Archive for the ‘Innovations that Nourish the Planet’ Category


Innovation of the Week: Fertilizer Tree Systems enrich soils naturally

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By Isaac Hopkins

Among the most challenging long-term barriers to agricultural production and sustainability in Africa is poor and degrading soil quality. According to “Agricultural success from Africa: the case of fertilizer tree systems in southern Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe),” a report from the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, simple “Fertilizer Tree Systems” (FTS) can double maize production in soil that is low in nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient. A type of agroforestry, FTS incorporate nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs into agricultural fields, usually inter-planted with food crops. These trees take in atmospheric nitrogen and return it to the soil, where it serves as a nutrient for plants.

Nitrogen-fixing agroforestry is emerging in southern Africa as a major tool for renewing soil fertility and boosting yields. (Photo credit: Trees4Children)

Soil analyses by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and others in the 1980s revealed nitrogen to be a limiting factor in many African soils. In response, on-farm studies in the 1990s showed that FTS with the right species could increase crop yields with or without mineral fertilizers. FTS are much cheaper for farmers to implement than buying fertilizer inputs, and represent a more holistic approach to soil management. FTS scaling-up programs were broadly implemented about ten years ago, and in that time the number of small-holder farmers using these techniques has ballooned from a few hundred to more than 250,000 in Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

FTS have proven most effective for small farmers who are able to devote the necessary labor and land more easily than the money needed for commercial fertilizer. By relying on naturally occurring systems rather than imports, agroforestry improves food security, bolsters biodiversity, and reinforces local economies. The introduction of a wider variety of plants to fields, for example, has been shown to increase diversity of the local ecosystem, which further augments the soil.



Innovation of the week: Using Ants and Termites to Increase Crop Yields

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By Graham Salinger

With around 1 billion hungry people globally, finding a way to improve crop production remains a challenge.  This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa.  Sub-Saharan Africa faces an extraordinary soil fertility crisis which decreases crop yield and contributes to food shortages.  Local farmers report that they can no longer maintain soil fertility and that harvests are declining 15–25 percent a year. Most farmers expect that within the next five years their harvests will drop by half, and some villages are already dependent on food aid. One way that farmers are working to increase crop yield, however, is through the use of termites and ants.

Recent research conducted by scientist at the University of Sydney reveals that ants could also help farmers increase crop yields. (Photo credit: Theo Evans, CSIRO Entomology)

Recent research conducted by scientists at the University of Sydney reveals that ants could also help farmers increase crop yields. The findings show that termites and ants improve soil fertility in drylands by digging tunnels that allow plants greater access to water. The research also found that termites provide plants additional nutrients because they increase the amount of nitrogen contained in soil.  This is done through nitrogen heavy bacteria in their stomach, which allows them to transmit nitrogen into soil through their saliva and feces.  Land that was treated with ants and termites showed a 36 percent increase in the amount of wheat produced. This research gives new scientific insight into how using termites and ants effectively reduces water waste while improving crop yield.

Using termites to improve crop production is widely practiced in Africa. Africa is home to more than 660 species of termites and while many of them destroy crops, especially exotic crops like maize and sugarcane, farmers in Africa have found innovative ways to integrate termites into their farming systems. In many parts of West Africa farmers place wood on soil in order to attract termites to the soil. In Burkina Faso, farmers bury manure in holes near newly planted grains in hopes that the manure will attract termites to their soil.



Innovation of the week: Turning cattails into fuel

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By Graham Salinger

Canada’s Lake Winnipeg is the 11th largest lake in the world and it is one of the world’s most polluted lakes. Tinted with a bluish-green tinge as a result of algae, Lake Winnipeg is no longer a viable fresh water source. The key to addressing Lake Winnipeg’s problems is in the Netley-Libau Marsh.  Located at the south end of Lake Winnipeg, the marsh filters nutrients running from the red river into Lake Winnipeg. Beginning in the 1970’s, the marsh began to experience significant rises in levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. These elevated levels resulted in a dramatic loss of fish, plants, wild life, aquatic vegetation, and wetland areas.

