Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

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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Oct17

Organizations Push for Global Ban on Genetically Modified Trees

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Five organizations released a letter in early October 2012 to the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity demanding a global ban on genetically modified (GM) trees. World Rainforest Movement, Global Justice Ecology Project, the Campaign to Stop Genetically Engineered Trees, Global Forest Coalition, and Biofuelwatch oppose the potentially damaging impact of GM trees on the environment and Indigenous communities.

GM trees pose inevitable and irreversible threats to forest ecosystems and the people who inhabit them. (Photo credit: Washington State Department of Natural Resources)

“The forestry industry is involved in developing GM trees for use in its industrial plantations, in order to achieve trees that can grow faster, have reduced lignin content for production of paper or agrofuels, are insect or herbicide resistant, or can grow in colder temperatures,” stated Isis Alvarez of Global Forest Coalition. “This research is aimed at increasing their own profits while exacerbating the already known and very serious impacts of large scale tree plantations on local communities and biodiversity.”

According to a 2012 report by Global Justice Ecology Project, GM trees pose “significant risks” to carbon-absorbing forest ecosystems and the global climate. Trees with less lignin would be more prone to pest attacks and would rot more quickly, altering soil structure and releasing greenhouse gases more quickly. Other dangers range from increased “flammability, to invasiveness, to the potential to contaminate native forests with engineered traits.” According to the Sierra Club, “the possibility that the new genes spliced into GE trees will interfere with natural forests isn’t a hypothetical risk but a certainty.” The substitution of natural forests by GM monocultures for industrial use would also threaten biodiversity, in the same way that oil palm plantations do today. Many of these consequences would impact Indigenous communities, reducing the ecosystem services that they rely on for their livelihoods and survival.

Despite these risks, several GM tree projects are moving forward. The GM tree research and development company ArborGen has a request pending with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to sell half a billion cold-tolerant eucalyptus seedlings each year for bioenergy plantations in the southern United States. Since eucalyptus trees are a documented invasive species in both Florida and California, this has raised red flags for many. Both the Georgia Department of Wildlife and the US Forest Service have submitted comments to the USDA expressing concerns about the impact of plantations on native ecosystems. Meanwhile, several universities, timber corporations, and seedling manufacturers in the Pacific Northwest are also collaborating to develop GM poplar trees for bioenergy production. About 30 species of poplar trees already grow from subtropical to subalpine regions across the United States, Canada, and Europe, meaning there is a serious risk of genetic contamination.

The Sierra Club warns that the “commercial development of out-of-doors applications in the absence of environmental safeguards is a prescription for disaster,” and it is clear that GM tree plantations pose inevitable and irreversible threats to forest ecosystems and the people who inhabit them. Today, 245 organizations and Indigenous Peoples’ organizations from 49 countries support a global ban on GM trees, according to Global Justice Ecology Project.

Do you think the development of GM trees should continue? Are there ways to regulate and limit the negative impacts of GM trees on the environment? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis 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.

Similar blog posts:

  1. We Need a New Paradigm for Investments in Agriculture
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  3. Food & Water Watch Campaigns to Remove GE Corn from Walmart
  4. USDA Gives Green Light to GE Alfalfa
Sep14

Mobile Technology Helps Farmers save Time, Water, and Electricity

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By Sarah Alvarez

Managing irrigation pumps and water systems is a difficult and costly task for many farmers in developing countries. The amount of time and energy farmers spend watering their crops often compromises time that could otherwise be used for family and community obligations. It also compromises their safety at night, when they are most vulnerable to animal predators. A new innovation from the India based company, Ossian Agro Automation, called Nano Ganesh seeks to transform the way farmers manage their water systems by giving them the freedom to turn pumps on and off, from any location, with their mobile phone.

 

Nano Ganesh aims to assist farmers in managing water pump systems, similar to this one (Photo credit: Neil Palmer)

Santosh Ostwal, Co-Founder of Nano Ganesh, created mobile based technology that gives farmers the flexibility to remotely switch water pumps on and off from any distance using cell phones or landlines. Ostwal, an electrical engineer by trade, had a personal connection to the plight of farmers. After observing the hardships his 82 year old grandfather faced in tending his farm and monitoring the availability of electricity to operate water pumps, he began to construct a remote control that farmers could use within two kilometers of the farm. He later modified the remote control by expanding its range to 10 kilometers. In 2008 Ostwal altered the technology so that it could function over an unlimited range granting farmers the flexibility to start and stop the flow of water from anywhere there is a mobile connection.

