Archive for the ‘Sustainable’ Category

Oct13

Five Global Seed Banks That Are Protecting Biodiversity

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By Victoria Russo

Almost all food begins with a seed. Even when people eat meat or other animal products, those animals were most likely fed on grasses or grains that began as seeds. Seeds are the basis of plant life and growth, and without them, the world would go hungry.

The world is home to hundreds of thousands of species of plants, and it requires a diverse variety of seeds to satisfy nutritional and environmental needs. Today, Nourishing the Planet takes a closer look at five seed banks that aim to protect biodiversity and help feed the world.

The world requires a diverse variety of seeds to satisfy nutritional and environmental needs. (Photo Credit: jamesandeverett.com)

1. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Project, Wakehurst, England

How many plant species can you think of? Of the roughly 400,000 known species, the Millennium Seed Bank aims to conserve 25 percent in the form of seeds by 2020. The seed bank is located on the grounds of Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens, which were constructed by King Henry VII and are now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Focused on conserving seeds from plants that can be used for food production, the Millennium Seed Bank currently holds seeds from over 10 percent of all plant species.

Millennium in Action

The Royal Botanical Gardens has been collecting research on seed saving since 1898 and has had a formal seed bank for 40 years. In recent years, it has concentrated on collecting seeds from environments that are most vulnerable to climate change. In addition to developing new crop varieties that are more adaptable to changing environments, the Millennium Seed Bank Project has implemented an international education program in an attempt to preserve ecosystems worldwide. A large part of its educational outreach program has taken place in rural regions of Africa, in countries including Kenya, Botswana, Burkina Faso, and Namibia. Promoting projects from nutrition to forestry to sustainable agriculture, the Millenium Seed Bank Project is working to feed the world and sustain the environment.

2. Navdanya, Uttrakhand, India

Since 1987, Vandana Shiva, who created Navdanya, has dedicated her life to protecting seed diversity. Navdanya is an agricultural research center that seeks to protect seed biodiversity and the livelihoods of small farmers. The organization believes that people should have a right to save and share seeds, and has created a seed bank that conserves only unpatented seeds.

Navdanya in Action

Since its creation, the Navdanya seed bank has conserved around 5,000 crop varieties, focusing largely on the preservation of grain species. The 54 community seed banks that Navdanya has piloted have preserved nearly 3,000 species of rice alone. In addition to protecting seed biodiversity, Navdanya aims to spread agricultural information through educational campaigns.

3. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Svalbard, Norway

Preserving seeds for long periods of time requires extremely cold temperatures and low humidity. That’s why Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located deep in the permafrost-covered mountains of Svalbard, was deemed the ideal site for a global seed bank. Funding for the seed bank, built from the remains of an abandoned mine, was provided largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the aim of permanently protecting agricultural and plant biodiversity. The vault has the capacity for 4.5 million seed samples and currently houses over 430,000 specimens, including samples from Armenia, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Tajikstan. Genetically modified organisms are allowed in the seed bank only after evaluation and approval and must be specially sealed to prevent the spread of genetic modification to other samples.

Svalbard in Action

Despite being nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault,” Svalbard is a forerunner in global environmental problem-solving and innovation, and frequently hosts events on topics related to food security and climate change. In 2009, the seed vault held an international conference on climate change and the challenges of feeding the world’s growing population. The vault also has hosted influential policymakers including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

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Oct06

Working for a Fairer, More Sustainable Food System: An Interview with Shiney Varghese

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Nourishing the Planet’s Catherine Ward  spoke recently with Shiney Varghese, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) who leads the organization’s work on global water policy. Ms. Varghese focuses on water availability, its impact on water and food security, and local solutions that emphasize equity, environmental justice, and sustainability.    

Shiney Varghese is a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. (Photo Credit: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)

How do you define “sustainable agriculture”?

Sustainable agriculture has come to mean different things to different people these days. To many, sustainable development or sustainability is simply about ensuring resource sustainability, primarily through improving resource use efficiency. Too often, that answer relies much too heavily on technological solutions. I find such an understanding of sustainability rather reductionist.

True, given that most of the resources we need to sustain ourselves in this world are not renewable, resource recovery and efficient use of resources has a crucial role in achieving sustainability, provided that these processes do not end up having higher environmental footprints. But this in itself cannot address the issue of sustainability. There is another equally important component: equity.

In an understanding that simultaneously emphasizes equity and efficient use of resources, the achievement of ecological sustainability involves limiting our consumption today so that it is not at the expense of consumption of people in other spaces today, nor at the cost of environment or future generations. Sustainability means we have to efficiently use our share of the world’s resources to meet our livelihood needs.

