African Biodiversity Network: Sowing Seeds for Grassroots Resilience

By Philip Newell

The African Biodiversity Network (ABN) is a collection of local groups from 12 countries across Africa fighting to protect the rich natural biodiversity of the continent from the demands of “industrial commodification” through the building of political solidarity. By synthesizing the local knowledge of their partner organizations, including The Mupo Foundation and the Porini Trust, into a single voice, they hope to gain global support of issues that impact their communities, such as large-scale land grabs, genetically modified crops, and agrofuels.

African Biodiversity Network is working to preserve seeds (Photo credt: The SEED Trust)

Their three main focus areas, ecosystems and community resilience (ECR), advocacy alliances, and network development, are designed to restore and spread indigenous knowledge, raise awareness of pressing issues, and harmonize the many groups around Africa into one well-tuned political voice. Their ECR activities focus on documenting indigenous knowledge that is rapidly being lost because of urbanization and globalization—some 14 million Africans move from cities to rural areas each year. ABN’s network development theme helps use that information and connect it to both policy makers and other grassroots groups.

By coordinating groups that are working in different countries on similar issues, ABN is concentrating their voices. This voice is then used to draw attention to and try and counteract the increasing global demand for genetically modified crops, agrofuels and other threats to Africa’s biodiversity.

Philip Newell is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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Rainwater Harvesting

By Dan Kane

In sub-Saharan Africa, many farmers are already watching their crop yields dwindle as water becomes more scarce and difficult to access. Even in areas where freshwater is still available, technologies such as pumps and filtration facilities can be prohibitively expensive.

Innovations in irrigation, such as this home-made water pump, are helping many small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Maintaining food security in Africa, especially as climate change takes a bigger hold on the continent, will require finding inexpensive, sustainable ways of obtaining freshwater. Fortunately, some farmers have already found their solution by returning to an age-old practice of rainwater harvesting.

Rainwater usually infiltrates the soil and is retained within the first foot or so, but a significant portion is also lost to evaporation and runoff. Most sub-Saharan African nations are using less than 5 percent of their rainwater potential. Capturing even a fraction of rainwater can provide several gallons for consumption and irrigation at minimal cost.

While researching for the recently released State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet report, Nourishing the Planet found that with the help of international NGOs, many communities across Africa have installed successful rainwater harvesting techniques that are cheap and useful.

In Rwanda, the World Agroforestry Centre of Nairobi, Kenya has collaborated with the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources to help farmers construct systems to funnel rainwater runoff into ponds lined with plastic sheets that can hold more than 30,000 gallons (113,562 liters). Farmers can then use simple, inexpensive siphons and foot pumps to collect this water for irrigation. Over 400 such ponds have already been built across ten districts and another 800 are slated for construction in the near future.

And in Kenya, the World Agroforestry Centre has been working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to build cement tanks for Maasai women that collect water off of rooftops. These tanks provide a domestic supply of water that eliminates the burden of having to travel long distances to collect water every day—a burden often borne by young girls.

These water-saving initiatives are helping to improve food security and livelihoods in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Dan Kane is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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Commission Aims to Produce Clear Course of Action on Sustainable Food System

By Matt Styslinger

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)—a consortium of international research centers focused on sustainable agricultural development—has launched a new initiative focused on agriculture’s contribution to food security in the context of climate change: the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change. “The food system is really not sustainable,” says Professor Sir John Beddington, U.K. Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Chair of the Commission. “What is happening is it’s getting big subsidies of fossil fuels, it is over-exploiting water, [and] it is using land in unacceptable ways.”

The Chair for CGIAR’s Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change says that the interaction between climate change, food, water, and energy security is absolutely critical. (Photo credit: CCAFS)

The Commission was established by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS). The Commission aims to identify and promote specific national, regional, and global policies that are needed to usher in a global food system that is based on sustainable agriculture and contributes to food security, poverty reduction, and climate change adaptation and mitigation. “The interaction between climate change, food, water, and energy security is absolutely critical. And we would make an enormous error if we actually tried to deal with one and ignore the others,” Beddington says.

