Fishing for Innovations That Conserve Fisheries

By Abby Massey

It’s no secret that the oceans are running out of fish. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 80 percent of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited or over exploited. But the Gulf of Maine Institute in Portland, Maine, has recognized that fishing can be profitable even as it supports conservation efforts, according to a recent article in the Portland Press Herald.

In many poor coastal countries, fish and seafood remain an important source of protein. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

High in protein and omega-fatty acids, seafood has grown in popularity over the past decade among health-conscious consumers. And in many poor coastal countries, fish and seafood remain an important source of protein. As a result, fishers continue to scour the seas, over exploiting one of Earth’s limited resources. But the Gulf of Maine Institute is promoting more ecologically friendly catch practices, as well as working with restaurants and food retailers to create markets for under-used fish species.

Although cities like Portland have recognized the need for sustainable fishing, other regions have yet to understand that poor fishing techniques and overharvesting will mean no fish in the future. Fishers often use large trawling vessels, scraping the bottom of the sea and destroying marine habitats. Many fish, such as bluefin tuna, are dwindling in numbers but continue to be caught because they are in high demand.

Fish farming, an alternative to wild harvesting, can produce seafood more efficiently without overfishing the oceans. In fact, half of the seafood eaten today comes from farms. This might sound like the perfect solution, but aquaculture too can cause pollution and habitat destruction if not monitored adequately.

So does all this mean that we should stop eating fish? Not at all. If everyone stopped buying seafood, countless jobs would be lost, as well as a good source of nutrition. But consumers should remember to make thoughtful decisions, purchasing fish that has been farmed responsibly or seafood that has been caught sustainably. Fish lovers drive the market, and making educated decisions is just a first step to more sustainable fishing. Fortunately, communities like Portland are paving the way for other regions to follow, providing seafood that we can all enjoy eating.

For more information on sustainable fish production, see New Guidelines from Seafood Watch, “Greening” Fisheries Could Calm Troubled Waters, Catch of the Day: Choosing Seafood for Healthier Oceans, Farming Fish for the Future, and Vital Signs Online: Global Fish Production Continues to Rise.

Abby Massey is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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Video Spotlight of the Week

In this new series Nourishing the Planet will be featuring videos of different projects that are working to alleviate hunger and poverty. We will be showcasing past favorites (can you believe we’ve been traveling for almost a year?!) and some brand new videos you’ve never seen.  Check out Nourishing the Planet’s Youtube channel to see more. Do you have a favorite? Let us know! In this week’s highlight, we share what we learned when we spent a day with ECOVA MALI outside of Bamako. It’s a sneak preview for blogs to come on ECOVA MALI, stay tuned for more.

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Robbin’ Financial Speculators to Invest in Climate Solutions

Robin Hood Tax campaign logo

A financial levy similar to that proposed in the Investing in Our Future Act, called the Robin Hood Tax, is gaining support in the United Kingdom.

It’s been called The Robin Hood Tax, the Tobin Tax, and the less sexy Financial Transactions Tax or Currency Transaction Levy. According to Congressman Pete Stark (D-CA13), who introduced a bill on July 20 to create a version of it in the United States, the proper name is the even less thrilling Investing in Our Future Act of 2010 (which is at least better than calling it by its bill number, House Resolution 5783). But what is it, and what does it have to do with climate change?

Whatever the name, the concept is relatively straightforward: deduct a very small percentage (Stark’s bill suggests 0.005 percent, or five-thousandths of one percent) from the transfer of large amounts of money between people and/or companies, especially the exchange of one currency into another. The rationales for this charge are many. While the fee makes the value of a single transfer of money almost unnoticeably less (just 5 pennies off for a tourist converting 1,000 U.S. dollars to Euros), it makes the shuttling of money thousands of times between different bank accounts or currencies much costlier. That kind of back-and-forth trading happens routinely in currency speculations that, according to many commentators, contributed decisively to the recent financial crisis. Most versions of the charge would exempt small amounts of money ($10,000 each year per company or per person in the Stark bill), keeping the burden off vacationers and small-time traders while discouraging risky repetitive maneuvers by banks and hedge funds.

