We Want Your Input

Kes Malede Abreha, an innovative farmer in Aksum, Ethiopia, demonstrates his self-designed irrigation system. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

For State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, we are still collecting examples of agricultural innovations that farmers and others might consider using to help alleviate hunger and poverty in the places most in need. By filling out our survey in either English or French, many of you have already helped us assess, and draw more attention to, the sorts of innovations that are currently used in fields, pastures, empty lots and backyards in sub-Saharan Africa, but that may need additional financial policy or support.

For example, we met with the World Vegetable Center in Tanzania; the International Rural Poulty Centre and Kyeema Foundation in Mozambique; the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) project in Uganda; and Never Ending Food in Malawi –all projects that will be featured in State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, and that have enhanced our knowledge of their work by filling out our survey.

If you know of an agriculture innovation and haven’t yet filled out our survey, we want your input, too!

Although our project is focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, we’re interested in examples from all over the world. Keep sending us your responses and we’ll keep posting some of the most interesting innovations!

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To Reduce Global Hunger, Small Wonders Are Happening Daily

A teacher at a school garden established to to improve nutrition, environmental awareness, and food traditions in Uganda. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

On Global Food for Thought last Friday, Roger Thurow, co-author of the book ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, emphasized the importance of “many small efforts” to reduce global hunger. In his regular column, “Outrage and Inspire,” Thurow presented examples of projects ranging from micro-finance (Opportunity International) to more affordable seed packages (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa). He encouraged funders and policymakers alike not to be daunted by the huge task of addressing world hunger and malnutrition, and to be inspired by and support the smaller projects that are already having success on the ground every day.

(To read about Nourishing the Planet’s visit with AGRA in Nairobi, Kenya, see: Looking for a Greener Revolution: Visit to AGRA, AGRA Sets the Record Straight, and Bringing Inputs to Farmers)

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The Mallport and the Bibliometro

As I travel around Europe to launch State of the World 2010, I’ve done a lot of schlepping from airport to metro station to bus terminal to train station. And while transiting through these many stations, I’ve discovered two surprising additions to station infrastructure that I hadn’t encountered in earlier travels.

First, the bad one: several of the airports I’ve visited have become more shopping mall than transit hall. Sure, airports have always had shops and restaurants, but this is the first time I’ve been forced to actually wind my way through stores because they were the only ways to the gate. Literally, the hallways are completely integrated with the shops, so passengers have no choice but to walk through stores selling duty-free alcohol, clothing, sweets, and perfume. In fact, as I walked to my gate, I often had to look carefully to figure out where to go next (and, of course, be exposed to several products that I didn’t realize I needed until I saw them).

The level of manipulation was truly amazing and was most striking in Copenhagen and Dusseldorf (Oslo, you get an honorable mention). In Barcelona’s airport, where I write this, it’s not as pronounced (at least here you can walk around the stores), but since the last time I was here in 2007, an entirely new terminal was created, seemingly to create a more open and more shopping-friendly space. It was just one more reminder of how ubiquitous the reinforcement of consumerism has become everywhere.


Madrid's Bibliometro

But now here’s the good discovery: When in Madrid, I saw another potential future of public transit centers. Not saturated with stores, but clean, simple places, with one central feature: The Bibliometro.

I had been so wary of little shops in every station that I had to stop and really study this Bibliometro closely to discover that it was not a bookstore, but a small library! In this unimposing structure (about 9 feet by 15 feet) were many books—mostly popular new releases—and a librarian.

What a perfect thing to put in a metro. No need to have huge libraries that are out of the way and cost municipalities significant funds in rent and maintenance, when instead you can have dozens of libraries exactly where thousands of people are moving through already everyday!

If there’s a certain book you want, order it and it can be in your home station in a few days. If you have 10 minutes because you missed the trainthat always seems to pull out of the station just as you arrive, simply browse through the new releases. If you finish the book on your commute home, then just drop it off at that Bibliometro (or any other one in the city). They’re all connected, after all, and the transferring of books should be no problem at all (as they’re right on the metro platform).

Map of Bibliometros in Madrid

Map of Bibliometros in Madrid

This isn’t to say that all city libraries should disappear. In Washington, D.C., they play many other roles than supplying books—including as job centers, learning centers for children, lecture spaces, and places that provide basic social services to D.C.’s large homeless population (from bathrooms, to a respite from the cold or heat, to access to the Internet and information). But for a dozen salaries and some small, inexpensive buildings—no heating, no need to protect them against the elements, and no rent as the city owns the metro system—we could increase library access dramatically, and with it, the frequency of reading.

