edition of his 1999 book The Doubly Green Revolution. She recently completed work with the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) and the London International Development Centre (LIDC), supporting publication of the book Science and Innovation for Development. Sara studied biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University and Science, Society and Development at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). From 2005–07 she served as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, working in the water and sanitation sector. 

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Check out this opinion-editorial about a project I visited in Lilongwe, Malawi, published today in Wisconsin

For the Wausau Daily Herald
By Danielle Nierenberg

Stacia and Kristof Nordin have an unusual backyard, and it looks a lot different from the Edgar yard in which Kristof grew up.

Rather than the typical bare dirt patch of land that most Malawians sweep “clean” every day, the Nordins have more than 200 varieties of mostly indigenous vegetables growing organically around their house. They came to Malawi in 1997 as Peace Corps volunteers, but now call Malawi home. Stacia is a technical adviser to the Malawi Ministry of Education, working to sensitize both policymakers and citizens about the importance of using indigenous foods and permaculture to improve livelihoods and nutrition. Kristof is a community educator who works to train people at all levels of Malawian society in low-input and sustainable agricultural practices.

The Nordins use their home as a demonstration plot for permaculture methods that incorporate composting, water harvesting, intercropping and other methods that help build organic matter in soils, conserve water, and protect agricultural diversity. Most Malawians think of traditional foods, such as amaranth and African eggplant, as poor-people foods grown by “bad” farmers. But these crops might hold the key for solving hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Malawi — as well as in other African countries.

Nowhere needs the help more than Malawi, a nation of 14 million in southeast Africa that is among the least developed and most densely populated on Earth.

The country might be best known for the so-called “Malawi Miracle.” Five years ago, the government decided to do something controversial and provide fertilizer subsidies to farmers to grow maize. Since then, maize production has tripled and Malawi has been touted as an agricultural success story.

But the way they are refining that corn, says Kristof, makes it “kind of like Wonder Bread,” leaving it with just two or three nutrients. Traditional varieties of corn, which aren’t usually so highly processed, are more nutritious and don’t require as much artificial fertilizer as do hybrid varieties.

“Forty-eight percent of the country’s children are still nutritionally stunted, even with the so-called miracle,” Kristof says.
Rather than focusing on just planting maize — a crop that is not native to Africa — the Nordins advise farmers with whom they work that there is “no miracle plant — just plant them all.” Research has shown that Malawi has more than 600 indigenous and naturalized food plants to choose from. Maize, ironically, is one of the least suited to this region because it’s highly susceptible to pests, disease and erratic rainfall patterns.

Unfortunately, the “fixation on just one crop,” says Kristof, means that traditional varieties of foods are going extinct — crops that already are adapted to drought and heat, traits that become especially important as agriculture copes with climate change.

“Design,” says Kristof, “is key in permaculture,” meaning that everything from garden beds to the edible fish pond to the composting toilet have an important role on their property. And although their neighbors have been skeptical, they’re impressed by the quantity — and diversity — of food grown by the family. More than 200 indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown on their small plot of land, providing a year-round supply of food to the Nordins and their neighbors.

In addition, they’re creating a “model village” by training several families who rent houses on the property,) to practice and teach others about the permaculture techniques that they use around their homes. They also have built an “edible playground,” where children can play, eat and learn about various indigenous fruits.

More important, the Nordins are showing that by not sweeping, burning and removing all organic matter, people can get more out of the land than just maize and reduce their dependence on high-cost agricultural inputs in the process.

And indigenous crops can be an important source of income for farmers. Rather than import amaranth, sorghum, spices, tamarinds and other products from India, South Africa and other countries, the Nordins are helping farmers find ways to market seeds, as well as value-added products, from local resources. These efforts not only provide income and nutrition, but fight the “stigma that anything Malawian isn’t good enough,” says Kristof. “The solutions,” he says, “are literally staring us in the face.”

And as a visitor walked around seeing and tasting the various crops at the Nordins’ home, it became obvious that maize is not Malawi’s only miracle.

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The controversy and confusion following December’s UN Climate Conference has somehow cast a dark shadow over the city of Copenhagen, the UNFCCC, and the IPCC. As if those three things were the source of all our climate woes, people are now asking “What went wrong in Copenhagen?” and “How do we fix the UNFCCC?”, and critics are picking at every single IPCC chart, graph, and personage.

An Alternative Climate Conference in Copenhagen

But those measures fail to get at the root -causes of climate change, which run much deeper than   any set of charts and graphs or could possibly communicate. That’s because the cause is us – humans. It’s our individual habits and consumption patterns repeated billions of times throughout the population that is creating ecological change on a global scale.

While these root causes of climate change received little attention inside the Bella Center, the discussion was not absent in Copenhagen. Klimabundmøde – “The Climate Bottom Meeting” – was a conference held during the same two weeks as the UN Conference and hosted by a coalition of groups dedicated to environmentally sustainable communities. These included The Danish Association for Eco-villages, and the Global Eco-village Network.

