Global Health Forum tackles Obesity

By Supriya Kumar

At a recent event held at the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C., members of the health and nutrition community from Italy and the United States came together to discuss the multiple challenges that obesity presents.  Researchers, doctors, government officials, and corporate executives came together to discuss the causes—and the economic and medical implications—of obesity and the needed policy and corporate interventions to address what is a global epidemic.

BCFN's double pyramid compares the nutritional and environmental impacts of various foods.(Image credit: BCFN)

“Although infectious diseases will decline over time, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) will be a leading cause of death, especially in developed countries,” remarked Gabriele Riccardi, professor of Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Naples Federico II and member of the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) Advisory Board. People who suffer from obesity are also more vulnerable to NCDs, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, so tackling obesity is an important step in addressing global health issues.

Panelists also looked at the connections between nutrition and the environment, especially how consumption habits might contribute to environmental sustainability. Riccardi discussed the “double pyramid” which was created by BCFN after extensively reviewing various food categories in all parts of the food chain from harvest to consumption. The double pyramid highlights how healthier foods also tend to have a lower impact on the environment.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the health and food sectors are not—and should not—be regarded as mutually exclusive from each other and it is reassuring that global actors from both sectors are coming together to tackle some of our most pressing health, nutritional and environmental issues.

Click here for more information about the event. BCFN will also be hosting an event tomorrow where they will be discussing new paradigms for ensuring a future where we can enjoy healthy food and a healthy planet. Click here for more information about the event.

What do you think? How can we address the growing rate of global obesity? Let us know in the comments section!

Supriya Kumar is a research fellow 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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Droughts and decision making: satellite imagery may help predict famines

By Isaac Hopkins

Dr. Molly E. Brown, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, has been providing information and expertise for the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) since 2000. FEWS NET provides agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which funds the network, with information that attempts to forecast where famines and food insecurity are likely to occur. Traditionally, this data is gathered largely on-the-ground, but such feedback can be unreliable, contradictory, and politically motivated. Satellite imagery may be a key to improving predictions and directing food where it is most needed.

A recent map of the Horn of Africa from FEWS NET, used to evaluate and predict food insecurity. Satellite imagery helps shape these maps. (Photo credit:

“Global observations are going to become increasingly important,” Dr. Brown says, in order to continue reducing food insecurity, especially as global markets become ever more volatile and powerful. The use of satellite data, most often looking for indicators of vegetation health or rainfall patterns, may increasingly provide decision makers with those planet-wide observations.

Satellite imagery’s greatest strength is its objectivity. “We don’t know who’s producing what where,” says Dr. Brown, but we don’t need to with this system. Satellite imagery can tell us where long-term conditions are most conducive to a food system collapse, and the power of a clear, fact-based map can convince decision makers to send food aid to the right places.

In order to be effective, FEWS NET must combine its raw data with local context, such as local growing patterns or local policies, in order to make reliable recommendations. According to Dr. Brown, “When you have people selling their production assets,” such as livestock and seeds, that is when aid needs to be available, and not just when you have a dry year. Famines are incredibly complex phenomena, but satellite imagery can be a powerful, innovative tool to target those in the greatest need.

For more on FEWS NET and the famine in Somalia, read Early warnings not enough to stop famine in Somalia.

Where else have you seen space-age technology combine with local understanding to address food security issues? Tell us in the comments!

Isaac Hopkins is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project

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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US Army Calling for Major Investments in Renewable Energy

This September, the US Army established the Energy Initiatives Office Task Force in conjunction with announcing the ambitious goal of meeting over 25 percent of its energy demand through renewable sources by 2025.


The US Army is promoting renewable energy as a practical solution to pressing security, economic, and environmental challenges. Source: US Army

This initiative is part of a larger agenda within the Department of Defense to promote renewable energy as a cost-effective security measure. Over the last decade, rising energy costs have increasingly strained military budgets and concerns over fuel convoy and supply security have risen to the fore. As an organization, the US Army currently spends over US $4 billion per year on energy to power bases, installations, transport vehicles, and equipment around the world. The projected costs of the status quo, that is, maintaining a fossil fuel-based energy mix, have proven unsustainable to top military leaders. For example, with every US $1 increase in global oil prices, the US Army’s energy budget can fluctuate by over US $30 million. The Army has indicated that in addition to its environmental benefits, ramping up renewable energy makes sense from both an economic and national security perspective. Secretary of the US Army John M. McHugh recently stated that “The Energy Initiatives Office Task Force will help the Army build resilience through renewable energy while streamlining our business practices so developers can invest in and build an economically viable, large-scale renewable energy infrastructure”.