This subtle “choice editing” might even have surprising side effects, like cutting down junk food consumption. When people are bored waiting for the metro, they often are lured by the hum and bright colors of a vending machine (fortunately not in D.C., though, as food is not allowed on the system). But for metros outfitted with candy machines, perhaps instead of stopping to get a Twinkie riders will instead go into the Bibliometro and get Twinkie Deconstructed .

As the final part of this vision (I might as well dream big), a sustainability theme could be embedded in many of the book choices and poster displays. Nothing heavy handed, but maybe include Walden in the small collection of books, a bit of poetry by Walt Whitman, some science fiction by Octavia Butler, the newest State of the World report, and a few books on social entrepreneurship. And, of course, some books about the value of social services like libraries, and how these depend on us paying our taxes. Maybe, slowly, these libraries can help remind us that taxes are what provide services like the Bibliometro, the metro itself, and clean running water and sewers—to name just a few.

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Improving Global Food Security with Focus on Agriculture

(Photo: Bernard Pollack)

A farmer in the village Akimoda, Ghana. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

Check out this article outlining the Obama Administration’s focus on agriculture to reduce hunger and malnutrition in Africa. Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the following remarks at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, further emphasizing the administration’s focus on agriculture as a means to alleviating global hunger and poverty, as well as improving livelihoods and whole economies (via The Chicago Council on Global Affairs):

“Our global food security program, which I previewed here at the United Nations last September, is a $3.5 billion commitment to strengthen the world’s food supply, so farmers can earn enough to support their families and food can be available more broadly. And women are integral to this mission. Most of the world’s food is grown, harvested, stored, and prepared by women, often in extremely difficult conditions…. Giving these women the tools and the training to grow more food and the opportunity to get that food to a market where it can be sold will have a transformative impact on their lives and it will grow the economies of so many countries.”

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Bringing High-Quality Food Aid Closer to Home

Danielle Nierenberg with Felix Edwards of the World Food Programme's Zambia P4P Program. (Photo: Bernard Pollack)

The highways in southern Africa are filled with trucks carrying food aid across the continent. In the past, much of the maize, rice, soy, and other foods loaded onto these trucks came not from African farmers, but from the United States. And while these shipments provided much needed calories to people in need, they also disrupted national and local markets by lowering prices for locally grown food.

But today, more and more of the crops providing food aid come from African farmers who are selling directly to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) through local procurement policies. In Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and several other nations in sub-Saharan Africa (as well as in Asia and Latin America), WFP is not only buying locally, but helping small farmers gain the skills necessary to be part of the global market.

The WFP’s Progress for Profit (P4P) program, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the Belgian government, is working with the private sector, governments, and NGOs to provide an incentive for farmers to improve their crop management skills and produce high-quality food, create a market for surplus crops from small and low-income farmers, and promote locally processing and packaging of products.

In Zambia, WFP buys food directly from the Zambia Agricultural Commodity Exchange while remaining “invisible,” says Felix Edwards of the Zambia P4P Program. This way, WFP Zambia doesn’t distort prices and helps create an alternative market for farmers. WFP also works through its partners, including USAID’s PROFIT program, to help farmers and farmer associations meet the quality standards required by the Exchange. As a result, they are preparing Zambian farmers to provide high-quality food aid not only to programs and consumers in their own country, but also potentially to growing regional and international markets.

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Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Jim De Vries

“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 Jim De Vries, who is Director of Heifer International’s Programs Division.

Jim De Vries congratulates a Heifer partner in Albania on her commitment to help another family.

Jim De Vries congratulates a Heifer partner in Albania on her commitment to help another family.

Name: Jim De Vries

Affiliation: Heifer International

Location: Little Rock, Arkansas, United States

Bio: Dr. James De Vries directs Heifer International’s Programs Division, which includes the areas of Africa, the Americas, Asia/South Pacific, and Central Eastern Europe. He provides leadership to the headquarters team as well as to Heifer’s on-the-ground staff around the world, developing and managing more than 770 projects through 53 country and regional offices.

On Nourishing the Planet: We are extremely interested in the work of Nourishing the Planet, since part of Heifer’s mission is “caring for the planet.” Sustainable farming practices are a key to the survival and well-being of the small-scale producers with whom we partner to help end poverty and hunger. We strongly believe that small-scale farmers and herders are guardians of our natural resource base, and that given the right knowledge and resources they will continue to cool the planet and provide food security for billions. Over the past decades, Heifer has witnessed the tremendous creativity, resilience, and energy of these farmers and their key role in nourishing the next generation and the resource base to sustain them. We are also witnessing many factors that threaten the continuation of smaller farms and local food systems, including the acquisition of huge tracts of land by foreign interests, and the spread of large scale “factory farming.” In this respect, the Nourishing the Planet effort is very timely and promising.