Just how much money could this fee raise, and where would the funds go? Congressman Stark claims that his bill, which applies to U.S. transactions only, would raise $28 billion per year while reducing U.S.-based currency speculation 14 percent. According to more than 350 economists worldwide who endorsed a currency speculation levy earlier this year, the money should go toward tackling global threats such as climate change and infectious diseases in the developing world. Similarly, the Investing in Our Future Act directs 40 percent of the revenue to climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, 40 percent to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and other health funds, and the remaining 20 percent to expand support for child care for working parents in the United States who can’t otherwise afford it. The United Kingdom-based Robin Hood Tax campaign also proposes to divide its charge’s estimated US$400 billion per year among a host of domestic and international needs. That includes fighting climate change.

That’s good news at a critical time for climate funding. Richer nations are looking for ways to meet the pledge they made at the Copenhagen negotiations of US$100 billion per year for developing country climate financing by 2020. Estimates put the total cost of stopping and adapting to climate change much higher (see page 10 of linked report). With an already decimated Sherwood Forest facing new threats in a hotter climate, the Robin Hood Tax and Investing in Our Future Act may have arrived just in time.

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To Get “Out of Poverty,” Keep Innovating

By Alex Tung

It is never too late to start innovating, or to continue to innovate.  Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enteprises (IDE) is the perfect example.  After practicing psychiatry for 23 years, Polak founded IDE, an organization focused on creating income opportunities for poor rural households.  And now, almost 30 years later, at age 77, Polak has started blogging about practical solutions to poverty. His blog is named after his best-selling book, Out of Poverty.

IDE is currently working to mitigate any impact their technologies might have on climate change and the environment. (Photo credit: IDE)

In his first two blog posts, Polak spoke about how poverty impacts the environment, and his thoughts on the triple bottom approach.

His ideologies are reflected through IDE’s work. IDE is currently working to mitigate any impact their technologies might have on climate change and the environment.  According to Andrew Vermouth, Director of Marketing and Communications for IDE, their drip irrigation systems are “especially valuable in water scarce conditions,” as they can reduce water use by “30 to 60 percent.”  Emissions and carbon footprint are also reduced when famers use IDE’s treadle pumps instead of diesel pumps, as treadle pumps are foot-operated, “light enough to be portable by hand and foot or bicycle,” and often “made from recycled materials.”  Increasing numbers of small-scale farmers across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are adopting these technologies, which allow them to irrigate crops more easily and enhance productivity of their land.

To learn more about IDE’s irrigation technologies that help the rural poor, read Innovation of the Week: Slow and Steady Irrigation Wins the Race, Innovation of the Week: Access to Water Improves Quality of Life for Women and Children, Innovation of the Week: Getting Water to Crops

To read more of Paul Polak’s writings, visit his blog Out of Poverty.

Alex Tung is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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Halving Hunger Through “Business as Unusual”

By Alex Tung

This interview with Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is part of a regular interview series with agriculture and food security experts.

Name: Shenggen Fan

Affiliation : Director General, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)

Location : Washington, DC

(Photo credit: IFPRI)

Bio: Shenggen Fan is Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).  He has over 20 years of experience in the field of Agricultural Economics. He is currently an Executive Committee member of the International Association of Agricultural Economists. He has worked in academic and independent research institutions, including Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology at the University of Arkansas and the National Agricultural Research in the Netherlands .   Fan received his Ph.D. in applied economics from the University of Minnesota and his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Nanjing Agricultural University in China.

Fan’s work in pro-poor development strategies in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East has helped identify how to effectively allocate public spending in reducing poverty and generating agricultural growth.

About “Halving Hunger:”

Currently, 16 percent of the world is undernourished.  In his recently published report, Halving Hunger: Meeting the First Millennium Development Goal through “Business as Unusual”, Fan voiced his concern that efforts to meet the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of undernourished people by 2015 are “moving in the wrong direction.”  Taking projected population growth into account, the number of undernourished needs to fall by an average of 73 million per year in the next five years. Continuing to conduct “business as usual” will clearly not suffice in meeting this goal. As such, Fan outlined five innovative approaches to go about “business as unusual:”

  1. Investing in two core pillars: Agriculture and social protection
  2. Bring in new players
  3. Adopt a country-led and bottom-up approach
  4. Design policies using evidence and experiments
  5. “Walk the Walk”

According to Fan, these “unusual” approaches are already showing success.  The next step is to apply them on a larger scale in new locations to have a real impact on reducing global hunger.

