The Nourishing the Planet project assesses the state of agricultural innovations with an emphasis on sustainability, diversity, and ecosystem health, as well as productivity.

Updated by @Worldwatch

Latest News

Feb26

Agricultural Population Growth Marginal as Nonagricultural Population Soars

Share
Pin It

The global agricultural population—defined as individuals dependent on agriculture, hunting, fishing, and forestry for their livelihood—accounted for over 37 percent of the world’s total population in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. This is a decrease of 12 percent from 1980, when the world’s agricultural and nonagricultural populations were roughly the same size. Although the agricultural population shrunk as a share of total population between 1980 and 2011, it grew numerically from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people during this period.

The world’s agricultural population grew from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion people between 1980 and 2011. (Photo Credit: UNDP)

Between 1980 and 2011, the nonagricultural population grew by a staggering 94 percent, from 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion people—a rate approximately five times greater than that of agricultural population growth. In both cases growth was driven by the massive increase in the world’s total population, which more than doubled between 1961 and 2011, from 3.1 billion to 7 billion people.

It should be noted that the distinction between these population groups is not the same as the rural-urban divide. Rural populations are not exclusively agricultural, nor are urban populations exclusively nonagricultural. The rural population of Africa in 2011 was 622.8 million, for instance, while the agricultural population was 520.3 million.

Although the agricultural population grew worldwide between 1980 and 2011, growth was restricted to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. During this period, this population group declined in North, Central, and South America, in the Caribbean, and in Europe.

In 2011, Africa and Asia accounted for about 95 percent of the world’s agricultural population. In contrast, the agricultural population in the Americas accounted for a little less than 4 percent. Especially in the United States, this is the result of the development and use of new and innovative technologies as well as the increased use of farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems that require less manual labor.

(more…)

Dec30

From Waste to Food to Fuel: Rice Production and Green Charcoal in Senegal

Share
Pin It

By Andrew Alesbury

Inadequate management of human waste is a dire problem in much of the developing world. Swelling urban populations can make matters worse by exposing increasingly dense populations to illnesses carried by human waste. Some, however, are making good use of the surplus sewage. Rather than allow the urine and fecal matter to lie fallow, some have taken to utilizing it for agricultural purposes in lieu of synthetic or inorganic fertilizers. This practice not only makes fertilizer more readily available to farmers who might not have easy access to it in conventional forms, it is also significantly less expensive than using inorganic and synthetic fertilizers, which are often imported. Furthermore, the use of human fertilizer can sometimes be a crop-saving tactic when water is in short supply.

Leftover rice husks and straw can be used to produce green charcoal. (Photo Credit: agriculturalinvestments.net)

It is with these benefits in mind that groups like AgriDjalo, a small limited liability company focused on rice cultivation, are looking to start projects in Senegal that use urban biomass (primarily human waste) to fertilize rice fields. With over 40 percent of Senegal’s almost 13 million inhabitants living in urban areas, there is an abundant supply of human fertilizer.

AgriDjalo’s project could have the added benefit of decreasing reliance on rice imports. In 2012 alone, Senegal imported 820,000 metric tons of rice, accounting for over 6 percent of its total imports and presenting a considerable strain on the nation’s trade balance. As the second largest rice importer in Sub-Saharan Africa and one of the top ten worldwide, Senegal has much to gain, both in terms of income generation and decreased import dependency, from an increase in domestic rice production.

(more…)

Dec22

Innovation of the Week: Community Animal Health Workers

Share
Pin It

By Brandon Pierce

Animal health services for livestock owners in several parts of sub-Saharan Africa are limited because of poor infrastructure and high delivery costs. To address this deficiency, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has supported the training and use of Community Animal Health Workers (CAHWs) in these regions. CAHWs are community members who have been trained in basic animal health care. The FAO is taking steps to standardize how CAHWs are trained and to connect them with reliable sources of needed drugs and materials.