As one of the largest energy consumers in the world, the US Army’s adoption of such aggressive renewable energy policies will be a major boon to the US and global renewable energy industries. The Energy Initiatives Office (EIO) Task Force estimates that the US Army will need an additional 2.5 million megawatt-hours (MWh) per year of additional renewable energy supply over the next 10 years to meet its 25 percent goal.  A recent Pike Research report on US military energy initiatives finds that the renewable energy investments from the Army and other branches of the military will top US $10 billion annually by 2030 and continue to grow. Some analysts estimate that the US Army alone may attract over US $7 billion in private financing for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects over the next five years. This increase in demand can provide manufacturers and generators the long-term financial security they need to make significant structural investments in renewable energy production and innovation.

Currently, the US Army’s EIO Task Force is developing strategies to increase investor confidence and position army installations as a prime, low-risk, market for private-sector investments in renewable energy projects.  A major advantage that military institutions have is a vast amount of land resources.  The US Army alone owns over 15 million acres of land, much of it suitable for solar, wind, and geothermal development. Currently, much of this land is left unused as a buffer between military activities and local communities.  By offering large tracks for little to no cost to renewable energy developers, the US Army is leveraging the value of the land to secure long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) with private renewable energy companies.  It is seen as a win-win situation by offering clean and stable energy supply for Army bases as well as financial certainty for the renewable energy industry.  At this point, the US Army has identified over 5 million acres of real estate that could be offered to renewable energy suppliers, with the intent of attracting billions of dollars in investment over the next ten years.  Twenty utility-scale projects comprising solar, wind, geothermal, and biogas have already been proposed under this arrangement.

Overall, the entire Department of Defense is poising itself to be a central driver of renewable energy investment in both the United States and international markets.  For the US Army’s part, a major pillar of the new push for renewable energy is what is referred to as the “net-zero energy installation” (NZEI).  For an army base or installation to claim NZEI status, it must implement a comprehensive energy strategy that produces as much energy on-site as it uses over the course of a year.  Currently, the US Army has six active NZEI pilot projects in the continental US and one in the Marshall Islands.  In addition to NZEI projects, many of the Army’s largest installations have begun incorporating renewable energy into their portfolios with increasing success.  Fort Bliss, a massive installation spanning 1,700 square miles between Texas and New Mexico, has saved over US $2.7 million in energy costs since implementing an aggressive energy efficiency policy and is currently working on plans to expand solar and wind capacity by a further 80-150 MW across the base over the next 3 years.

Historically, the US Army has served as a catalyst in developing and scaling innovative technologies, such as the internet and GPS technology, for mass markets.  Given the current economic climate and Congressional reluctance to implement significant energy policy, the military has an opportunity to break technology and policy ground with respect to renewable energy. Net-zero energy, 25 percent renewable energy policies, and innovative “land for renewables” swaps all have the potential to play a major role in mainstreaming renewable energy technologies and to give the industry as a whole a welcome boost.  By providing examples of efficient and profitable large-scale energy projects, the Army may well prove itself to be a vital link in bringing renewable energy to the masses as well.

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Land in Zimbabwe: Voices from the Field

Check out this video series on land reform in Zimbabwe by Institute of Development Studies’ (IDS) Ian Scoones and his research team.

Over the last decade land reform has radically reconfigured the agrarian structure in Zimbabwe, with major impacts on production. This was made worse by recurrent droughts and the withdrawal of external finance and investment. Yet, with the stabilization of the economy from early 2009, and the adoption of the U.S. dollar as the currency, there has been substantial recovery. The agricultural sector is expected to grow by 19 percent this year, on the back of a strong 9 percent growth in the economy as a whole.