What is the philosophy behind Heifer International’s work? The principles that undergird and direct Heifer’s work are, first, that people should be empowered to provide for themselves and their families and communities. This is captured in one of our slogans: “not a cup but a cow.” In other words, people should have sustainable productive resources instead of handouts. Secondly those who are assisted should assist others. We capture this in the practice of “passing on the gift,” in which farmers who received assistance then help to nurture the next group by passing on livestock offspring and knowledge.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about livestock and greenhouse gas emissions. Can you discuss the difference between raising livestock on small-scale farms versus industrialized meat production? The FAO report Livestock’s Long Shadow brought attention to the impact of livestock production on greenhouse gases (GHG). While all livestock, and especially ruminant livestock, emit GHG, the net impact depends greatly on the production system. As documented in the report, large-scale intensive production systems are responsible for the bulk of GHG both directly due to the high grain-based diets and indirectly due to the large-scale monoculture farms producing the needed grains through a system which demands large inputs of fertilizer and water.

Heifer International and others are engaged in research which shows that small, mixed farming systems are net carbon sinks and therefore help cool the planet. The livestock in these systems enhance soil quality and water retention and thus contribute to a reduction in GHG rather than increasing them. There is also good evidence that well-managed grazing land can sequester large quantities of carbon in the soil.  A study by Altieri and Koohafkan [Environment and Development Series 6, “Enduring Farms; Climate Change, Small Holders and Traditional Farming Communities,” 2008] concludes that, “Agriculture and forestry, particularly many small farms and traditional agricultural systems still dotting landscapes throughout the developing world, can be part of the solution by contributing to climate change mitigation, through carbon conservation, sequestration and substitution, and establishing ecologically designed agricultural systems that can provide a buffer against extreme events.”

How do you integrate the needs and desires of the farmers you help into your program design? Heifer International incorporates the interests of the farmers we partner with by building our programs from the farmer and the community up. Our planning process begins with the farmers assessing their own situation and visioning the future conditions of their family, community, and farm. For us it is not about Heifer identifying what they need, but rather about communities assessing their resources, their values, and their hopes and making plans to move toward a desired future. Heifer and our various partners are there to support these communities and to accompany them, of course within the framework of our mission and principles.

Can you describe the kind of policies and education programs you would like to see implemented globally to address hunger and malnutrition? The policies and programs that Heifer would like to see in place are, in a nutshell, those which support small-scale farming and local food systems. At the top of the list would be policies which enhance and secure access to productive resources and fair markets. We have witnessed a continuing trend of small-scale farmers losing access to land and water and being pushed onto ever smaller and lower-quality land and having water diverted to commercial-scale agriculture or other uses. Farmers and especially women farmers have also lacked access to training in good agro-ecological farming practices and to credit. Another critical component is access to markets, which requires not only infrastructure such as roads and processing facilities, but also protection from the dumping of imported products at prices that make it impossible for small farmers to compete and make a living.

Thus, educational programming should focus on agro-ecological farming practices and marketing and also on local food systems and good nutrition. Education should not be limited to farmers but also include consumers and policymakers. In fact, we will never end hunger one village at a time; we must do both our development work in the field and we must educate the public about the root causes of and solutions to hunger. Heifer has made a very strong commitment to public education for the reason stated above. All of Heifer’s education programs work hand in hand with the international development work to add value and serve as a “voice for Heifer’s work” in the world.

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From “The Last Supper” to My Passover Supper: Rituals of Overconsumption

Passover, my favorite holiday of the Jewish faith, begins at the end of this month. Preparations are under way for the large, bread-free meals that kick off the annual tradition, and heaping platefuls of potatoes, meats, and greens will line many a table.

Huge meals are certainly part of the tradition, as Jews recall the time when our ancestors were forced into slavery by Egyptian tyrants—an episode that acts as a powerful metaphor for many instances of oppression throughout Jewish history. Like many cultures worldwide, we celebrate our religious, political, and cultural freedom by eating more than we really need.

I am fairly certain that my ancestors did not feed themselves as well as I’ll be eating. A new, provocative study supports my hunch, using evidence from the most famous Passover meal ever depicted: Jesus Christ’s “Last Supper.”

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper--15th Century

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper–15th Century (courtesy of Wikimedia)

For starters, some Biblical scholars do not agree that “The Last Supper” was a Passover meal, but I like to think that it was. (Read here for more analysis.)

The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that the size of “Last Supper” entrees have progressively grown by 69 percent over the 1,000 years that the event has been illustrated in paint and print. Plate sizes have increased by 66 percent.