Thus to me sustainable agriculture would go beyond improving resource use efficiency to uphold peasants’ right to land, water, and genetic material—including their right to say ‘no’ to bio-pirates or legitimating bio-prospectors—and will help realize food sovereignty of ordinary people. (more…)

Sep12

Making Waves About Sushi: An Interview with Mark Hall

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Nourishing the Planet’s Victoria Russo recently spoke with Mark Hall, an independent filmmaker based in Austin, Texas, who produced the 2012 documentary, Sushi: The Global Catch. Inspired by the prevalence of sushi in seemingly unlikely places, from Warsaw, Poland to football games in Texas, Hall created the film to track the global implications of the international raw fish industry and to better understand the consequences of sushi as a global phenomenon. 

“Sushi: The Global Catch” tracks the global implications of the international raw fish market. (Photo Credit: Francesca Forrestal)

How did your interest in the sushi industry begin? What inspired you?

I have always enjoyed eating sushi, and actually got my inspiration for the documentary while doing some non-film related work in Poland a few years ago. I was working with a group from the Ministry of Agriculture in Warsaw to assist a private organic cooperative with small farmers. When we broke for lunch, I was shocked by the fact that they proposed going for sushi. I later discovered that there were about 30 to 40 sushi restaurants in Warsaw at the time, and I was struck by how much of a global presence sushi had become in such a short amount of time. The original idea for the documentary focused largely on the lengthy global supply chains that support our growing desire for sushi, but as we delved deeper into the filming, we realized that there were significant economic, social, and environmental consequences of the growth of the sushi industry that needed to be addressed.

How did sushi grow from being a traditionally Japanese dish to a global favorite?

The Japanese pride themselves in inventing and maintaining a strong cultural tradition of making sushi. In fact, while I was in graduate school in Japan some of my Japanese friends would tease foreigners by daring them into eating sushi, because Americans at the time were not used to eating raw fish. By introducing sushi to the world, the Japanese opened something of a Pandora’s box. Now the rest of the world loves it, and it is making it more difficult for the Japanese to access the dish that they created and love. While filming “Sushi: The Global Catch,” I received a letter telling me that the first sushi restaurant in Rwanda had just opened, and I was amazed by how globalized eating sushi has become.

How has sushi changed since it has been exposed to the global market?

As sushi has grown in popularity, we have lost a sense of the cultural origins of the cuisine. In Japan, sushi started out as a meal intended for special occasions. Now, it is accessible in most parts of the world—even in gas stations. There has been cultural dilution, and non-Japanese chefs have created variations on the dish that the Japanese themselves would not even consider sushi. There are California rolls, Philadelphia rolls, and in my hometown of Austin, Texas, they even serve a Longhorn roll that has ribeye steak and candied jalapenos in it.

The film includes a segment about a school district in Texas that serves sushi at football games and various events. When you can get a good-sized sushi meal for around $10, sushi becomes more available to those working with a lower budget. The Sushi Popper, a portable package of sushi on a push-up stick, recently entered the global market and is redefining how sushi is understood. It makes it easier to buy, ship, and serve sushi in vending machines, airplanes, and schools. We need to consider the implications of sushi’s global supply chain.

(more…)

Jun11

The Raw Campaign: An Interview with Jonty Whittleton

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Nourishing the Planet’s Carol Dreibelbis spoke recently with Jonty Whittleton, senior campaign manager at Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), a U.K.-based organization working to end factory farming and promote animal welfare, about his involvement with the Raw campaign. The Raw campaign focuses on exposing the true cost of factory farming and building a movement for alternative food and farming solutions.      

Jonty Whittleton, senior campaign manager at Compassion in World Farming (Photo credit: Jonty Whittleton). 

I jumped at the opportunity to join Raw. The campaign is well-aligned with my interests and presents a unique opportunity to create positive change. Fighting factory farming lets you tackle a host of environmental, social, and ethical challenges at the same time. Plus I love food, so championing tastier, healthier, higher-quality food is second nature to me!

What, in your opinion, are the most serious impacts of factory farming?

Factory farming has an impact on animals as well as on people and the planet, at a local, national, and international scale. The primary impetus for Compassion in World Farming is to end animal cruelty, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Factory farming is a chronic, worldwide problem: it is linked to antibiotic resistance, obesity, devastated communities, and choked, polluted waterways.

This is the beauty of Raw. Whether you’re an environmentalist, a humanitarian, or both, the fight against factory farming concerns you.