Community Animal Health Workers help livestock owners provide basic healthcare for their animals. (Photo Credit: iyufera.com)

In Ethiopia, government supply systems often run out of the drugs livestock owners need for animal healthcare, which makes it difficult for CAHWs to effectively care for livestock. To meet the high demand for drugs, the FAO has worked to establish private pharmacies in Ethiopia and establish partnerships with CAHWs. So far, these efforts have been successful: over 30 pharmacies have been established, and these pharmacies have been linked to 600 CAHWs. To further improve CAHW programs, the Ethiopian government has developed minimum requirements and standards—such as the availability of training manuals for workers.

Kenya has also benefitted from the FAO’s CAHW program. During the 1990s, many Kenyan livestock owners were unable to afford the cost of treatment for their animals. Today, various CAHW programs—including the Community Livelihood Empowerment Project—have improved the availability of animal healthcare, reduced the cost of treatment, and ultimately improved livestock owners’ livelihoods.

(more…)

Dec20

Putting a Dollar Value on Food Waste Estimates

Share
Pin It

By Carol Dreibelbis

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about one-third—or 1.3 billion metric tons—of all food produced for human consumption goes to waste each year. While it is easy to recognize the enormity of this number, it is much more difficult to make sense of it in a useful way. An October 2012 study by Jean Buzby and Jeffrey Hyman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeks to make food waste estimates more meaningful by attaching a dollar value.

Research from the USDA finds that Americans waste an average of US$544 worth of food per person per year. (Photo Credit: biocycle.net)

The study measures the value of food loss in the United States at the retail (“supermarkets, megastores like Walmart, and other retail outlets”) and consumer (“food consumed at home and away from home”) levels. Findings indicate that US$165.6 billion worth of food was lost at these levels in 2008. This translates to the loss of an average of US$1.49 worth of food per person per day—totaling about US$544 per person per year—at the retail and consumer levels. At the consumer level, alone, the average American wasted almost 10 percent of the amount spent on his or her food in 2008.

Food losses on this scale are concerning, especially when viewed in the context of a growing global population. As the study explains, “The United Nations predicts that the world population will reach 9.3 billion by 2050 and this growth will require at least a 70 percent increase in food production, net of crops used for biofuels.” Considering that a reduction of food loss at the consumer and retail levels by just one percent would keep US$1.66 billion worth of food in the food supply, limiting food waste could play a major role in feeding future populations.

Food waste also places an unnecessarily heavy burden on the environment. The production, processing, storage, and transportation of food that ultimately goes to waste still consumes natural resources and other inputs, while also releasing greenhouse gases and other pollutants that stem from the food system. For example, the study points out that the production of wasted food consumes over 25 percent of all freshwater used in the U.S. and around 300 million barrels of oil.

(more…)

Dec16

FAO lauds Nelson Mandela as Champion of Right to Food

Share
Pin It

By Sophie Wenzlau

“We have lost one of the world’s passionate defenders of the right to food,” said UN Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva, upon learning of the death of Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela recognized hunger as a moral issue. (Photo Credit: Pulitzer Center)

“Mandela understood that a hungry man, woman or child could not be truly free,” he said. “He understood that eliminating hunger was not so much a question of producing more food as it was a matter of making the political commitment to ensure that people had access to the resources and services they needed to buy or produce enough safe and nutritious food.”

Graziano da Silva said that he and others at the FAO had been inspired over the years by Mandela’s repeated calls to address hunger, a systemic global problem.

A total of 842 million people, or around one in eight people in the world, suffered from chronic hunger in 2011-13, according to the FAO’s State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013.

This figure represents a 17 percent decline in the overall number of undernourished people since 1990-92, a marked achievement. Programs designed to increase access to education, school meals, agricultural inputs, small-scale loans, market information, fortified grain, and emergency rations have all contributed to this reduction in chronic hunger. Organizations, governments, farmers, and innovative community leaders deserve praise for this accomplishment.

(more…)

Dec10

5 Strategies the United Nations Special Rapporteur Suggests for Public Health

Share
Pin It

By Alison Blackmore

With 1.3 billion people now overweight or obese, nearly 1 billion undernourished, and even more suffering from critical micronutrient deficiencies, it is no secret that our food system is broken. Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food released a report in 2011 urging governments to move away from the practice of merely prescribing health warnings and applying band-aids to public health challenges. Instead, he urged governments to address the root causes of the international health crisis.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food urges governments to address the root causes of the international health crisis. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia)

Today, Nourishing the Planet looks at the five actions that Mr. De Schutter suggests that governments take to protect the human right to adequate food around the world.