The launch of the Commission comes in the wake of several high-level reports that have endorsed a shift to more sustainable approaches in agricultural development—including the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the National Research Council’s Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, and Agroecology and the Right to Food by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. “There is a rich body of scientific evidence for sustainable agriculture approaches that can increase production of food, fiber and fuel, help decrease poverty, and benefit the environment,” says Commission Coordinator Christine Negra. “But agreement is needed on how best to put these approaches into action at scale.”

Existing research, according to Negra, shows that global food security and biodiversity will suffer significantly from the effects of unprecedented climate change, population growth, and natural resource depletion. The commission hopes to outline explicit options for policymakers and donors to address these threats, making the trade-offs, barriers, and opportunities of each option clear. “There is currently a ‘mixed bag’ of messages on what is needed on agriculture and climate change,” says Negra. “This confusion, at best, risks inaction. And, at worst, [it risks] inappropriate actions.”

In a report to be released in December of this year, the Commission will address the following broad categories:

1. What are the major components and drivers of the current food system and what will this system look like in the future?

2. What does a future alternative, climate smart food system look like and how can this system be brought into being?

3. What technical, political, financial, and social investments are essential to an alternative future food system and who can make them?

The report will be appropriate to all countries, according to Negra, and findings will be backed by sound science and other authoritative evidence. The recommendations in the report will target the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Group of Twenty (G20), the Rio+20 Earth Summit, and other important policy processes.

The Commissioners for this initiative include scientists with international reputations—representing all major regions of the world—with backgrounds in agriculture, climate, ecology, economics, trade, and nutrition/health. The commissioners have extensive experience and a good understanding of policy processes. The messages in their report will be their own, and will not include messages from other stakeholders—such as agribusiness, governments, farmers, or CGIAR. “The Commission is not intended to put forward a CGIAR or even CCAFS product or worldview,” says Dr Sonja Vermeulen, Head of Research for the CCAFS Program. “The governance of the Commission and selection of Commissioners is designed to give as much independence as possible.”

Recent international attempts to address climate change and food security, such as the UNFCCC, have failed to provide a consensus. The Commission hopes that a clear, concise, and independent set of policy options will allow the international community to act. “There are so many perspectives on the best way for farmers to adapt to climate change,” says Dr Bruce Campbell, Director of CCAFS. “We have ended up sort of paralyzed by a lack of clear choices.”

Do you have any thoughts about conflicting reports and initiatives related to climate change and food security? What are some points of confusion on these topics? Let us know in the comments!

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet. 

To read more about reports on sustainable agriculture see: New UN Report Illustrates the Potential of Agroecology to Feed the Hungry, Instead of One Size Fits All, Many Innovations for Improving Small-Scale Agriculture, Restoring Biodiversity to Improve Food Security, State of the World 2011 Launches in NYC Today.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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Can Geothermal Heating and Cooling Systems Help Beat the Heat (and Cold)?

For the millions suffering through the recent heat waves blanketing the United States, geothermal heating and cooling systems may be of interest. Although such systems are by no means new, they have experienced tremendous growth recently. Last year alone, 50,000 new systems were built in the United States, increasing the total number of U.S. geothermal heating and cooling installations to 150,000.

The frequent and extreme heat waves and cold spells of the past decade have put utilities under greater pressure. Just last week, three regional transmission organizations (RTOs) set all-time highs for daily electricity demand. Unfortunately for electricity consumers, rising electricity demand also translates into rising electricity prices. So what does this have to do with geothermal energy? For home and building owners, geothermal systems offer an opportunity for cleaner and cheaper heating and cooling services.

What services can a geothermal heating and cooling system provide?

As the name might suggest, geothermal heating and cooling systems provide heating and cooling for buildings. Less obvious is that these same systems can also provide humidity control and water heating services. This means that installing a geothermal system lowers the demand on furnace, air-conditioning, and water heating units.

How does a geothermal heating and cooling system work?

The three components of a geothermal heating and cooling system are the heat pump, the ground heat exchanger, and the air delivery system. Geothermal heating and cooling systems rely on the simple fact that the ground is cooler than ambient air in summer months and warmer than ambient air in winter months. In general, the Earth remains between 50° and 60°F throughout the year just a short distance below the surface. Geothermal heat pumps work very much like regular heat pumps, with the major difference being that geothermal heat pumps use heat from the ground instead of the air.