In your report, you called for countries to “Walk the walk.” What are key factors hindering countries’ progress in fulfilling their commitments?  What could be done to encourage them to do so?

Failure to summon political will and resources is one of the key factors that hinders countries from fulfilling their commitments. To ensure the commitment of policymakers, the general media and popular communication sources should provide the public with evidence-based information and knowledge. In addition, strong institutions and governance should be promoted to support the implementation of commitments both by governments and donors. To add accountability and keep progress on track, timely and transparent monitoring of implementation is required.

Regarding “new players in the global food system” or emerging donors – What are essential elements of a fair, “mutually beneficial” relationship?  Is there any danger of partnership become exploitation, and where do you draw the line?  What measures can be taken to ensure foreign investment generate real results that benefit the local community?

A mutually beneficial relationship between emerging donors and recipient countries needs to enhance long-term benefits and minimize any potential harm, particularly to vulnerable groups. The essential elements of such a relationship include: fair competition with local enterprises; strong linkages of investments with domestic markets; engagement of the local workforce; and the adoption of higher environmental and labor standards.

Many emerging donors, such as China, place the bulk of their investment in areas like infrastructure or construction. Considering the goal of eradicating hunger, do you believe aid should continue in this direction? How can emerging donors synchronize their work with providers of more traditional or “mainstream” development aid?

Indeed, emerging donors need to diversify their investments into other areas such as agriculture and rural areas to have an impact on decreasing hunger. Emerging donors should increase transparency and cooperation in aid delivery. Through dialogue with traditional donors, common standards in the aid system should be set. This will help to avoid duplication and create synergies with other donors.

These emerging donors should also ensure that their trade with and investments in developing countries will benefit other developing countries and bring win-win opportunities.

Many of the hungry are located in countries with unstable political environment, where a country-led approach may be difficult to achieve. What is the best course of action for those providing aid to these countries?

Fan: While humanitarian aid is important for countries with unstable political environment, aid for long-term country-led development is also needed. Aid donors should support the building up of country capacity for setting investment priorities and designing investment plans. Increased investment is needed for domestic institutions such as universities and think tanks that can provide evidence-based research for policymaking and strategy formulation.

In your report, you mentioned the success of “positive deviance” in designing sound policy solutions – why do you think this approach works compared with traditional approaches?

Positive deviance in policy making can be achieved through experimentation. This approach increases the success rate of reforms since only successful pilot projects that have been tried, tested, and adjusted are scaled up.

Finally, let’s talk about IFPRI’s work – What role does IFPRI currently play or plan to play in the future in helping donors (countries, private, multilateral agencies) effectively direct their aid and shaping programmatic response in developing countries to meet MDG1?

IFPRI will continue to provide evidence-based policy research as an international public good which is relevant for decision makers at all levels. Our research on public spending, for example, has been and will be guiding investment priorities and strategy formulation for effective poverty and hunger reduction in developing countries. Through its country support strategy programs which are located countries, IFPRI will also continue to help to build their own capacity to drive their own investment plans and strategies.

Alex Tung is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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Petro Essences, Pinkwashing, and the Cult of Body

By now hopefully you’ve seen the newest Story of Stuff video, in which Annie Leonard takes the cosmetic industry to task. If not, hit play below and then keep reading….

Each video is getting more effective as the Story of Stuff Project and Free Range Studios work proactively with organizations to ensure that the videos don’t just change individual behavior but help advance a larger campaign. The goal of The Story of Cosmetics isn’t simply to get viewers to stop using leaded lipstick and hormone-disrupting shampoos but to lobby the U.S. Congress to amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act so that toxic ingredients are extracted from the many products we slather on our bodies.