Nano Ganesh also allows farmers to check the availability of electricity to the pump and verify the on and off status of its operation. Both of these features offer cost-saving benefits to farmers who otherwise may not be able to shut their pumps off before their fields have become overly saturated. This is important for two reasons. One is that over-watering can lead to soil erosion and nutrient depletion. The second reason is that the inability to remotely shut-off water pumps leads to unintentional water and electricity waste. With the help of Nano Ganesh farmers will be able to conserve water and electricity more effectively. This will minimize the environmental and financial costs of farming. In fact, the product description suggests that farmers can recover the cost of the technology in just 11 days from the water and electricity savings it will produce.

So far, Nano Ganesh has assisted 10,000 farmers in India and is now being used in Australia and Egypt. The innovation received international recognition from the Global Mobile Awards in 2010 and Nokia’s Calling All Innovators Contest in 2009. Nano Ganesh has also received acknowledgement from several institutions in India including the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture.

Sarah Alvarez 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.

 

Sep11

Benbrook Study on GM Crops and Pesticides

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By Catherine Ward

Genetically Modified (GM) crops were first introduced into the commercial food production system in the late 1990s and, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), GM crops were being cultivated on more than 1 billion hectares around the world by 2010. During 2011, over 16 million farmers worldwide were involved in planting 160 million hectares of GM crops, making biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in modern times.

New data shows that GM crops do not reduce the quantity of pesticides needed for crop production (Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil)

The scientific community and GMWatch have since raised concerns over the use of GM crops as a possible danger to health and the environment. New data from a study carried out by Dr. Charles Benbrook shows that GM crops do not reduce the quantity of pesticides used in their production over time, and crops now considered herbicide-tolerant include corn (Bt corn varieties), soy, and cotton (Bt cotton varities).

Benbrook analyzed pesticide use on GM and non-GM equivalent crops over 16 years (1996-2011), with findings showing that herbicide-tolerant crops have increased pesticide use by 239 million kg over this time period. For example, increased herbicide use on GM herbicide-tolerant cotton was 0.4 kg per acre more than its non-GM counterpart. Similarly, herbicide use on GM soy was 0.3 kg per acre more than non-GM soy.

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Sep03

Six Innovations Lifting the World’s Agricultural Workers out of Poverty

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By Catherine Ward

Agriculture employs more than one billion people worldwide—about 34 percent of global workers—making it the second-largest source of employment globally. Yet agricultural workers remain one of the most marginalized, oppressed, and exploited groups in the world. According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), and International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), the global agricultural workforce is “among the most socially vulnerable; the least organized into trade unions; employed under the poorest health, safety and environmental conditions; and is the least likely to have access to effective forms of social security and protection.”

Agricultural workers are one of the most marginalized, oppressed, and exploited groups in the world (Photo Credit: Planet Matters)

In many countries, up to 60 percent of agricultural workers live in poverty and less than 20 percent have access to basic social security, according to the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (SARD) initiative. The agricultural sector also has the largest numbers of child workers—nearly 130 million children between the ages of 5 and 17.

Innovations to lift the world’s agricultural workers out of poverty can simultaneously promote sustainable agriculture and international development. Today, Nourishing the Planet offers six solutions to help lift the world’s agricultural workers out of poverty:

1) Support organized labor. Labor unions play an important role in minimizing exploitation among agricultural workers by advocating for higher wages, improved living conditions, and safer work environments. Agricultural workers are often one of the most disempowered groups within societies, and in many countries they lack access to basic healthcare, education, and participation in government. Unions advocate for worker rights, and fight to stop the exploitation of children.