What strategies does Raw use to improve the global food system?

Raw is a long-term movement with an ambition to stamp out factory farming. We recognize that we won’t achieve widespread change overnight. Our first goal is to convince a critical mass of decision makers and the public that factory farming is a failed system of food production. Our work can be broken down into three distinct areas:

  1. Campaigns aimed at communicating critical food and farming issues in compelling ways, with the objective of capturing minds and encouraging focused action;
  2. Networking with relevant opinion and decision makers, and finding opportunities to collaborate; and
  3. Recruiting famous individuals who believe in the mission of Raw and are interested in spreading inspirational messages.

In the future, we would like to expand our networks into other countries where we see a real need for Raw. Compassion already has feet on the ground in the United States, France and the Netherlands. We would also like to broaden the Raw supporter base and deepen the level of interaction.

Raw is working toward a food and farming revolution. What would the global food system look if this were achieved?

Factory farming prioritizes maximum production at the expense of the welfare of animals, people, and the planet. Our vision is a world where all have access to sufficient, nutritious food produced by humane, sustainable farming systems. These systems would protect the environment, support livelihoods in developed and developing countries, and meet our needs without wasting precious resources.

What agricultural innovations have you seen in your work that are making food production more sustainable?

One innovation that we have been following is lab-grown meat, which is in fairly early stages of development and remains controversial. We believe that lab-grown meat has the potential to feed the world’s meat eaters while massively cutting the number of animals farmed worldwide and, therefore, diminishing the impacts associated with factory farming.

And if we provide farmers—some of the greatest innovators known to man—with the right policies and incentives, they will surely find more sustainable and humane ways to do business.

How can our readers help make the food system safer, fairer, and greener?

It’s easy to feel despondent given the vast scale of the task as hand, but we all have the power to help kick start a food and farming revolution. We can vote for better food three times a day, sending a clear signal to retailers and producers that we believe in better food and farming. I have tried cutting out meat, but my  current mantra is to enjoy smaller amounts of higher quality meat. That way, you often don’t have to spend any more and you get to truly enjoy and take pride in your food. There are also a vast number of organizations fighting for a better food system—whatever your interest, now is the time to get involved. And you can always choose how involved you want to be; whether you want to lobby decision makers, donate a few dollars, or just watch a video, the choice is yours. Here’s to a food and farming revolution!

For more information on Raw’s work to end factory farming, please visit www.raw.info. What steps are you taking to work toward a humane, sustainable food system? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.  

 

May13

Camu Camu: A Little Fruit that Packs a Big Punch

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By Eleanor Fausold

Sometimes the best things come in small packages. Camu camu (Myrciaria dubia) is a tiny fruit native to the Amazon region of South America that is rising in popularity, as both an element in local treats and a main component in dietary supplements. Although its high level of acidity once made it unpopular for consumption, the fruit is now valued for its exceptionally high vitamin C content and is, consequently, growing in demand in health-food stores around the world.

Camu-camu, a tiny, vitamin C-rich fruit native to the Amazon region of South America, is rising in popularity (Photo Credit: Youshi Guo)

Also known as camocamo in Peru and cacari in Brazil, among other names, the camu camu tree can grow up to 40 feet high. The species thrives in swamps along rivers and lakes such as the Rio Mazán near Iquitos, Peru, and in Amazonian Brazil and Venezuela. The base of the camu camu’s trunk is frequently underwater, and the tree’s lower branches are often submerged for long periods during the rainy season.

Despite its frequent submersion, the camu camu tree produces fragrant flowers with tiny white petals and tiny fruits that turn from yellow to a maroon or purple-black color as they ripen. In the right growing conditions, a single tree can produce as many as 1,000 fruits per year, which are harvested by boat.

Known for its extremely high vitamin C content (half-ripe fruits have been found to contain 1,950 to 2,700 milligrams per 100 grams of edible fruit, an amount greater than that found in 50 oranges), the camu camu fruit has a very acidic taste. In fact, until fairly recently, the fruit was used almost exclusively as fish bait and the tree, when dead, was used as a source of firewood.

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Apr11

Global Food Prices Continue to Rise

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By Sophie Wenzlau

Continuing a decade-long increase, global food prices rose 2.7 percent in 2012, reaching levels not seen since the 1960s and 1970s but still well below the price spike of 1974. Between 2000 and 2012, the World Bank global food price index increased 104.5 percent, at an average annual rate of 6.5 percent.