Click here to read more about the team’s research and here to view the video series.

To read more about land reform policies, see: Giving Farm Workers a Voice, Zimbabwe’s Land and Labor Movement, and Innovation of the Week: Directed Funding to Alleviate Poverty.

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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How Wealthy Nations Drive Food Insecurity

By Daniel Bornstein

Daniel Bornstein is a sophomore at Dartmouth College interested in global food security. He has written columns on international development issues for, the Merrick Herald (Merrick, N.Y.), and College News Magazine. He was named a national semifinalist in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search for his research on poplar’s viability as a biofuel—a potential alternative to the corn-based ethanol that drives up world food prices. Daniel, a native of Merrick, NY, graduated as salutatorian from John F. Kennedy-Bellmore High School.

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Biofuels have become interlinked with investor land grabbing, which deprives locals of precious farmland. (Photo credit:

World leaders can talk all they want about the need for investments in agricultural productivity in Africa, but food insecurity will only worsen unless countries confront this harsh reality: wealthy countries’ land use strategies only increase the vulnerability of the world’s poorest people, and our global food system neglects the human right to food and favors capitalist wealth accumulation. Countries have responded to resource scarcity and climate change through biofuel production, land grabbing, and the United Nation’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation program (REDD) — all signs of the injustices embedded in the international politics of food.

U.S. farmers have diverted cropland toward fuel production, driving up global food prices. We have already seen the disastrous impact on poor countries: Demand for biofuels played a role in the 2008 food price spike that spurred riots in over 30 countries. Amidst the effort to wean America off oil, the entrenched farm lobby found in biofuels another way for its farmers to profit by marginalizing developing countries. It is as if generous subsidies to American farmers — which enable them to sell their surplus cheaply on the international market — were not enough.

Biofuels have become intertwined with another dimension of the inequity in the global food system: land grabbing. Investors from all over the world are buying up agricultural land in Africa. Those from the Middle East and China are doing so as a way to secure food supplies for their own populations, while other investors are seeking to profit from the demand for biofuels. In the first 11 months of 2009, these land deals encompassed at least 110 million acres, 70 percent  of which covered Africa, according to the World Bank.

Developed countries deceptively try to frame the land grabbing issue as an African governance problem. They say that host country governments should strengthen local people’s legal rights to land. This perspective, however, ignores the role of international financial institutions — puppets of wealthy countries — in condoning land grabbing.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank, and its partner organization, the Foreign Investment Advisory Service (FIAS), have actively promoted liberalization of land markets. Research Fellow at the Oakland Institute, Shepard Daniel critiques these programs, writing, “IFC and FIAS prioritize the improvement of investment climates and promote business-enabling environments and, in doing so, it appears they overlook the more urgent problems of hunger and poverty that persist in their client countries, losing sight of their principle mission, which is to alleviate poverty.”

The World Bank has published Principles for Responsible Agricultural Investment in response to land-grabbing. Yet, the World Bank is essentially legitimizing land grabs by failing to suggest a different model for agriculture.

While one principle tells investors to consult local communities, for example, the Bank offers no guidelines for what should happen if local people reject the investor’s proposal. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter captured this problem last year, suggesting that small farmers should be permitted to maintain control over their land.

The third factor central to the global politics of land inequality is the way that developed countries have responded to climate change. Rather than reaching a binding agreement to reduce their own countries’ carbon emissions, the world’s powers decided to shift the burden to developing countries through the creation of the REDD program, which offers payments to people in developing nations to preserve forests. REDD will only create problems: People living in forested areas will be forced to intensify use of existing agricultural land, which would precariously make them dependent on chemical inputs in an era of rising fuel prices. And migration of people from forested to arable areas will induce competition over increasingly scarce natural resources.

These three pivotal land issues must be merged with development discourses through an emphasis on the human right to food. Yet this vision hasn’t been realized in agricultural development policy largely because donor countries are unwilling to confront the capitalist interests responsible for the unjust global land system.