In Ghana, 70 percent of the country’s 23 million inhabitants are involved in the agricultural sector. The General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) is the largest union in Ghana and represents many marginalized agricultural groups. The union supports rural communities by providing support in training, learning new skills, and microcredit. GAWU is currently investing in a youth development center, and organizes training workshops for union members. The union has campaigned for better farm wages, so that families don’t have to send their children to work in the agricultural sector.

By supporting community-based organizations, such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), consumers in the United States can help ensure that farmworker’s rights are recognized and enforced. The CIW is a coalition of farmworkers working low-wage jobs in the state of Florida, and is responsible for advocating farmworker rights via hunger strikes, boycotts, interfaith prayer vigils, rallies, and marches.  The CIW is organizing a Labor Day Weekend of Action and is calling on the public to actively protest Publix in your state.

2) Include women in agricultural development. Innovative technology solutions can help disadvantaged agricultural workers ease their work burdens and increase productivity. Women make up over 40 percent of the global agricultural workforce, yet are one of the most vulnerable groups amongst these workers. Female agricultural laborers form an invisible workforce, as they often work on the fringes of the formal economy assisting their husbands with manual labor, or producing food to feed their families as opposed to food for sale.

In India there are over 258 million people working in the agricultural sector, and up to 70 percent of rural women are engaged in the agricultural workforce. There have been some noteworthy success stories in India around the creation of innovative technology solutions for agricultural workers. An Indian midwife, Arkhiben Vankar, became known as the pesticide lady when she developed an herbal pesticide that was efficient, low-cost, and toxin-free. This innovation provided Indian women engaged in agricultural work with an alternative to harmful chemical pesticides. Another technological innovation was designed by Subharani Kurian, who developed a bicycle-operated duplex pump to draw up ground water. The innovation assists women based on the idea that leg muscles are more powerful than hand muscles, making a bicycle pump more effective to operate.

Lack of communication, education, and access to technology among women, particularly in developing countries, has often prevented women from receiving the same benefits and opportunities as men in the agricultural sector. For the last 50 years, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has helped to bring scientific knowledge and technology to poor agricultural workers in developing countries through initiatives like the Collaborative Research Support Programs (CRSPs). According to USAID, “by empowering women farmers with the same access to land, new technologies and capital as men, we can increase crop yields by as much as 30 percent and feed an additional 150 million people”.

3) Support worker advocacy organizations. Research can be a useful tool to examine risks associated with the agricultural industry and how to mitigate them in the future, thus ensuring that vulnerable workers do not risk losing their livelihoods. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries to work in due to hazardous machinery, livestock, extreme weather conditions, dehydration, and exposure to pesticides.

In China there are an estimated 225 million agricultural workers, but farms are increasingly worked by the youngest and oldest residents of rural communities, as many middle-aged wage workers seek employment in cities. Injuries are abundant due to use of heavy machinery, and result in millions of deaths and disabilities among farmworkers each year. A collaborative research project  between the Colorado Injury Control Research Center, the Center for Injury Research and Policy at The Ohio State University, and the Tongji Injury Control Research Center was undertaken between Chinese and American researchers to find solutions to reduce agriculturally related injuries in China. The program has trained over 80 researchers, published studies on agricultural injuries, and opened a center for injury prevention in China. The project aims to provide insights on how to train agricultural workers to safely handle new machinery to avoid future injuries and deaths.

Consumers can make a positive contribution towards the health care of farmworkers in the United States through non-profit organizations such as the National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH). The organization is dedicated to improving worker health in the United States by providing services like resources for migrants, training programs, and education and policy analysis. The public can get involved through NCFH’s Gift of Health program, which accepts donations that are invested in promoting the health of America’s farmworkers.

4) Get involved and be aware—locally and globally. Local initiatives that invest in the well-being of vulnerable communities can effectively help change the conditions of agricultural workers. Farmworkers are often described as hidden people, usually subjected to impoverished living conditions, with limited access to basic services like water and electricity.

South Africa’s wine and fruit industry alone generates US $3 billion a year for the South African economy. Yet, according to a Human Rights Watch report, farmworkers benefit very little from the profits, and are often forced to live in substandard housing. Solms-Delta is an example of a South African wine estate that has established its own initiative, the Wijn de Caap Trust, to break the cycle of poverty among farmworkers on the Solms-Delta estate. The trust receives 33 percent of profits from the estate’s wine sales, which aims to improve the lives of farmworkers by providing quality housing, investing in education facilities for children, and providing medical care to families.