Global food prices rose 2.7 percent in 2012 (Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

The price increases reverse a previous trend when real prices of food commodities declined at an average annual rate of 0.6 percent from 1960 to 1999, approaching historic lows. The sustained price decline can be attributed to farmers’ success in keeping crop yields ahead of rising worldwide food demand. Although the global population grew by 3.8 billion or 122.9 percent between 1961 and 2010, net per capita food production increased by 49 percent over this period. Advances in crop breeding and an expansion of agricultural land drove this rise in production, as farmers cultivated an additional 434 million hectares between 1961 and 2010.

Food price volatility has increased dramatically since 2006. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the standard deviation—or measurement of variation from the average—for food prices between 1990 and 1999 was 7.7 index points, but it increased to 22.4 index points in the 2000–12 period.

Although food price volatility has increased in the last decade, it is not a new phenomenon. According to World Bank data, the standard deviation for food prices in 1960–99 was 11.9 index points higher than in 2000–12. Some price volatility is inherent in agricultural commodities markets, as they are strongly influenced by weather shocks. But the recent upward trend in food prices and volatility can be traced to additional factors including climate change, policies promoting the use of biofuels, rising energy and fertilizer prices, poor harvests, national export restrictions, rising global food demand, and low food stocks.

Perhaps most significant has been an increase in biofuels production in the last decade. Between 2000 and 2011, global biofuels production increased more than 500 percent, due in part to higher oil prices and the adoption of biofuel mandates in the United States and European Union (EU). According to a 2012 study by the University of Bonn’s Center for Development Research, if biofuel production continues to expand according to current plans, the price of feedstock crops (particularly maize, oilseed crops, and sugar cane) will increase more than 11 percent by 2020.

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Mar27

Aquaponics: An Interview with Sweet Water Organics’ Matt Ray

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Nourishing the Planet’s Kimberlee Davies spoke recently with Matt Ray, the principal farmer for Sweet Water Organics, an aquaponics training organization in Milwaukee, about his experience in the field of aquaponics.

Sweet Water Organics uses aquaponics technology to grow food in downtown Milwaukee.

What is aquaponics? How did you become involved?

Aquaponics has been around for centuries. It was traditionally a technique in tropical climates, using floating bamboo rafts with vegetation in fresh water pools. This was simply the adaptation of agriculture to the tropics. The technique has become cutting edge over the last 20 years. We can adapt aquaponics to today’s geographies and culture.

Aquaponics is a blending of aquaculture (the raising of aquatic animals) and hydroponics (growing plants in water without soil). In aquaponics, aquatic animals serve as the nutrition base for the plants. The great thing about aquaponics is that it is a closed system; it doesn’t have to flow in one pipe and out of another.

I saw it begin to pop up in the late 1980s, starting with the Virgin Islands, Australia, and even Asia, where fish are grown symbiotically with rice paddies. Forward-thinking farmers and activists began to develop the practice in non-tropical climates, and academics began researching the field. Twenty years later, we have a lot more people doing it. Scientific data has emerged to support the spread and success of this technique. It’s possible to take the nuts and bolts and adapt them to wherever you are. It’s going to work and it can be replicated.

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Mar11

Argan Oil: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Most people have heard of the health benefits of using olive oil instead of butter or other saturated animal fats. The monounsaturated fats in olive oil have been shown to reduce levels of harmful cholesterol, and as a result nutrition experts have touted it and other aspects of the Mediterranean Diet as heart healthy.

Photo Credit: Jane Alexander

But olive oil isn’t the only celebrated oil from that region of the world. In Morocco, argan oil has been consumed by the Berber people for centuries. Berbers add the deep yellow, toasty-flavored oil to couscous, serve it alongside bread, or eat it on its own. Argan oil has been shown to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, and recent research by France’s Institut Pasteur, Morocco’s Lipoproteins and Atherosclerosis Research Laboratory, and others suggests that it might contribute to the prevention of various cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.

Beyond the health benefits of consuming argan oil, there are also important environmental benefits associated with its production. The same deep root systems that make argan trees well adapted to heat and frequent drought in southwestern Morocco also protect the land against soil erosion and desertification. Meanwhile, argan trees provide shade and protection for crops or pastureland, presenting opportunities for agroforestry.

Arguably, however, the most noteworthy impact of argan oil production is social. This rare oil has captivated a global audience, primarily because of its use in cosmetics. As a result, market prices have been on the rise (making it the most expensive edible oil in the world), and argan oil producers—largely local Moroccan women—have been reaping the benefits.