By using the cattails as a biofuel, reesearchers hope to reduce pollutants in Canada’s natural water ways, restore the marsh’s habitat, and reduce green house gas emissions. (Photo credit: University of Manitoba)

Richard Grosshans, a researcher with the University of Manitoba and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, thinks he may have the solution to Lake Winnipeg’ s problems. The answer, he says, is cattails.  According to his research, preventing harmful nutrients from re-entering the marsh requires removing cattails that grow abundantly in the marsh. While other pollutants, such as nitrogen, are stored in wetlands and are naturally broken down over time, phosphorus gets stored in sediments and eventually retained in biomass, such as cattails. When the cattails decay they release phosphorus into the water.

The research has demonstrated that removing the cattails can help restore the marsh’s ecological potential. In areas where researchers removed cattails, plants began growing two weeks earlier than in areas where cattails were not removed. Additionally, plant size and density in areas where cattails have been removed increased within two years of removal.



Innovation of the Week: Delivering Lasting Change with a Backpack

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By Sheldon Yoder

Backpack Farm Agricultural Programs is trying to prove that investing in smallholder agriculture in east Africa is not only one of the most effective long-term means of addressing the recurring drought in the Horn of Africa but also profitable. As the name suggests, the organization’s tool of choice is a canvas backpack.

Backpack Farm couples a backpack full of ecologically-sound agro-tech with training on sustainable agriculture practices for farmers in East Africa. (Photo Credit: Bernard Pollack)

Founder Rachel Zedeck first had the idea for Backpack Farm when she got off a plane in South Sudan and saw women farmers carrying 90 kg bags of food aid. She thought that it would be more helpful if they were carrying a bag back home containing irrigation technology, drought-resistant seeds and training manuals that would enable them to become better farmers. Zedeck sold her house and moved to Kenya where she used her savings to launch the for-profit social venture. Backpack Farm currently operates in Kenya and South Sudan and has reached approximately 13,000 smallholders.

Each backpack supplied by the organization contains a soil testing bag, indigenous or drought resistant seed packs, biological crop protection and fertilizer inputs, a drip irrigation system, a filter, water tank, sprayer, training manual, and a crop journal. The backpacks are not small, but they come complete with the tools for dramatically improving crop yields for these farmers.

But Backpack Farm does not simply provide a kit of agricultural inputs. It operates primarily as a training program, stimulating entrepreneurship and teaching ecologically sound agricultural practices. The program works in five phases: assessment and mobilization, specifically supply chain management; training and production; production monitoring and market distribution strategies; risk management; and finally, expansion through reinvestment that ensures transparency, sustainability, and natural expansion within rural communities.



Nourishing the Planet TV: Messages From One Rice Farmer to Another

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In this week’s episode, Nourishing the Planet research intern Emily Gilbert discusses the Africa Rice Center‘s knowledge sharing, “Farmer to Farmer” videos, a video series that seeks to educate and instruct rice farmers on new production and storage techniques being developed by smallholder rice farmers around the world.


To read about the Africa Rice Center’s “Farmer to Farmer” videos, see Innovation of the Week: Messages from One Rice Farmer to Another

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.


Innovation of the Week: Open Source Software for Agriculture and Nutrition

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By Mara Schechter

Communication and information technology (ICT) are helping farmers access information about market prices and weather through text messaging, or SMS, on their cell phones. And a newer trend, open source technology, provides tools for organizations to take advantage of and scale up this technology.

Freely available, open source platforms like these are helping organizations spread messages, connect farmers to one another, track trends, and effect change. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Open source (meaning the source code is publicly available for free) software is helping organizations reach small farmers and rural communities. NGOs can do this at low cost, on a large scale, and without an Internet connection. More people in the developing world have access to their cell phones than to the Internet, making cell phones an important information tool.

Created to help NGOs working in developing countries, FrontlineSMS enables users to send out and collect messages to and from groups of people, with only a laptop with a cell phone plugged in. Organizations can use this software not only to get in touch with people in need in places without Internet access, but also to take surveys, hold competitions, coordinate with other staff members, and run campaigns.

Ken Banks created the software, along with other initiatives under the umbrella of, which focuses on “empower[ing] local, national and international non-profit organizations to make better use of information and communications technology in their work.” Many case studies demonstrate how organizations have used FrontlineSMS for all kinds of purposes, including monitoring elections, but most relevant here are the agricultural and health projects that the software has helped to run.