Taxing unhealthy products. De Schutter reported that taxing unhealthy products can be an effective strategy to encourage healthy diets, since price is an important determinant in consumption levels. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2007 showed that a 10 percent tax on soft drinks could lead to an 8–10 percent reduction in purchases. Because foods high in fat, salt, and sugar are cheap while nutritious diets can be expensive, many consumers gravitate toward unhealthy food choices out of financial necessity. To ensure a more equal food system, the report advises governments to direct the tax revenues raised from foods high in fat, salt, and sugar toward making healthy food more affordable and accessible to poor communities.

Example: Despite strong opposition from retailers city-wide, in May 2010 the Washington, D.C. Council added sweetened soda to those items subject to the 6 percent sales tax. The city intended to use the tax revenue to support D.C.’s Healthy Schools Act, a landmark measure seeking to improve school nutrition and increase Physical Education programs.

Regulating foods high in saturated fats, salt, and sugar. Taxing foods high in fats, sugar, and salt is just one way of suppressing a sugar-high food system before it crashes. De Schutter also suggests that governments regulate junk food and fast food advertisements, especially those catered to children; provide accurate and balanced nutritional information to consumers; and adopt a plan to replace trans-fats with polyunsaturated fats in nearly all food products.

Example: In October of 2011, Denmark imposed a so-called “fat tax” on products high in saturated fats in order to repress rising obesity rates, which have led to increasing medical and social problems. Denmark has a long history of taxing unhealthy products to promote healthy diets, such as a tax on candy and a ban on trans-fats—perhaps a reason the country’s obesity rate in 2011 was 1.6 percent lower than the European average of 15 percent.

(more…)

Nov29

White House Report Highlights Importance of Reauthorizing Farm Bill

Share
Pin It

By Sophie Wenzlau

Earlier this week, the White House Rural Council released a report highlighting the economic importance of reauthorizing the Farm Bill, the United States’ primary food and agriculture policy tool.

The Farm Bill can impact food prices, environmental conservation programs, and international trade. (Photo Credit: wlfarm.org)

The bill—which impacts food prices, environmental conservation programs, international trade, agricultural research, food and nutrition programs, and the well being of rural communities—has been stalled in congress for over a year, in part due to disagreement over reductions to the food stamp program. House Republicans aim to cut $40 billion in food stamp funds over the next 10 years, while Senate Democrats aim to cut only $4 billion.

According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, failure to pass the bill before the end of the year could double milk prices for Americans, spark retaliatory tariffs from Brazil, and leave livestock producers who have been hit by storms and drought without standard federal assistance.

The Obama Administration’s report, which urges Congress to reauthorize as soon as possible, highlights the potential benefits of a new Farm Bill. According to the Administration, the new bill could:

  1. Build on recent momentum of the U.S. agriculture economy, a key engine of economic growth;
  2. Continue federal conservation efforts, working alongside a record number of farmers and ranchers to conserve soil and water resources; (more…)
Nov25

Innovation of the Week: PodPonics—Thinking Globally, Growing Locally

Share
Pin It

By Jameson Spivack

PodPonics, an indoor urban agriculture project that grows lettuce in PVC pipes inside used shipping containers, is just one of a new crop of up-and-coming urban agricultural innovators. The U.S. company, created by Dan Backhaus and Mark Liotta, currently operates a collection of six “pods,” or containers, in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, and is in the process of developing a plot of land next to Atlanta International Airport.

PodPonics minimizes harmful outputs and enables urban residents to grow fresh, nutritious foods locally. (Photo Credit: talk.greentowns.com)

According to Backhaus and Liotta, growing the produce in shipping containers has many advantages. The size and scale of the containers makes it easy to standardize the light, temperature, and watering of the plants. For this reason, the PodPonics model is applicable to many different locales and situations. Backhaus and Liotta call this the “local everywhere” approach—emphasizing local production and consumption while maintaining a global focus.