In the end, ironically, wealthy countries will ultimately bear the costs of perpetuating inequitable global land politics — costs that will come in the form of international political instability. High food prices due to biofuel production already caused riots in over 30 countries in 2008, and contributed to the start of historic uprisings this spring in the Arab world. With high food prices having become the norm, riots could reignite at any moment. Madagascar’s government was overthrown in 2008, partly because of popular opposition to a land deal with a South Korean company. Since then, land grabbing has only accelerated. And the competition for agricultural resources that emerges from the REDD program will almost certainly raise the possibility of conflict.

We are now in an era where the politics of land use will determine international security — and it is time to start integrating that reality into agricultural development.

To read more about land grabs, see: Innovations in Access to Land: Land Grab or Agricultural Investment, Innovation of the Week: Land Grabs, Vandana Shiva Says Land Grabs are Burying India’s Future, and Leaked World Bank Report Highlights Extent of Land Grab Problem

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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Over-exploitation of Hydropower is Threatening Parent Rivers in China

An image of a dried-up Yongding River (Source: Beijing Nangong Tourist Attractions).

Yongding River is the parent river, the main segment of a river system that is fed by smaller tributary rivers, of Beijing. For more than 3,000 years, the river provided drinking water to the locals and nourished their culture. It was once called Wuding (meaning unstable in Chinese) River, demonstrating its unpredictable flow change, and the Kangxi Emperor of Qing Dynasty later renamed it Yongding, expressing his “wish for peace” with the river forever. Even during the past half century, there were two serious bursts of the river, again demonstrating the river’s power and unpredictability.

Yet, the powerful Yongding River has been gradually losing its vitality since the 1980s. The Guangting reservoir, the largest reservoir on the Yongding River, has three hydropower stations and was designed with a storage capacity of 4.16 billion m3. The present water storage is only 164 million m3, however, meaning only 4 percent of the reservoir’s storage capacity is being used. The main cause of these low storage numbers is the numerous dams built upstream of the reservoir, which consume much of the river’s water before it can reach Guangting reservoir. At the same time, soil erosion and upstream pollution have also led to a decline in water quality, which used to meet drinking standards but only meets industrial and landscape standards today. The river also frequently dries up, and parts of its 3200 km2 drainage area within Beijing have turned into desert, causing severe dust storms.

In order to let Yongding River flow again, 130 million m3 of water is needed annually. With the launch of “Yongding River Green Corridor Construction Plan” (2010-2014) and the relocation of Shougang Group (finished by 2010), an iron and steel enterprise with the greatest levels of production in the country, the ecosystem might be restored as industrial water consumption has begun to decrease sharply. As Beijing suffers through extreme water shortages (the per capita water resource is less than 100 m3), it has needed to gather water from recycled water plants, urban runoff, upstream reservoirs, and the South-to-North Water Diversion Project for Yongding River. This marks the first time China has attempted to revive a river and restore an ecosystem at such a high cost (17 billion Yuan, a little more than 2.66 billion USD).

Yongding River is one of the many rivers in China that suffers from over-exploitation of hydropower. As China shifts towards more sustainable development, smarter hydropower development schemes should be adopted to prevent the repetition of Yongding River’s depressing story. There need to be impact assessments done that measure the effect the development of hydropower projects have on river bed and river bank ecology.

Large-scale projects are the most interesting projects to Chinese hydro developers because they can be ramped up rapidly and predictably, and can also provide extra services, such as flood control and irrigation. Most importantly for developers, the hydraulic turbine’s efficiency increases with size, making larger projects more attractive. Yet, the environmental impacts of the existing large-scale project are quite controversial, demonstrated by Three Gorges Dam, which has received a lot of criticism both domestically and internationally.

Small-scale hydropower used to be considered one of the most cost-effective energy technologies for rural electrification in China. This is important because, even by the end of 2010, there were still 5 million people in rural China without access to electricity. The technically exploitable capacity of small-scale hydropower in China is estimated to be 128 gigawatts (GW), with an present situation and future prospects of hydropower in China. With such great potential, in addition to policy incentives such as a consumption tax abatement, small-scale hydropower has been growing relatively fast, especially over the past decade. Small-scale hydropower is now widely distributed in more than 1,600 mountainous counties around the country. Western China, a very rural region of the country, accounts for present situation and future prospects of hydropower in China.

