For the last 40 years, Earth Day has been celebrated around the world to call attention to some of our most pressing environmental and social problems, including climate change, biodiversity loss, and dwindling natural resources. This year, the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet highlights 15 agricultural innovations that are already working on the ground to address some of those problems.
Agriculture is already working on the ground around the world to protect the environment, while improving people's livelihoods. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
The 15 innovations are used by farmers, scientists, activists, politicians, and businesses and promote a healthier environment and a more food-secure future.
Guaranteeing the Right to Food. Some 1 billion people worldwide experience chronic hunger, and 98 percent of these people live in developing countries. To combat hunger in rural or remote communities, the Brazilian government operates the Food Acquisition Program, which funds local organizations, including community kitchens, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and schools, to buy and distribute fruits, vegetables, and animal products from smallholder farmers in their region.
Harnessing the Nutritional and Economic Potential of Vegetables. Micronutrient deficiencies, including lack of vitamin A, iodine, and iron, affect 1 billion people worldwide and stem partly from a lack of variety in people’s diets. Slow Food International works to broaden diets, and preserve biodiversity, by helping farmers grow local and indigenous varieties of fruits and vegetables, organizing cooking workshops, and helping producers get access to traditional seeds.
Reducing Food Waste. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that roughly a third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year. In New York City, City Harvest collects nearly 28 million pounds of excess food each year from restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers, and farms and delivers it to some 600 local food programs.
Feeding Cities. Poor urban households spend from 60 to 80 percent of their income on food, putting them at risk of hunger or malnutrition when food prices rise or their incomes fall. The French non-governmental organization Solidarités has provided women in Kibera, an urban slum in Nairobi, Kenya, with training, seeds, and sacks to grow vegetables in “vertical farms,” a space-efficient way to increase food security in cities.
Getting More Crop per Drop. Millions of farmers, including the majority of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, depend on rainfall to water their crops—which climate scientists predict will decline in coming decades. The company International Development Enterprises sells simple and inexpensive irrigation systems to farmers in Zambia, India, and other countries. Their systems include a treadle pump that draws water from underground without the use of fossil fuels, and a drip irrigation kit that costs just US$5 can efficiently water 20 square meters.
Using Farmers’ Knowledge in Research and Development. Many agricultural research and development programs exclude smallholder farmers. But in Kenya, the Muyafwa Development Program, with help from the U.S.-based nonprofit World Neighbors, involves local farmers in comparing a newly introduced sweet potato variety with the existing indigenous one—ensuring detailed and accurate feedback on the productivity, taste, storability, and hardiness of each variety.
Improving Soil Fertility. Each year, more than 29 million acres, or enough land to grow 20 million tons of grain, turn into deserts. To combat desertification and land degradation, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics is training farmers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger to apply small and targeted quantities of fertilizer to crops at planting time or soon after. This has increased yields of the staple crops sorghum and millet by between 44 and 120 percent.
Safeguarding Local Food Biodiversity. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a quarter of the world’s known plant species—some 60,000 to 100,000 species—are threatened with extinction, while soy, wheat, and maize become more and more prevalent in people’s everyday diets. In Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault protects thousands of seed varieties that farmers in developing countries can use to help re-harvest crops that have been affected by disease, climate, or conflict.
Coping with Climate Change and Building Resilience. Global climate change will negatively affect agriculture by reducing soil fertility and decreasing crop yields. In preparation for these impacts, and in response to the land degradation that has already occurred, farmers in Niger have planted nearly 5 million hectares of trees that conserve water, prevent soil erosion, and sequester carbon, making their farms more productive and drought-resistant without the use of chemicals.
Harnessing the Knowledge and Skills of Women Farmers. Women farmers face a variety of obstacles, including a lack of access to information technology, agricultural training, financial services, and support networks like co-operatives or trade unions. The Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a female trade union in India that began in 1992, helps poor, self-employed women achieve full employment and self-reliance by linking them to markets, banks, co-operatives, and self-help groups.
Investing in Africa’s Land. Governments and private investors are acquiring large swathes of agricultural land around the world at very low or no cost, particularly in Africa and Asia—often displacing indigenous peoples. In Ethiopia’s Rift Valley, African farmers and foreign investing companies have reached a compromise: farmers grow green beans for the Dutch market during the European winter months, but cultivate corn and other crops for local consumption during the remaining months.
Charting a New Path to Eliminating Hunger. Reactive measures to famines and natural disasters, including sending shipments of vitamin-fortified, pre-packaged food, too often replace preventative measures like investing in sustainable agricultural systems or building infrastructure to transport food to remote communities in developing countries. The UN World Food Programme has developed the Purchase for Progress program, which buys fresh produce directly from local farmers and distributes it as food aid both within the farmers’ country and abroad.
Improving Food Production from Livestock. The FAO estimates that 21 percent of the world’s livestock breeds are at risk of extinction. But in India, farmers in the state of Andhra Pradesh are improving the quality of their feed by using grass, sorghum, stover, and brans to produce more milk from fewer animals, demonstrating that animal husbandry can provide an income without harming the environment.
Going beyond Production. Although scarcity and famine dominate the discussion of food security in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, many countries are unequipped to deal with the crop surpluses that lead to low commodity prices and food waste. In Uganda, the organization TechnoServe has helped to improve market conditions for banana farmers by forming business groups through which they can buy inputs, receive technical advice, and sell their crops collectively.
Moving Ecoagriculture into the Mainstream. Agricultural practices that emphasize increased production have contributed to the degradation of land, soil, wildlife, and local ecosystems, and ultimately hurt the livelihoods of the farmers who depend on these natural resources. Ranchers and farmers in Dimbangombe, in western Zimbabwe, have committed 20,000 acres of degraded grassland to be communally owned, grazed, and maintained, with the aim of restoring the area’s plants and wildlife while sustainably raising livestock on the land.
These and other efforts to make agriculture a healthy and stable source of income and nourishment will need to continue to be scaled up in the coming years and be passed on to the next generation to ensure that the march toward sustainability continues.