When cooling is required, a cold liquid (known as a refrigerant) moves through an indoor coil. As it does so, it absorbs the heat from the warm and humid air passing over it. The surrounding air therefore becomes cooler and drier and is circulated through the room by a fan.

Next, the refrigerant passes into a compressor. The compressor pressurizes the refrigerant, turning it into a warm gas.

This newly-transformed vapor then moves to the condenser (a set of underground loops). Because the ground is much cooler than the warmed refrigerant, the refrigerant releases heat into the ground and once again becomes a cool liquid. Since the refrigerant is still highly pressurized, it must go through an expansion valve. Here the refrigerant is depressurized and the cycle begins again.

When heating is required, the roles of the indoor coil and underground loops are simply reversed. The indoor coil now acts as a condenser while the underground loops act as an evaporator.

Do the economics really make sense?

In short, yes.

Geothermal heating and cooling systems save money on maintenance and operating costs. Because the systems are more efficient than typical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, buildings using geothermal heating and cooling systems normally experience 30-60 percent energy savings compared to an HVAC system.

Typically, installing a geothermal heating and cooling system costs $2,000-$4,000 more than installing a new HVAC system with ductwork, or around $7,000-$10,000 total. With 30-60 percent energy savings, all costs associated with building a geothermal heating and cooling system are recovered in 5-10 years. And because the systems last for 25 years on average (the underground coils often last more than 50 years), they are a valuable long-term investment.

Introducing a desuperheater to the system can increase savings even more. A desuperheater is a heat-recovering system that can be used to heat up to 60 percent of a home’s hot water. It works by capturing heat that is removed from a room through the geothermal heating and cooling system and by directing it to the home water supply. This waste heat can be used to heat all of a home’s water for free during the summer.

What are the environmental benefits?

For the average home, using a geothermal heating and cooling system instead of a typical HVAC system would save 14.7 metric tons of CO2 per year, or 367 metric tons of CO2 over a 25 year lifetime. This is the equivalent of driving 880,000 fewer miles in a typical passenger car.

What are the greatest obstacles to success?

High upfront costs and land availability.

As discussed above, capital costs for geothermal heating and cooling systems are greater than those for typical HVAC systems. Capital costs can also vary greatly depending on the loop type installed, soil or rock type, ground temperature, and even drilling contractor expenses.

A horizontal loop system

Land availability can be an obstacle too. The cheapest geothermal heating and cooling systems use horizontal ground loops. In this system, loops ranging in size from 100 to 500 feet are laid horizontally 4 to 6 feet underground. As one can imagine, this requires a large yard or open space.

A vertical loop system

Buildings with less available land, therefore, often use vertical ground loops, which can add costs to installation. In this system, 6 inch diameter vertical holes are drilled about 100 to 300 feet down into the ground. These are the most common systems built in residential settings.

What incentives exist?

The federal government has incentives stipulated under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act of 2009 (ARRA) that cover 30 percent of residential installation costs. ARRA also provides a tax credit for 10 percent of commercial installation costs. These incentives run through December 31, 2016. Many states also have their own tax incentives for installing geothermal heating and cooling systems.

Parting Thoughts

The growth of geothermal heating and cooling systems appears to be a sustainable trend. As consumers continue to learn about the tax incentives and long-term savings associated with geothermal heating and cooling systems, they will likely steal ever more market share from conventional HVAC systems.

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The Campaign for Real Food

By Supriya Kumar

“Nutrition is the objective,” said Dan Kittredge, Director of the Real Food Campaign (RFC), when asked about his project’s main mission.  Housed under the organization, Remineralize the Earth, RFC is educating and collaborating with farmers, scientists, researchers, and consumers to produce healthier and more “nutrient dense” crops. These nutrient dense crops are not only better for us, but they are often more vibrant, tastier, and have longer shelf lives.

Real Food Campaign is working to help producers and consumers gain access to nutrient-rich produce. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Processed foods dominate grocery store shelves—it is estimated that up to 90 percent of processed foods in the supermarket contain either a corn or soy ingredient. And the amount of nutrients we receive from food has declined. In the United States, for example, there has been an average 63 percent nutrient decline between 1941 and 2000.

Nutrient dense foods, however, have very high levels of vitamins, carbohydrates, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, and trace minerals, which all help to improve health and fight diseases.