Theoretically, small-scale hydropower should have less environmental impact than large-scale hydropower, especially for small-scale systems that do not have dams. However, since the Chinese definition of small-scale hydropower stands officially at 25 MW, 15 MW greater than the most widely accepted figure worldwide, China’s small-scale hydropower development projects still have a tremendous impact on local environments. For instance, the rivers in the Shennongjia Scenic Area, which used to have some of the wildest scenery in the remote northwestern province of Hubei, dried up due to over-exploitation from too many small-scale hydropower stations. Worse still, this is not an isolated incident as there are many other cases of rivers drying up in China due to over-exploitation of small-scale hydropower plants.

Since there is tremendous biodiversity in many of the regions in China where there is high potential for small-scale hydro, research and impact assessments need to be done on a case-by-case basis to ensure minimum damage to local ecosystems. For example, during the construction of small-scale hydropower plants, innovative turbines and improved techniques to minimize interference with local fish populations should be considered.

After all, for both large-scale and small-scale hydropower projects, environmentally friendly energy generation is the goal as China is trying to shift, along with much of the world, to a more sustainable development path.

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Looking Inside the Gates to Feed the City from Within: An Interview with Diana Lee-Smith

Diana Lee-Smith is a founder of the Mazingira Institute, an independent research and development organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. She carried out the first survey of urban agriculture in Kenya in 1985 and has over 20 years of experience in research, policy, and advocacy work on urban poverty, gender, development, and environment issues. Lee-Smith has written extensively on gender and urban agriculture, and her published works include Women Managing Resources: African Research on Gender, Urbanisation and Environment and Healthy City Harvests: Generating Evidence to Guide Policy on Urban Agriculture. She holds a doctorate in Architecture and Development Studies and was recently a visiting professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, where she was editing two books on urban agriculture in Africa.

Photo credit: BOLDLeaders

Urban agriculture has been around since the building of the first cities, yet not everyone is aware that farming in cities is not only a possibility, but can improve diets, livelihoods, and overall food security. Why do you think this is?

The relationship between cities and food is so fundamental that it is almost too obvious to analyze. The origin of cities and their meaning has been to distinguish them from agriculture. Everything about cities says “not agriculture”—at least in our minds. That is the way we think of it now, but it really came about back when the fields were too big to contain in the cities and to defend from attacking armies. During battles people would scamper to the cities and let invading armies raid the fields. As a result, the sense that fields are outside the city has stuck.

And then the industrialization of food took it to an extreme level. Industrialized food production formalized agriculture as something that takes place only outside the city. Agriculture has become something that feels too big and too separate from the city to ever actually take place there.

But urban agriculture has always gone on for one simple reason–people have to eat. The relationship is fundamental. Yet we continue to imagine this dichotomy between farms and cities exists–where there is a city, there is no agriculture.

  How have perceptions of urban agriculture changed over time?

The times when urban agriculture was more mainstream have to do with a crisis. Whenever there is a crisis you’ll find more agriculture—including within cities. Again, people need to eat and when there is a crisis, conflict, or political instability the proximity of food becomes much more important.

There are different kinds of emergencies and crisis that require urban agriculture. Right now there is an ongoing urban unemployment crisis in many developing countries. The question these people ask themselves is, “how to do I eat?” And the answer is very simple–I plant something somewhere or I keep a goat or rabbits or other animals. That’s really the crisis of poverty and it is addressed through agriculture.

You can also find examples in history of people farming the cities. During the Second World War, the British government created a Ministry of Food and implemented food rationing. They encouraged everyone to plant food—in rural areas and in the cities. And people in the urban areas planted crops and kept chickens. This is an example of a violent conflict that led the government to call urban citizens to help create security through agriculture.

Other examples of crises leading to increased urban agriculture activity come from Africa, which is what I know best. When there was civil war in Uganda in the 70’s and 80’s, people living in Kampala—the largest city in Uganda – resorted to urban agriculture.

The Congo is another place where urban agriculture is extremely widespread because of political unrest. People are forced to go beyond just accepting this idea that agriculture is always outside the city gates. And during such crises you’ll often find that the biggest urban concern becomes food and water. More than the violence, people are worried about meeting their basic needs.