Of course, the $50 billion cosmetics industry doesn’t want to change, as that’ll cost money, which is exactly why this video is great—hopefully it’ll serve to mobilize a so-far inactive grassroots force of cosmetics users, parents, and others who suddenly realize how dangerous getting ready for work in the morning is.

I was also impressed with how the video directly confronts some egregious abuses, including the absurd marketing rhetoric of toxic products like “Herbal Essences” shampoo. As Annie Leonard notes, a more accurate description would be “Petro Essences,” considering all the petrochemicals in it. Even better is Ms. Leonard’s attack on “pinkwashing:

“Ooh, here’s Estee Lauder offering me a chance to help find a cure for breast cancer. That’s nice, but wait…they’re also using chemicals linked to cancer. Don’t you think the best way for Estee Lauder to fight cancer is to stop using those chemicals in the first place?”

I am always horrified to see the little pink ribbon on products that have a bunch of carcinogens or chemical additives in them. It’s shameful to trick people into thinking they’re helping when they’re actually perpetuating the problem. (Though we should also share a portion of that blame with the anti-cancer groups that claim to be fighting cancer. If they really wanted to make a difference they would be on the front lines advocating for safer cosmetics, healthier food, and more exercise rather than selling out and partnering with these peddlers of toxic products).

Finally, I was happy to see at least a brief mention of the fact that the cosmetic industry doesn’t just sell toxic products, but toxic messages “about what beauty is.” This is a key point, which could have been expanded significantly in the video. Billions are spent persuading us that our skin isn’t smooth enough, we smell bad, our hair is too curly or straight or not the right color, and that we’ll only be happy if we change our appearance (which is never free).

Ms. Leonard gives the example of hair relaxers and skin-whitening creams, which are some of the most toxic offenders. In the new documentary Good Hair, comedian Chris Rock goes into details about hair relaxer—the main ingredient of which is sodium hydroxide, which he shows at one point dissolving a soda can. This stuff is going on people’s heads, including children’s (Chris shows 3-year old girls getting relaxer treatments, and a product for sale called “Kiddie Perm”). Sigh.

Some countries, like Spain, are fortunately banning TV advertisements that reinforce “the cult of body,” which is an important step that will be essential in getting us to use fewer cosmetics (which, no matter how non-toxic, still have an ecological impact). Imagine if magazines weren’t filled with airbrushed models, and billboards and TV ads didn’t try to convince you that you weren’t physically inadequate, or that you’d attract more potential partners if you use certain body sprays. Perhaps then, the average woman wouldn’t use 12 products every day and men wouldn’t use six. Twelve products! All those toxic chemicals interact and make a toxic soup of women’s bodies—the same women who will eventually bear the next generation of humans. (Hence why even babies today are filled with toxic contaminants, though as Ms. Leonard notes, there are also toxic chemicals in baby shampoo, ugh.)

So, while it’s good to describe this and keep the focus on fixing the system, it would’ve added to the video to challenge viewers to cut that number down and make sure all of the products that viewers use are non-toxic. But since the video doesn’t offer that challenge, I will. Count how many products you use and halve that number, and then make sure those you do use are non-toxic. Me, personally, I’ve gotten down to what I consider the very minimum: three daily products, namely organic soap, natural toothpaste, and salt crystal deodorant (yes, basically a block of salt, which is not only cheap and lasts multiple years but is as non-toxic as a beauty product gets). I, of course, have short hair, so can get away with this number, but even getting down to 5 or 6—if they’re non-toxic—would be a fantastic leap forward, assuming of course, you’ve also sent a letter to your Senators and Representative advocating for the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010.

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UN Declaration: Access to Clean Water and Sanitation is a Human Right

By Alex Tung

According to the United Nations, nearly 900 million people lack access to clean water more than 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation.  Yesterday, by declaring safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right, the U.N. General Assembly made a step towards the Millennium Development Goal to ensure environmental sustainability , which, in part, aims to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”

(Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

With Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet project, we recognize the importance of universal access to clean water in satisfying essential needs including for drinking, for cooking and for agriculture.  Because of this, one of the chapters in State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet will highlight water use in agriculture, especially innovations to improve access to water and efficiency of water use.