RFC is working with farmers to ensure that crops are grown to their full nutritional potential. The project conducts year-long seminars for crop growers in the North East states of America, where they inform farmers of innovative and reliable practices, such as the use of cover crops, to grow healthy and nutritious food. And, it is not just consumers who benefit from this – when farmers grow nutrient-rich crops, they are likely to experience healthier and higher yielding varieties.

Encouraged by the popularity of the seminars- the past years have witnessed over-registration for courses- Kittredge and his team are working on creating a handbook for growers, to ensure that farmers across the country have access to this information. Other upcoming projects include a research project that focuses on identifying the most appropriate environments that produce nutrient dense crops.

Through the use of already existing infra-red technologies that have the ability to identify crop nutrients, Kittredge hopes to find correlations between the way crops are grown and their nutrient levels. With that information, he plans on helping farmers to improve their crops, as well as helping consumers by providing better food for their dinner plates. He is trying to make this technology readily available for consumers, so that they too can measure nutrient levels of individual vegetables as they purchase them from markets.

Supriya Kumar is a research fellow with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

To read more about improving nutrition, see: Delivering Improved Nutrition, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, Improving Livelihoods and Nutrition with Permaculture, and Meeting Nutritional Needs with ‘Biofortified’ Staple Crops

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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UPI Article- Land Grabs Threaten African Food Security, says Worldwatch

Check out this article on the threat of land grabs to African food security and the State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet report.

Massive land transactions are taking place in Africa and Latin America, funded by international investments, including hedge and pension funds. These multi-million dollar “land grabs” are taking place in African farming communities without farmers’ knowledge. The Worldwatch Institute calls for more oversight and fairer deals for farmers, because money from these transactions is not making it to the hands of the poor and hungry. “If all governments capably represented the interests of their citizens, these cash-for-cropland deals might improve prosperity and food security for both sides. But that’s not often the case. It’s critical that international institutions monitor these arrangements and find ways to block those that are one-sided or benefit only the wealthy.”

Click here to read the article.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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UN Food Expert Calls on South Africa to Create “Inclusive Food System”

By Dana Drugmand

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, is encouraging South Africa to build a food economy that benefits the majority of the population, including the poor. “South Africa needs to create food systems that work for the poor and not only sell to the poor,” De Schutter said, speaking at the end of his official mission to South Africa. The Special Rapporteur recently made a visit, at the invitation of the South African government, to assess the country’s agricultural programs and policies.

Village in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

South Africa is home to 12 million food insecure people, 70 percent of whom live in rural areas. These people have yet to see results from South Africa’s policies that put food security at the top of the government’s agenda, according to De Schutter. “The set of policies is encouraging, but the results still are below expectations,” he said.

In addition to opening up pro-poor food markets, De Schutter said that South Africa could use a new set of policies to set up local food systems that promote fresh and nutritious food and favor small-scale farmers. These small-scale farmers are marginalized in a market system that traces back to the Apartheid era. “In contrast to the large white commercial farmers, the newly established black farmers are small-scale farmers, with poor access to markets, a lack of marketing skills, and a weaker bargaining position in the food chains,” said De Schutter. One way to help these small-scale farmers is to develop incentives to encourage large commercial farmers to support emerging farmers. Commercial farmers, for example, could benefit by sharing their access to markets with emerging small-scale farmers.

De Schutter also recognized a need for a more rights-based approach to agricultural programs. This means involving the most vulnerable groups, such as women and the poor, in the design of agricultural policies – and focusing policies on the needs of these vulnerable groups.

The improvement of the situation of farm workers was another one of De Schutter’s recommendations. The rights of these farm workers are not strictly enforced, partly because of the limited capacity of labor inspectors – there are currently only 1,000 inspectors to cover the whole territory – for all sectors. One suggestion to improve this situation is to allow union workers, after appropriate training, to be certified to conduct inspections on farms.

De Schutter, who is a contributing author to State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, is therefore calling on South Africa to create a more just and equitable food economy. “We must create an inclusive food system for South Africa,” he said.

Dana Drugmand is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project. 