But unemployment and conflict aren’t the only reasons people turn to urban agriculture—what are some other reasons?

Essentially, agriculture is needed whenever the supply chain of food is threatened. Today, the supply chains are threatened in many interesting ways.  In the global south many places do not have proper refrigeration. In the global north, something that can be taken for granted is refrigeration and cheap oil, meaning easy transportation of food. But the supply chain can be threatened in other ways. It’s possible that food isn’t always safe or clean or that the kind of food you need isn’t getting to you. There are food deserts—parts of the city where there is no fresh produce. Perhaps a person wants to make sure that her food is free of genetically modified ingredients or that it isn’t treated with many chemicals or preservatives. In these cases, a person will want to start producing her own food in order to short circuit the supply chain.

Why do you think urban agriculture is not emphasized as much in policy making and agricultural development? What policies and innovations would you like to see more widely implemented to support and encourage urban agriculture?

Urban agriculture isn’t considered mainstream because people dismiss it out-of-hand, insisting upon the dichotomy that cities and agriculture are opposites. I put that down to a failure to conceptualize properly. It is much more productive to think about food and cities. And there are a variety of ways to do this.

In Kampala, farming was integrated into the original indigenous city. It was an African city before it was colonized and, unusually for Africa, the colonial city was built alongside the original city. The city has agriculture as its base. When it was a kingdom, it grew food – people lived on hills and the valleys were for agriculture. And then the hill created a hierarchy of sorts with the most important people living on top of the hill and then the rest of the community lived along the sides of the hill with the farming in the valley. That is an underlying physical pattern even today in Kampala, with farming still integrated into urban living and planning, an effect amplified by the urban food crisis during the civil war. The urban authority has a Department of Agriculture and that helps to support and regulate the farming that goes on in the city. One of the best policy measures for urban agriculture would be if every city had such a department of food and agriculture.

What kinds of foods are raised in African cities and what are some of the challenges both urban farmers and consumers face?

In different cities, different types of food are produced. The thing you’ll find about urban agriculture is that it’s not so much about staple foods – it’s primarily made up of producing perishables such as green vegetables. These are also an important source of micronutrients. When cities grow vegetables and fruits and produce milk and eggs they don’t have to be trucked in and are fresh and available. Staple crops, such as maize or rice, typically come from outside cities. However in Kampala, you’ll still see a certain amount of banana, which is a local staple, growing in the city. This is typical of many African cities where different varieties of banana, mostly eaten as fruit, are integrated into the city landscape because they are easy to grow and a good source of food and shade.

One thing that I like about the draft Kenyan urban agriculture policy currently being developed is that it mentions livestock. Because in many places people will say it’s ok to grow vegetables in cities, but that it’s not ok to raise livestock because of the potential spread of zoonoses or pollution from manure.

But there are always health issues in cities and if we can deal with things like human waste then we can also deal with animal waste. Of course, if livestock is poorly managed there is the risk of disease. But this is a big risk mostly when things are not properly managed and that is what city planning and policy can help to prevent.

Evidence seems to suggest that the situation that is most likely to breed disease outbreaks among livestock – whether urban or rural—is when large numbers of livestock are housed in cramped conditions. When livestock are raised in smaller groups, with only one or two animals per farm, there is significantly smaller risk of disease.

All cities would benefit from improved outreach systems in farming communities that can help to inform people about specific diseases and how they can be prevented.

And, it’s important to remember that agriculture is actually a part of the solution rather than a source of waste and contamination in cities. Many African cities rely on their small farmers to help manage the waste and feed the city.

Farmers, for example, utilize waste for fertilizer and can share their animal and organic waste with other small-scale farmers. Animals consume organic waste as feed. Some cities create depots for organic waste that can be shared or even sold. This was done in England during and after World War 2, when neighborhood “pig-bins” were an urban institution. Some cities assist farmers in the collection and distribution of waste. It can generate income for the city as well as for individual farmers.

Much of what is preventing urban agriculture from being considered mainstream has to do with language. Policy right now says “removing waste from urban agriculture” but what it ought to say is, “urban agriculture manages waste.” Once that is formalized, then things can really be improved.