Innovation of the Week: A New Addition to the Uruguayan Potato Family

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By: Kaia E. Clarke

Potatoes are enjoyed in various authentic international cuisines, specifically in Latin America countries. For centuries, the potato has been the main source of income for farmers and their families. In Uruguay, potatoes help to improve the countries economic status by being a major exporting crop in their agriculture market.

Scientists used a 75-year-old technique to save the Uruguayan potatoes. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

In 2001, Uruguayan’s exporting began declining because of a plant disease called Bacterial wilt (Ralstonia solanacearum). It was found in 39 percent of samples from Uruguayan potato farms and forced the country to import potato seed. This fungus is extremely difficult to get rid because it multiples quickly in high moisture environments such as South America. It has also been found to infect other crops such as sweet potato and cassava, which are common in other developing countries.

In order to completely eliminate the fungus, farmers have to suffer the loss of their main source of income for their families and make the difficult decision to remove their entire yield. It is necessary for farmers to quickly choose their plan of action because the permanent wilting of the crop causes crops to die in a short period of time. Otherwise, the fungus has the potential to spread among farming supplies, soils, and water irrigation systems.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) recognize that sufficient funding is an impediment for many poverty-stricken countries. In addition, implementing sustainable agricultural development is very challenging when their economic status is at risk.  In 2008, the ITPGRFA Treaty Benefit-sharing Fund Project  granted funding for 11 projects, including the Uruguayan potato research which was the first project to be approved.



Innovation of the Week: Banking Today to Conserve Plants for the Future

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By Janeen Madan

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.

The Millennium Seed Bank is a global network of organizations that bank seeds of rare and threatened plants. (Photo credit: Andrew McRobb, RBG Kew)

And even though plants may not receive as much attention as endangered animals, like polar bears or tigers, they’re extremely important. Plants are a vital source of food, they can help stabilize the climate, and they also provide shelter, medicines and fuel.

The Kew Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), located at Wakehurst Place, in West Sussex, U.K., is working with its global network of partner organizations to bank seeds of rare and threatened plants. With 120 partner institutions in over 50 countries, MSB is the largest plant conservation project in the world. In 2009, the bank achieved its target of collecting seeds from 10 percent of the world’s plant species. Its next goal is to secure 25 percent by 2020.

The bank was started with the simple idea of collecting and conserving the world’s wild plant species. Banking seeds of useful plants is the first step in finding varieties that can help confront pressing global problems—from water scarcity, to deforestation, to restoring endangered habitats. “As seed conservationists, our role is not only to conserve plant diversity, but to make it available to as wide a range of users to enable both innovation and adaptation,” says Paul Smith, head of the Seed Bank in the U.K.



Looking to agriculture as our global population continues to grow

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Radio Free Asia recently interviewed Nourishing the Planet project director, Danielle Nierenberg, where she discussed the growing global population, and highlighted agricultural innovations that are working to address food security issues worldwide.

Photo credit: Bernard Pollack

Click here to listen to the interview.

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.



Innovation of the Week: Empowering Impoverished Communities with Compatible Technologies

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By Matt Styslinger

World agriculture produces more food today than ever before. Since the 1960’s, massive funding has gone to new crop varieties, machinery, pesticides, and fertilizers—dramatically boosting yields in even some of the poorest parts of the world. Unfortunately, we’ve tended to ignore some simple—and inexpensive—tools, including grain stores, crop drying equipment, crates, and refrigeration that are needed to ensure that harvests make it to market. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that, globally, as much as 50 percent of crops go bad before they can be eaten.

A CTI grinder can produce in one hour the same amount of nutritious groundnut paste—peanut butter—that is produced in eight hours using traditional methods. (Photo credit: CTI)

In its effort to alleviate poverty and hunger in the developing world, Compatible Technology International (CTI) designs, builds, and distributes affordable post-harvest tools—such as a cool storage shed and food processing grinder—for rural farmers in the developing world. CTI’s devices can help farmers process, store, and sell their crops.

While many organizations are focused on improved seeds, access to fertilizers, and irrigation to improve crop yields, relatively few are focused on post-harvest improvements. But many poor farmers live on yields from a hectare or less of land and getting the maximum benefit from those yields can make up the difference between abject poverty and a livable income.