Part of this global focus includes a strong dedication to environmental responsibility. Standardizing inputs allows PodPonics to conserve resources that typically are wasted in large-scale production. The closed environment of the pods prevents fertilizer runoff and allows for the recycling of water and nutrients. The pods also use energy during off-peak hours, which utilizes leftover energy in the system, helping to stabilize the city’s energy grid.

(more…)

Nov21

Iroko Trees Fight Climate Change

Share
Pin It

By Kristen Thiel

Iroko trees are native to the west coast of Africa. Sometimes called Nigerian teak, their wood is tough, dense, and very durable. Their hardwood is so sought after that the trees are often poached and are now endangered in many regions of Africa. But a new scientific discovery may aid in reforestation efforts.

Iroko trees can serve as long-term carbon sinks. (Photo Credit: DJ Obruni)

Oliver de Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, has found that Iroko trees can serve as long-term carbon sinks and can potentially play a role in the fight against climate change. Iroko trees and microbes can turn carbon dioxide emissions into soil-enriching limestone, a process that packs a one-two punch: carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, and dry, acidic soil is made more fertile for agriculture.

When the West African Iroko tree is grown in dry, acidic soil and treated with microbes, it produces a very specific mineral. When the microbes are introduced, the tree combines the calcium already in the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce a mineral limestone. This mineral limestone is then stored in the soil around the Iroko tree’s roots.

Normally, biomass (such as trees) does not store carbon dioxide—the gas is used in the process of decomposition. But carbon in the form of limestone has a staying time that may span a million years. This makes a great case, according to the Swiss researchers, for the preservation and sustainable management of tropical forests to fight against the greenhouse effect.

Iroko trees are just one of many species from Africa and the Amazon that can turn carbon in the atmosphere into mineral limestone. In this study, scientists looked at several microbe-tree combinations to identify which was best for locking up carbon dioxide as limestone, and the Iroko-microbe pathway showed the greatest results.

“By taking advantage of this natural limestone-producing process, we have a low-tech, safe, readily employed and easily maintained way to lock carbon out of the atmosphere, while enriching farming conditions in tropical countries,” said Dr Bryne Ngwenya of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences.

There is also great potential for reforestation projects to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the developing world. Reforestation schemes that involve the use of microbes and Iroko trees together could improve the carbon sequestration balance of carbon trading initiatives, improve soil fertility, and even promote the implementation of agroforestry projects to benefit rural communities.

Are you familiar with Iroko tree restoration efforts? Let us know in the comments section below!

Kristen Thiel is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture program.

Nov17

Innovation of the Week: Gardening “Boot Camps” for Troubled Youth

Share
Pin It

By Emily Gilbert

Rather than a jail term, a program from the Cook County Boot Camp in Illinois is finding ways to reach troubled youth and inmates through urban gardening. Among the educational and vocational offerings the program offers is work in a three-quarter-acre garden that produces tomatoes, kale, carrots, and a host of other vegetables. The young male inmates learn life lessons and job skills through gardening, leading some to explore new career opportunities and lifestyle choices through agriculture and green jobs.

The Chicago Botanic Garden teaches inmates about sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture. (Photo Credit: New York Times)

The first group of inmates to participate in the program built 30 raised beds, planted an acre of vegetable transplants and seeds, and maintained the farm during their 18-week program. Since the garden’s establishment in 2009, more than 3,000 pounds of produce have been harvested. Whatever is not consumed in the camp’s mess hall is distributed to food pantries over the course of the growing season.

In 2012, the facility installed a compost operation to break down food waste, paper scraps, and other organic material into compostable matter. The resulting compost is applied to the garden, creating an independent and efficient food system for the facility.

“We’ve designed the program so we would be able to grow our own food,” said Frank Johnson, director of programs at the Cook County Sheriff’s Boot Camp. “If we can grow our own food, we can demonstrate what we can do both to the guys working in the garden and to everybody else.”

The boot camp is operated by the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest program, which in partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago now provides a certificate in sustainable horticulture and urban agriculture for boot camp graduates. To encourage participation and provide viable economic opportunity, graduates can earn $9.50 an hour while attending classes and working at various gardens, urban farms, and farmers markets around the city. Former inmates Brian Devitt and Nicholas Walker, for example, have both chosen agriculture as a career and are now working as employees of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

(more…)