To learn more about improving access to clean water and sanitation, read Innovation of the Week: Reducing Wastewater Contamination Starts with a Conversation, For Many Women, Improved Access to Water is About More than Having Something to Drink, Access to Water Improves Quality of Life for Women and Children, Getting Water to Crops, and Slow and Steady Irrigation Wins the Race.

Alex Tung is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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Finding New Ways of Measuring the Success of Land Management: An Interview with Gary Paul Nabhan

In February 2010, writer Fred Bahnson interviewed Gary Paul Nabhan, a lecturer, food and farming advocate, folklorist, and conservationist who lives and farms in the U.S. Southwest. In Part 3 of this three-part series, Nabhan discusses his Middle Eastern roots, innovative farming practices in desert regions, and the value of “regenerative” agriculture.

B: How did you get interested in food as your life’s work? Did that come from your Lebanese heritage?

N: I grew up in an extended clan of Lebanese immigrants on the Indiana dunes, on the shores of Lake Michigan about 35 miles outside Chicago. My grandfather was a fruit peddler, he had a fruit truck, and he would come home and tell us what the day had been like, whether people had bought more of one variety of plums over the other, whether they were buying bruised fruit or rejecting it, and he also exchanged fruit for fish with a bunch of Swedish fishermen along the shores of Lake Michigan.

"Bob Rodale at the Rodale Institute, one of the godfathers of the organic movement, encouraged Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry and I to use the term regenerative agriculture, and I think he was right. That would have been a much better term by which to measure the success of our own stewardship practices," says Nabhan. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

He was adamant about the quality of fruit; he would talk about it to me when I was four-years old as if I were his business partner, saying “people just don’t understand the quality of fruit anymore.” I think there was this quality of food, much of it coming from only 30 miles away, that was a special thing. We seasonally moved from food to food because that was what made the year interesting.

When I went to school for college and lived in a city, I actually lost weight because I couldn’t stomach the homogeneous food. Later, when I started working as an intern at the first Earth Day headquarters, then afterward began a career as an environmental scientist and activist, I was struck that food issues were not important to environmentalists. The issues were about wilderness or urban contamination and not much about the quality of our landscape shift in rural areas.

I would say that environmental activists were more concerned about saving national parks and wilderness areas and stopping urban contamination and less about the quality of life on private lands. Fortunately, many of us started reading Aldo Leopold, who said to pay as much attention to conservation and biodiversity on private lands as you do on public lands. That really shaped my thinking.

I am inherently curious about comparing how people manage their land and eat from it in different cultures, particularly desert cultures. When I first went to Lebanon, to my grandfather’s village, in the early 90s and saw how land was managed there, the different vegetable and fruit varieties, the heritage breeds of lamb and goats, it really gave me a portfolio of ideas to adapt to the desert place where I live today. By spending time immersed in another culture, particularly a habitat or landscape similar to the one you live in, you see how people have problem-solved. I’m interested in how people have used local biodiversity and nested it in their farmlands and orchards and kitchen gardens in their particular climate to create a soil-based carbon-neutral food system.

One of the things in the Middle East in which I’ve been very interested, for example, is the water-harvesting traditions, especially those that don’t rely on pumping fossil ground water, and how those techniques can be incorporated into mid-scale water harvesting regimes to grow food in the arid West of the United States. We need to understand that we have entered a post-peak fossil ground water era, and that’s just as important as understanding that we’ve entered a post-peak fossil fuel era.

B: But isn’t water primarily an issue in the American West?

N: It’s not an exclusively Western issue. We have groundwater contamination, saltwater intrusion, and groundwater overdraft in many other parts of the country, not just the arid West. And because much of our winter food in the U.S. comes from Arizona and California, groundwater problems should be a concern to anyone in North America who eats.

B: What are some specific techniques in water harvesting and sustainable farming that you brought back from Lebanon?

N: I’ll talk more broadly about the Middle East as a whole. They do multiple strata gardening and farming where they grow date palms and olive trees as an overstory crop, then grow more heat-sensitive fruits like apricots and peaches sheltered under that, and under that they’ll grow onions, shallots, artichokes, rhubarb, and grapes and such. They often have a three- or four-tiered system on the same piece of land. In a high solar environment with a lot of heat it’s very important to get the crops in the right temperature range for fruit to ripen, but it also makes very efficient use of water.