Many urban farmers are women. Can you describe how urban agriculture can be a tool to empower women and to improve gender equity? What are some examples of innovations in urban agriculture that serve to do this?

African thinking can be very rigid when it comes to gender roles. In sub-Saharan Africa it’s generally the men that grow and produce food for money. And it’s primarily the women who produce food for eating and subsistence. Generally women don’t get paid for doing agricultural work. They are also not allowed to keep livestock or own land much of the time. But this is changing with urbanization.

There is not conclusive data on this but there are some very interesting small studies that show that women do get more involved and even own livestock in more urbanized areas. And also policy can play a large role in empowering women. Policies that allocate urban gardens to women can help to improve gender equity. One organization that is doing a really wonderful job of this, without the aid of policy, is Heifer International. If a poor woman has a cow, she is going to get—not exactly rich—but certainly better off.

There is a lot of change going on in urban life in general. Cities are always in flux and so old rules are broken and new ones are made concerning many dimensions of urban life. Urban dwellers constantly have to adapt. Luckily, humans are very adaptable and that is why there is always hope for change for the better for women farmers.

In Kibera, Nairobi, urban farmers are supplying farmers in rural areas with seeds. It is an example that helps to counteract the assumption cities are dependent on rural areas for food. Can you describe other ways that urban agriculture can benefit people in the city and beyond?

A colleague of mine found a great example. While researching urban food production in Nairobi she noticed people cutting grass by the side of the road. When she asked them why they were doing that, they answered that they were going to sell it outside the city in the dry land areas. One market for grass is livestock keepers who run out of grass in the dry season. The city dwellers my colleague spoke to sell their grass to the Maasai during drought. And she was astonished to learn that this was happening.

This particular example takes us back to the ancient origin of cities. Two things that people always need in cities are food and water. You will find that there is always water in a city, otherwise that city is going to empty out pretty quickly. In a city, there is always runoff from homes and other activities and the result is that all kinds of things are flourishing—even just alongside the road.

Another great example is in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. I worked on a study there were we looked at manure and waste management. We measured the total production of manure in the city, and then measured where it was all going. This is manure—waste from pigs and chickens mainly. We were very surprised to discover that 10 percent of it was being exported to another city to be sold. Fifty percent of it was being used mostly in the city on urban farms or sold or given away, and 40 percent was wasted. But 10 percent was being trucked to a city that needed manure. The ministry of agriculture was the most astonished to learn this. There was this whole exchange of agricultural inputs going on and the government didn’t even know about it. Now, just imagine if it was formalized.

To read more about urban agriculture, see: What works: Urban Agriculture, Farming the cities, feeding an urban future, What works: Making the Most of Small Spaces, and Seeding Food Security with Urban Farming

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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Powering Up Haiti’s Development Goals


Universal energy access is fundamental to achieving Haiti’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as greater access to energy facilitates progress in education as well as poverty and mortality reduction.  The dynamic development strategy embodied in the MDGs is ineffective unless accompanied by affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy services provided by a capable electricity distribution grid. Haiti is lagging behind in its progress on almost all of its MDGs, and much of this is due to a lack of reliable energy access in the country.

Haiti’s population has the lowest levels of electrification in the Western Hemisphere, with an estimated 70 percent of the population not connected to the grid. Many areas that have access to the grid only have limited access, such as in metropolitan Port-au-Prince, where power is available for only 10 hours daily to most power consumers. Implementing the use of sustainable energy in the form of solar, wind, or hydro power will work to close the development gaps created by a lack of electricity services through several dimensions.

Haiti's MDGs' Progress Report Card Source: UNICEF


Reducing dependency on expensive fossil fuels by transitioning to renewable energies in countries like Haiti, which has no oil reserves of its own, increases domestic revenue streams that can be channeled into other sectors such as healthcare and education.  The use of renewables also diversifies Haiti’s energy portfolio, which reduces the country’s vulnerability to oil price fluctuations. According to Haiti’s Energy Sector Development Plan 2007 – 2017 “Haiti’s petroleum products subsector, which represents only 20-25% of the national energy supply, uses more than 35-50% of external receipts of the country.”