You may be a bit confused about the name “Climate Bottom Meeting” – as I was. I think the name was a bit lost in translation. Something like “Root-Causes Conference” or “Underground Climate Conference” would have been more accurate, if not more edgy. The conference aimed to “present a number of practical sustainable cities and eco-village initiatives around the world, showing different solutions to overcome the world’s ecological, social, spiritual and economic challenges.” Several European eco-village groups, topical experts, and many indigenous groups (in town for the big UN meeting) were invited to present in the Climate Bottom tent throughout the week. Their presentations were aimed at inspiring people to return to their own communities and implement some of the ideas they acquired. Daily themes ranged from, “Worldview, Culture, and Spirituality” to “The Ecological Footprint of Sustainable Energy.”  [The full program is here]

Though I only attended the Climate Bottom Meeting on two short occasions, I got enough of the feel to know that there was indeed a saving grace in Copenhagen – a discussion that really tried to get to the bottom of things and was both philosophical and practical.

The conference was held in Freetown Christiania, the distinctive Copenhagen neighborhood with a commune-like way of existence. Apparently the city of Copenhagen is actually restricted from enforcing certain laws within the area’s walls. As access to the Bella Center became increasingly restricted to government representatives and security personnel in the final days of COP15, some fellow Worldwatchers and I were naturally drawn to Christiania. It was there that we came across the big blue circus tent – the venue of the Climate Bottom Meeting.

Freetown Christiania is a neighborhood in downtown Copenhagen

Inside, a meal was being served, and a string instrument band played loudly in front of a crammed set of bleachers. When we were waved into the food line, my co-worker Ben asked the first person serving us, “So do you do this to support the community?”

“We are the community,” said the man filling our plates with pasta. “We’re supporting you.”

It felt good to uncover some local roots in Copenhagen.  I don’t know how such an intimate discussion could be brought to the forefront of climate action. Perhaps the narrow focus on climate statistics and UN funding mechanisms doesn’t fit at all into a community-level process like the Climate Bottom Meeting. I also don’t expect Mexico’s resort town of Cancun – the location of this year’s UN Climate Conference – to play host to many community-focused meetings, but perhaps we’ll soon have no choice but to start digging deep, and thinking locally about the global climate.

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(Photo: Bernard Pollack)

(Photo: Bernard Pollack)

Check out this Op-Ed written by Danielle Nierenberg and Abdou Tenkouano featured in the Kansas City Star on February 18, 2010.

As hunger and drought spread across Africa, a huge effort is underway to increase yields of staple crops, such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice.

While these crops are important for food security, providing much-needed calories, they don’t provide much protein, vitamin A, thiamin, niacin, and other important vitamins and micronutrients—or taste. Yet, none of the staple crops would be palatable without vegetables.

Vegetables are less risk-prone to drought than staple crops that stay in the field for longer periods. Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing time, they can maximize scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize, which need a lot of water and fertilizer.

Unfortunately, no country in Africa has a big focus on vegetable production. But that’s where AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center steps in. Since the 1990s, the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (based in Taiwan) has been working in Africa, with offices in Tanzania, Mali, Cameroon, and Madagascar, to breed cultivars that best suit farmers’ needs.

By listening to farmers and including them in breeding research, AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center is building a sustainable seed system in sub-Saharan Africa. The Center does this by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits—including resistance to disease and longer shelf life—and by bringing the farmers to the Regional Center in Arusha and to other offices across Africa to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market.

Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, is just one of many farmers who visits the Center, advising staff about which vegetable varieties would be best suited for his particular needs—including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.

The Center works with farmers to not only grow vegetables, but also to process and cook them. Often, vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, Mel Oluoch, a Liaison Officer with the Center’s Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (vBSS), works with women to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods by helping them develop shorter cooking times.

“Eating is believing,” says Oluoch, who adds that when people find out how much better the food tastes—and how much less fuel and time it takes to cook—they don’t need much convincing about the alternative methods.

Oluoch also trains both urban and rural farmers on seed production. “The sustainability of seed,” says Oluoch, “is not yet there in Africa.” In other words, farmers don’t have access to a reliable source of seed for indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, spider plant, cowpea, okra, moringa, and other crops.

Although many of these vegetables are typically thought of as weeds, not food, they are a vital source of nutrients for millions of people and can help alleviate hunger. Despite their value, these “weeds” are typically neglected on the international agricultural research agenda. As food prices continue to rise in Africa—in some countries food is 50-80 percent higher than in 2007—indigenous vegetables are becoming an integral part of home gardens.

The hardiness and drought-tolerance of traditional vegetables become increasingly important as climate change becomes more evident.

Many indigenous vegetables use less water than hybrid varieties and some are resistant to pests and disease, advantages that will command greater attention from farmers and policymakers, and make the work of AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center more urgent and necessary than ever before.

Abdou Tenkouano is director of the Regional Center for Africa of AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.

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