The second thing is that they use systems called ganads. These systems funnel either shallow artesian springs or catch water off slickrock and funnel them into community irrigation systems that are communally managed. Unlike the American West, it’s not every man for himself trying to obtain the maximum amount of water, but is rather a community rationing of available rainfall and artesian springwaters. Some of these systems have lasted for 1,000 or even 1,400 years without salination or depletion or contamination.

Nearby, within 20 miles, you can see failed irrigation projects where international development groups have perforated the groundwater, salinized the soil, and ushered in saltwater incursion from the coast. These were multi-million dollar investments that went belly up within 20 years. Juxtapose those with the ganad systems that have been stable for 1,400 years.

B: What are your thoughts on the competing ideas of abundance versus scarcity with food production? The whole Green Revolution approach to food is predicated upon an idea of scarcity, therefore we must produce as much food as we possibly can. And yet your work seems to be about fostering an abundance that’s already there in nature.

N: That’s an interesting way to put it. There are two thoughts I’ve had lately. One thought arose when I went out with a rancher about three weeks ago, who took me and the dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Arizona out to his plots. We were standing out in his pasture, and he said, “I want a science of limits.” There were some things he could do to pump up the productivity of this semi-arid rangeland. But to some extent, especially in a highly arid climate with a great amount of uncertainty because of climate variability, the most important thing for him to do was to manage his land within the limits of what it could naturally produce each year. And he said, “I spend hours and hours each month monitoring this ecosystem’s health. And I don’t push that health past its breaking point. So we need a science and an ethic of limits.”

This rancher made a plea to reincorporate a land ethics course into the College of Agriculture, so that every agriculture and natural resources scientist would have to have this knowledge. We call those people Doctors of Philosophy, but virtually no PhD in the natural sciences anymore has ever had an ethics or philosophy course. I think building a land ethic course into every science curriculum in the country is key. We need a science that understands scarcity and abundance and limits, not like the old Leibniz Law of the Minimum where limits are thought of in a merely quantitative, reductionistic way, but in all the dimensions.

The second thing is that some people have examined the empty calories in our current diet and have said “yes, we produce more food, but its mostly empty calories.” And these folks have come up with a wonderful concept called nutritional density, measured in per-unit weight or per meal. We’re not talking about whether or not a particular food satisfies the minimum daily requirements or whether we can produce 3,000 pounds of corn per acre, what we’re talking about is the density or richness in a particular food in terms of nutrients.

Yield alone as a measure of abundance doesn’t tell us much. What really tells us a lot is whether or not we’re getting micro and macro nutrients, not just calories, and whether that food is satisfying to us.

On our land in southern Arizona, we’re putting in an orchard of ancient desert fruits. My goal is to first increase the water-holding capacity and nutrient abundance of the soil by using terra preta, or biochar. I’m also adding pottery shards and mulch from nitrogen-fixing legume trees that naturally occur on the land, and then, like Joel Salatin says, “stacking” food resources in the same ecosystem so I’m doing a multi-strata orchard of desert-adapted foods that partition the sunlight and water rather than one crop like sugar cane sucking all the water and nutrients out of the soil. Some of the plants I’ve planted are there to regenerate and give back nutrients to make up for the nutrients I’m taking.

At a certain point I regret that, around 1982, we didn’t go with the term regenerative agriculture but instead chose sustainable agriculture. The “S” word has become so hollow and distorted that it’s allowed people to greenwash their business with it. Bob Rodale at the Rodale Institute, one of the godfathers of the organic movement, encouraged Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry and I to use the term regenerative agriculture, and I think he was right. That would have been a much better term by which to measure the success of our own stewardship practices.

To read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series see: Maintaining the Diversity of Food Crops and Bridging the Urban/Rural Divide.

Fred Bahnson is traveling as a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. His writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, and Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 (Mariner). He lives with his wife and two sons on a farm in Transylvania County, North Carolina.