 The progress in achieving the MDGs in Haiti has been slow. According to the United Nations Development Programme in Haiti (UNDP/Haiti), before the earthquake, 78 percent of Haitians lived on less than US $2 a day, while 54 percent of the population lived on less than US $1 a day. Approximately 58 percent of Haitians also had no access to water and sanitation. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti served to heighten the levels of economic and social desperation already existing in Haiti. Accompanying this extreme poverty in Haiti are some of the highest rates of maternal and child mortality in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as high rates of HIV/AIDS infection. Unfortunately, not all signs point towards improvements in the immediate future, as half a million children presently have no access to schools and a formal education.

Harnessing renewable energy paves an avenue for achieving the MDGs and a better Haiti. Extensive electricity coverage of the population can be sustained through renewable resources that are clean and affordable. In the case of MDGs 4, 5, and 6, targeted at health and well-being, greater access to electricity means more modern medical services can be employed, particularly in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Maternal and child care also benefit with the availability of medical imaging, medical monitors, and surgical machines, all of which are technologies that require reliable access to energy.

In the case of MDG 2, lighting of school buildings and homes allows for learning beyond daytime and further ensures a safer environment for young children. Evening classes give educational opportunities to individuals employed during the day, allowing them to invest in their futures. Integrating electronic learning tools such as computers and televisions into Haiti’s educational sector gives people the ability to gain knowledge outside the classroom by attending teaching sessions over the Internet and watching educational programs on television. These investments in human capital stimulate economic development by enabling a skilled and capable workforce.

Poverty and hunger reduction, major themes of the MDGs, are tackled by ensuring a healthy and educated citizenry, which ultimately relies on access to energy. At the recent Bloomberg New Energy Summit, Rebeca Grynspan, UNDP Associate Administrator and Under Secretary General, remarked, “…energy, as a driver of development, plays a central role in … fighting poverty …”


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Celebrating Nutrition on America’s “Food Day”

Hamburgers, pizzas, french fries, and sugary drinks-in today’s fast-paced world, these foods have become staples for many Americans. But this unhealthy diet has led to an increase in chronic health problems such as obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children and adolescents are now obese, staggering numbers that the organizers of Food Day, a nationwide event taking place on October 24, hope to decrease dramatically.

Food Day organizers hope to draw attention to healthy and nutritious foods and sustainable farming in the U.S. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

But promoting safe, healthy and affordable food is only one aim of Food Day, which is sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit watchdog group that fights for food labeling, better nutrition, and safer food. The organizers also want to support sustainable, humane farming, and fair trading conditions.

Around the United States, cities and communities are coming together to showcase the benefits of eating healthy, locally grown, and organic food. Philadelphia is organizing a city-wide event focused on ending hunger and food “deserts”-areas where healthy, affordable food is difficult to obtain. In California, organizations are building a statewide Food Day partnership to promote new food policies, and in Iowa, conferences are being held to highlight how small and mid-sized farmers can get their produce to markets.

In addition to these forums and celebrations, nearly 400 individual events are being sponsored by communities, groups, and companies across the United States. These include:

San Francisco. The organization is hosting benefit dinners on October 20-22 to show how delicious earth-friendly food can be.

Boston. Boston Food Swap is organizing a crowd-sourced potluck-where they will provide the venue, and attendees will provide local, organic food to show that responsible food is both nutritious and tasty.

Phoenix. In a “Lunch and Learn” session for students and the general public, a panel of local farmers and chefs will demonstrate how they work together to provide sustainable food.

Miami. The city will hold its annual Food & Recreation Expo, offering health screenings, fitness demos, diet and nutrition sessions, giveaways, free massages, and more. The host of “Dinner: Impossible,” Robert Irvine, will perform a live cooking demonstration.

Seattle. On October 24, the restaurant Fresh Starts and filmmaker Severine von Tscharner Fleming will screen “The Greenhorns,” a film about the spirit, vision, and stories behind new farmers, followed by an interactive information session on the Farm Bill.

  • Universities. Events are being planned at the University of Vermont, University of Pennsylvania, University of Minnesota, University of North Carolina, New York University, Stanford, Yale, and Harvard School of Public Health, among others.

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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