Because the process of extracting argan oil is extremely labor intensive (it can take 50 kilograms of seeds to produce just half a liter of oil), the women who produce it by hand are frequently part of production co-operatives, such as the UCFA (Union des Cooperatives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie). Founded in 1999, this innovative co-operative produces and markets argan oil and is supported by the Moroccan government as both a conservation and development strategy. Today, the UCFA unites 22 smaller women’s co-operatives. The women who make up these groups gain status, a steady income, and, in some cases, an education through their work.

Yet the argan oil boom has been a double-edged sword. Argan trees and the area in which they grow are threatened by overuse and deforestation. A study by the University of California, Davis finds that “the boom has predictably made households vigilant guardians of fruit on the tree, but it has not incited investments in longer term tree and forest health.” While the development of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Morocco is a step in the right direction, it will be both economically and environmentally critical for the same non-governmental groups, development agencies, and government offices that supported argan oil production in the first place to keep sustainability in mind.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet Project.

 

Feb22

New Reports Reveal the Human and Financial Costs of Large-Scale Land Acquisitions

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By Laura Reynolds

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI), a coalition of groups working for the rights of rural people to access and use their local natural resources, recently released two reports on the state of large-scale land acquisitions and investments, also known as land grabs.

Activists protest against ‘land grabbing’ in 2011. (Photo credit: Andreas Solaro, AFP/Getty Images)

The reports looked at the financial risk associated with international land investments and gave an overview of the setbacks and progress made in land tenure during 2012.

Investors, often from foreign countries, have turned to land development in recent years because of the high profits that can be made from activities such as mining, industrial food production, logging, and production of rubber or biofuels. But these investments often come with high costs as well, according to a December report from RRI. In addition to the human rights abuses and environmental destruction that can coincide with large-scale land acquisitions, investors can face an increase in their operational costs of as much as 2,800 percent.

The report, “The Financial Risks of Insecure Land Tenure: An Investment View,” profiles five foreign land investments that failed because of a lack of transparency or legality, resulting in financial hardship for the investors. In 2005, the Swedish ethanol producer SEKAB attempted to purchase 400,000 hectares in Zanzibar, Tanzania, to cultivate biofuel crops, but public outcry and the company’s failure to follow policy and environmental protocols led creditors to adandon the project and forced SEKAB to sell its assets at a loss of over $20 million.

In Grand Cape Mount, Liberia, the Malaysia-based multinational Sime Darby, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, had planned to develop 220,000 hectares for oil palm and rubber plantations after signing a 63-year concession with the national government. But land tenure disputes and large-scale rioting have repeatedly disrupted operations, putting the project’s long-term feasibility at risk.

(more…)

Feb01

Innovation of the Month: Gardens for Health

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By Carly Chaapel

Around the world, gardens provide food for local communities, serve as educational tools, and empower the poor. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 22.5 million people live with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), humanitarian and environmental organizations are turning to community gardens for nutritional and social benefits for HIV patients.

Rwandan farmer harvests plants for her family with the help of Gardens for Health. (Photo credit: Gardens for Health International)

In Rwanda, the most densely populated sub-Saharan country, the average citizen lives well below global average health, education, and income standards. The Human Development Index ranks Rwanda 166 out of 187 countries, indicating “low human development.” According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), nearly 170,000 people (3 percent of adults) suffer from HIV in Rwanda.

Numerous organizations are, however, generating hope for the poor and the sick in Rwanda. Gardens for Health International, for example, partners with local health clinics to provide agricultural solutions for health problems, including malnutrition. Patients who arrive at rural clinics in need of food aid and emergency treatment often leave with the resources necessary to both address their immediate needs and sustain themselves and their families in the future. Gardens for Health experts routinely visit families in their homes, bringing the tools and knowledge needed (e.g., seedlings and market access knowledge) to increase yields, diversify diets, and prevent future malnutrition.

In Swaziland, the International Red Cross has donated money to support community gardens with similar goals. According to USAID, 25.9 percent of adults in Swaziland live with HIV, and nearly 70,000 children have been orphaned due to the virus. Although food crises are prevalent in this drought-prone country, donations from the Red Cross have enabled communities to both develop food gardens and access valuable adaptation technology, such as drip irrigation, which can increase agricultural productivity and boost year-round food security for families living with HIV.

By disseminating resources and information, organizations such as Gardens for Health and the International Red Cross can increase access to healthy foods for the poor, hungry, and sick, and enable families to develop productive and sustainable food gardens just outside their front doors.

Do you know about a garden that is used as a healing space for the sick? Tell us more in the comments below.

Carly Chaapel is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.