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Innovation of the Week: Getting to the Market

For many farmers, an abundant harvest is only the first step toward feeding their families and earning an income. Vegetables ripening in the field—or even harvested and stored nearby—are still a long way from the market where they can be sold for a profit.

Without a cart, truck, or other means of transporting a large amount of goods efficiently, many small scale farmers can't carry enough of their produce to the market to make a sufficient living. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

One farmer in Sudan’s Kebkabyia province, Abdall Omer Saeedo, has to travel 10 kilometers twice a week to the nearest market to sell his vegetables and green fodder. Without a cart, truck, or other means of transporting a large amount of goods efficiently, he couldn’t make enough money to cover his production and packing costs, let alone the cost of seeds for the next season, education for his children, and other household needs. And after making it to market with his 10 sacks and five bags of produce on the back of his donkey, he was still at risk for loss if he wasn’t able to sell it all. Instead of dealing with the hassle of trying to pack it back home again, he would throw away whatever wasn’t sold.

Saeedo sought the help of Practical Action, a development non-profit that uses technology to help people gain access to basic services like clean water and sanitation in order to improve food production and incomes (see Beating the Heat to Reduce Post-Harvest Waste). Working with local metal workers, the organization designed a donkey cart for him. Now, Saeedo is not only able to cart his produce to market twice a week, he can also easily bring back whatever he is unable to sell. His income has increased along with the quality and quantity of his product, which is no longer lost or destroyed by travel time and conditions.

Practical Action’s transportation innovations are helping to improve farmer livelihoods throughout sub-Saharan Africa and around the world. In Kenya, the organization introduced bicycle taxis as a way for people to earn a living, as well as an energy-efficient means to transport people from place to place. In Nepal, Practical Action’s bicycle ambulances help carry sick or injured people from remote areas to hospitals safely and comfortably. And in Sri Lanka, the group’s bicycle trailers—capable of carrying loads of up to 200 kilograms—are used to transport goods to market, people to hospitals, and even books to local communities.

To read more about innovations that help get crops to market, reduce post-harvest waste, and improve livelihoods see: Beating the Heat to Reduce Post-Harvest Waste, It’s All About the ProcessInvesting in Better Food Storage, Reducing the Things They Carry, and In a World of Abundance, Food Waste is a Crime.

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Putting Tax Dollars to Better Use

By Amanda Stone

A study released in July by Cornell University researchers estimated that U.S. taxpayers spend about $140 million a year on food aid to Africa, and roughly the same amount just to ship food aid around the world on U.S. vessels, according to an article on IRIN.

This money could be used more effectively to invest in innovative agricultural development that will empower farmers to be more self-sufficient over the long term and enable them to feed themselves and their communities. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The aid is distributed under a little-known policy called the Agricultural Cargo Preference (ACP), which requires that 75 percent of U.S. food aid be shipped on privately owned, U.S.-.registered vessels, regardless of shipping rates. Unfortunately, the nation’s taxpayers end up paying a high price for inefficient shipping practices.

The cost of this preferential practice to U.S. taxpayers in 2006 was $140 million, which represents “the amount paid above the regular cost of ocean freight on the competitive market,” according to Christopher Barrett, a Cornell University professor and leading food aid expert.

The Cornell study supports a longstanding call for reform of policies that subsidize the U.S. shipping industry to the benefit of the “iron triangle,” comprising agribusiness, the shipping sector, and some NGOs. These subsidies can cost taxpayers as much as $2 to deliver $1 worth of food, according to a book that Barrett co-wrote with Daniel Maxwell, Food Aid After Fifty Years: Recasting Its Role.

At a time when funding is tight, this money could be spent more effectively on additional food aid for urgent, short-term needs or, better yet, invested in innovative agricultural development that will empower farmers to be more self-sufficient over the long term and enable them to feed themselves and their communities.

To read more about innovations that increase farmer self-sufficiency and investments in agriculture, see: Innovation of the Week: Farmers Learning From Farmers, Spreading the Wealth of Innovations, Nourishing the Planet in the Ethiopian News, and Investing in Agriculture Growth to Alleviate Global Hunger and Poverty.

Amanda Stone is a communications intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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