Researchers (and brothers) Brian and Craig Wansink surveyed 52 of the most highly regarded depictions of “The Last Supper” produced between 1000 and 2000 A.D., using computer scans to analyze portion sizes over time. The Wansinks argue that overconsumption is not a recent phenomenon, but rather a general trend that has grown during the past millennium.

“The last 1,000 years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance, and affordability of food,” said Brian Wansink, an overeating expert who directs Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, in a statement. “We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history’s most famous dinner.”

Palma Vecchio's 16th Century Version

Palma Vecchio's 16th Century Version (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Media such as paintings can shape our cultural norms and encourage various habits—including overconsumption. While I doubt that my ancestors had any connection with those who painted or collected “The Last Supper” pieces during the past 1,000 years, the evolving, expanding concept of supper has surely affected my family’s culture. During the Passover meal we will break apart unleavened bread, known as matzah, and say a prayer: “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.” My family and guests, fortunately not impoverished or famished, say these words and then gorge themselves on brisket, matzah ball soup, and pickled fish to their heart’s content.

In recent years, as the Jewish people have been able to express themselves freely and safely, many Passover meals are focusing on themes besides anti-Semitism, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. I plan to use my family’s Passover meal to raise awareness of the fact that we now face a new cultural struggle: the intentional stimulation of the desire to consume ever more, which, in turn, is undermining the well-being of the world’s ecosystems and with it, the well-being of humanity.

Unless we shift to more sustainable habits—such as eating organic, local, and vegetarian meals and wasting less—we will continue to enslave the planet through our unsustainable practices. I’d like to think that we can preserve the planet for at least another millennium. If not, future generations of artists may not be so kind in depicting our Last Supper….

21st Century version of The Last Supper

21st Century version of The Last Supper (courtesy of Mike Licht)

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Innovation of the Week: Reducing the Things They Carry

Photo: Bernard Pollack

Photo: Bernard Pollack

The majority of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa— in some areas up to 80 percent— are women. The average female farmer in the region is responsible not only for growing food but also for collecting water and firewood—putting in a 16-hour workday.

Deforestation and drought brought on by climate change have further increased women’s time spent doing activities like gathering firewood and collecting water for bathing, cooking, and cleaning. Many women in Africa lack access to resources and technologies that might make these tasks easier, such as improved hoes, planters, and grinding mills; rainwater harvesting systems; and lightweight transport devices.

In Kenya, the organization Practical Action has introduced a fireless cooker to reduce household dependence on wood charcoal and other forms of fuel. Made easily by hand and at home, fireless cookers use insulation to store heat from traditional stoves that can then be used to cook foods over a longer period of time. Meals that are placed in a fireless cooker in the morning are baked with the stored heat and ready to eat later that day, reducing the need to continuously fuel traditional cook fires.

Meanwhile, biogas units that are fueled by livestock manure can save, on average, 10 hours of labor per week that would otherwise be spent collecting wood or other combustibles. The Rwandan government, recognizing the value of this time savings, hopes to have 15,000 households nationwide using biogas by 2012, and is subsidizing installation costs. (See also “Building a Methane Fueled Fire” and “Got Biogas?”)

The “Mosi-o-Tunya” (Pump that Thunders) pressure pump, produced by International Development Enterprises (IDE), is a lightweight pump that sits on top of a well and is operated by foot. The pump’s weight makes it easy to operate as well as to transport by foot or bike. Veronica Sianchenga, a farmer living in Kabuyu Village, Zambia, explained how, in addition to improving her family’s diet and income, the pump gave her more independence: “Now we are not relying only on our husbands, because we are now able to do our own projects and to assist our husbands, to make our families look better, eat better, clothe better—even to have a house.” (See also “Access to Water Improves Quality of Life for Women and Children.”)

In Ethiopia, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) helped women living in the rural lowlands near Ajo improve their incomes and livelihoods by creating a milk marketing group. Before the USAID-funded project was implemented, women were carrying 1–2 liters of milk for seven or eight hours to sell at the nearest market in Dire Dawa. The milk would sell for only some 20 cents a liter, and after spending the night in town, the women returned home only to make the same trip again days later, forcing them to neglect their homes and gardens. Now, the women take turns selling each other’s milk at the market, making the long trip only once every 10 days and keeping all of the profits from the day, putting some of the money into savings and using the rest to pay for food, school, and household supplies.

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In the “Century of the City,” Sustainable Urbanites Will Ride Rail

Photo courtesy Larsa. In booming Lahore, Pakistan, the current transportation master plan proposes spending 94.8 percent of funding for road development, management, and maintenance and only 5.2 percent for a public transport terminal. The road-centric policy leaves public rail in the dust.