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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Innovation of the Week: School food gardens support food security and education in the Cape Flats

By Matt Styslinger

Southeast of central Cape Town, South Africa is a large, flat swath of land known as the Cape Flats. The area is home to around 4 million people and unemployment is around 40 percent. As many as 25 percent of students in the Cape Flats are undernourished.

SEED is working with students and teachers to establish permaculture food gardens in 21 Cape Flats schools. (Photo credit: Matt Styslinger)

South African non-profit organization School’s Environmental Education and Development (SEED) has established its Organic Classroom Programme in 21 Cape Flat schools. The project aims to improve food security in the Cape Flats by engaging students in environmental sustainability and teaching them how to practice permaculture—a holistic agriculture system that mimics relationships found in nature. SEED’s Organic Classroom Programme is a winner of the 2010 Sustainability Awards presented by Impumelelo—an independent awards program for social innovations in South Africa.

“Permaculture looks at ecological habitats and applies them to human habitats,” says SEED Permaculture Designer, Alex Kruger. Kruger says that sustainable food gardening is a starting place for students to learn about larger environmental sustainability issues. “It addresses an immediate need. And it also brings biodiversity back into these schools, which are quite barren.”

The Cape Flats environment can be harsh on crops. Soils are sandy and high winds are prevalent. But by planting windbreaks around the perimeter of food gardens, planting in formations that channel rainwater to crops, and adding organic compost, SEED is encouraging students to take on the challenge of growing their own food. “We learn about perennial winds and climate, and we plant thick indigenous windbreaks, which are needed for the Cape Flats,” says SEED Director Leigh Brown. And SEED also teaches students how to use mulch and compost to transform the soil.

SEED says the project starts as a living laboratory that offers hands-on learning opportunities for underserved schools. “[The Organic Classroom Programme] first seeks to assist education by bringing practical education into the schools,” says Oldjohn. “Secondly, it seeks to support the nutrition and feeding scheme of the school.” Food grown in school gardens is used in the preparation of school lunches. The gardens are also used as a community center to teach the community about growing and selling produce locally. “We’re opening in communities now workshops that we’re running in the schools to train communities on how to generate a small income,” Oldjohn says.

“There’s a broader context to the SEED program,” says Kruger. “We enrich curriculum and are developing greener environments in schools, and looking at good nutrition. But at the same time we’re also fleshing out and setting up a process for matric (accredited) diplomas in Applied Permaculture Training so that we can set up a career path.” Beyond addressing immediate needs, the organization hopes their programs will create professional careers and long-term economic opportunities for young people in permaculture farming.

By supporting a tradition of environmental sustainability in the Cape Flats, Kruger believes the community will take on even larger challenges. “As our program develops we can start introducing green technology, natural building, and all the other facets of permaculture,” she says. According to the organization’s director, the school garden project is already engaging the community in broader social and environmental efforts. “Other benefits of the program are climate mitigation, biodiversity, and habitat renewal. [Also] community self-reliance, community building, and job creation,” says Brown.

SEED is also working with schools in the South African provinces of Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, and Gauteng, and hopes to create a nationwide network of school food gardens. The organization aims to cultivate leaders among the students and teachers where they establish food gardens. After three years in each school, SEED turns over the operation of the Organic Classroom Programme to the school and the community.

Do you know of a community that uses schools as community centers to create awareness and address local issues? Let us know in the comments!

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To see more about permaculture farming see: Transforming Unlikely Locations into Lush, Abudant Gardens, Improving Livelihoods and Nutrition with Permaculture, What works: Innovations for Improving Biodiversity and Livelihoods, and In Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Conservation.

To purchase your own copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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Reuters talks with Danielle Nierenberg on Land Grabs in Africa and the Affect on Food Security

Check out this interview on Reuters with Nourishing the Planet Director Danielle Nierenberg about land grabs in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Africa, a continent where hunger is a prominent issue, the loss of farm land is devastating rural communities, leaving them without a source of food and without jobs. These land grabs not only affect short term food needs, but also the long-term goal of alleviating poverty and hunger in Africa. Investors claim the land purchased is an unused resource and helping to alleviate global hunger, but with a majority of the world’s hungry people living in Africa, that argument falls short of reality. Often the sales of farm land to foreign countries are not documented, leaving farmers who have worked the land for years, without any notice or any idea where their livelihood has gone.

Click here to read the article.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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