Photo courtesy Larsa. In booming Lahore, the current transportation master plan proposes spending 94.8 percent of funding for road development, management, and maintenance and only 5.2 percent for a public transport terminal. As a result, public rail options languish.

With half the world’s population now residing in urban areas, the United Nations has deemed the 21st century the “Century of the City.” Urban growth patterns during the next 90 years, however, are unlikely to mimic those of the past.

Geography has long been a pivotal factor in determining which cities boom or bust, and port cities frequently benefited from trade along well-traveled coasts and riverways. Recently, however, ground transportation has allowed economic development to take place in more remote regions. Transportation infrastructure, more than free-trade zones or administrative changes, is now considered the most important urban growth factor, according to UN-HABITAT’s State of the World’s Cities report.

Cities in almost all ecosystems are growing at an average rate of 2.2 percent per year. Cities in Africa’s mountainous and forested areas, for example, grew at rates 0.3–0.4 percent faster than cities along coastal zones. A U.N. analysis of 245 of the fastest growing cities in the developing world suggests that the leading driver of this growth has been the diversification, expansion, or improvement of regional or national transportation systems, including roads, airports, urban and inter-urban railway lines, and ports.

Clearly, transportation policies are crucial for driving a country’s sustainable development. As the world’s urban population expands from 3.3 billion people today to almost 5 billion in 2030 and 6.4 billion by 2050, transportation infrastructure will need to expand, not only to carry around so many more people, but also to provide sustainable economies in these urban areas.

As climate change increasingly overheats and floods our urban areas, while also threatening the food and water resources that many cities import from afar, we need cities to become models of low-carbon development.

“Green transportation” doesn’t just offer great possibilities for lowering a city’s carbon footprint—it can also help grow the economies of urban areas. As Worldwatch researcher Michael Renner recently pointed out, studies show that every $1 billion invested in intercity rail and urban transit in U.S. and European cities can support twice the number of jobs gained from investing the same resources in highway infrastructure. In a world of rising oil prices, public transportation will also be a much less expensive option for traveling through the city, especially for poorer residents.

Planners should realize that those cities that are best suited to handle the environmental and social challenges of the 21st century will not focus on building more world-class highways. Instead, they should focus on public transportation as a sustainable way to continue urban growth.

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A Sustainable Calling Plan

Danielle Nierenberg with Mike Quinn, Mobile Transactions General Manager (photo: Bernard Pollack)

Danielle Nierenberg with Mike Quinn, Mobile Transactions General Manager (photo: Bernard Pollack)

In addition to hoes and shovels, more and more farmers in sub-Saharan Africa carry another agricultural “tool”: a cell phone.

Over the last decade, cell-phone use in Africa has increased fivefold, and farmers are using their phones to gain information about everything from markets to weather. For example, farmers can find out prices before they make the long trips from rural areas to urban markets, giving them the option to wait to sell until prices are higher. Agricultural extension agents and development agencies also use mobile phones to communicate with farmers, letting them know about changes in weather that could affect crops.

Farmers and agribusiness agents in Zambia are also using cell phones as bank accounts, to pay for orders, to manage agricultural inputs, to collect and store information about customers, and to build credit. Mobile Transactions, a financial services company for the “unbanked,” allows customers to use their phones like an ATM card, says Mike Quinn, Mobile Transactions General Manager. An estimated 80 percent of Zambians, particularly in rural areas, don’t have bank accounts, making it difficult for them to make financial transactions such as buying seed or fertilizer. But by using Mobile Transactions, farmers are not only able to make purchases and receive payment electronically, they are also building a credit history, which can make getting loans easier.

Mobile Transactions also works with USAID’s PROFIT program to help agribusiness agents make orders for inputs, manage stock flows, and communicate more easily with agribusiness companies and farmers. Perhaps most importantly, the partnership helps agents better understand the farmers they’re working with so that they can provide the tools, inputs, and education each farmer and community needs.

In addition, e-banking and e-commerce systems can help make better use of agricultural subsidies. Mobile Transactions worked with AGRA and CARE to develop an e-voucher system for obtaining conservation farming inputs. Farmers receive a scratch card with funds that they can redeem via their phones to purchase tools or other inputs from local agribusiness agents. Unlike paper vouchers, there’s no delay in moving the money, and farmers can get what they need immediately, such as seed during planting season or fertilizer when it can be used most effectively. And because donors are using Mobile Transactions to distribute the vouchers, they’re acting as a stimulant to the private sector, rather than distorting the market.

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