Consumers in the United States can also become directly involved in community farming enterprises by volunteering or working at local farmers’ markets, participating in volunteer days at nearby farms, or even apprenticing on a farm for a season. Visit https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/internships/ to learn more about on-farm opportunities in the United States and Canada.

5) Promote universal education. Education can be used from a grassroots level to dispel ignorance and empower local communities. Agricultural workers often migrate in search of seasonal or temporary work, and can be unaware of their rights due to poor education, isolation within rural areas, and fragmented organization. Education programs can also help inform consumers on ethical considerations of food production, and educate young leaders on policy formulation and advocacy.

Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF) is an innovative nonprofit organization, which uses popular education to raise awareness of issues around farmworker conditions in local U.S. communities. SAF works with farmworkers, students and advocates alike, and has provided support to over 80,000 farmworkers to gain access to health, legal, and education facilities.

6) Vote with your dollar. Consumers can choose products produced in environmentally friendly and socially responsible ways. By purchasing products that are not linked to the exploitation of agricultural laborers, it sends the message to agricultural employers that consumers do not support abusive labor conditions, and that they are willing to pay an often-higher price for ethically produced goods. This helps ensure that workers are paid fairly and do not work under poor conditions.

Fair Trade USA is an international movement that allows customers to buy products from all over the world that support poverty-reduction projects, relieve exploitation, and endorse environmental sustainability.  The Fair Trade standards enable agricultural workers to work in safe and inclusive environments, follow economic trade contracts with fair pricing, improve their own living conditions, and avoid child labor. There is growing demand from consumers for socially responsible food production; North America will soon implement its own Food Justice label. This label will also help lift American workers out of poverty by guaranteeing fair wages, adequate living conditions, and reasonable contracts.

Agriculture will not be viable while the vast majority of its workforce lives in poverty around the world, and innovative measures to break this cycle of poverty, along with your contributions, are crucial to fostering a healthier food system.

Do you know of any innovative projects that are assisting impoverished agricultural workers? Let us know in the comments below!

Catherine Ward 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.

Jul06

New Harvest’s Jason Matheny Shares Perspectives on the Future of Meat Alternatives

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By Kevin Robbins

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, between 1970 and 2010 the number of cows raised for human consumption rose 32 percent to reach 1.4 billion, pigs rose 76 percent to reach 965 million, and chickens rose 273 percent to reach 19.4 billion. But despite its popularity, current levels and methods of meat production and consumption can have an adverse effect on human health, the environment, and animal welfare.

Jason Matheny is working to produce economically viable meat substitutes. (Photo credit: MercoPress.com)

New Harvest is an organization that supports research regarding economically viable meat substitutes and provides a forum for sharing related innovations. In the interview below, New Harvest founder Jason Matheny talks about the work of the organization and his perspectives on the future of meat alternatives.

Why did you start New Harvest and what is its primary focus?

I founded New Harvest in 2003 because there wasn’t an organization devoted to advancing technologies for new meat substitutes. There are several companies making plant- or mycoprotein-based meat substitutes, but there was no organization working on more advanced technologies, such as cultured meat, and no organization looking broadly at how to replace animal proteins with advanced substitutes. We fund academic research, conferences, and economic and environmental assessments. We’ll probably continue focusing on these areas, since it addresses an important need.

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Jul03

What Works: Using Technology to Give Farmers Better Information

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By Jeffrey Lamoureux

For a farmer good information is time sensitive. Good information must move quickly and freely to reach those who rely on it when they make decisions. Digital technologies have revolutionized the way information travels worldwide, and the increasing availability of the mobile phone in particular is allowing better information to reach greater numbers of people than ever before. Several innovative programs are demonstrating the immense impact that simplest asset—timely and accurate information—can have on farmer’s livelihoods.

Better information allows farmers to make better decisions (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) was founded in 2008 to be a clearinghouse for the country’s agricultural commodities. Comprised of a central trading floor in the capital, Addis Ababa, and regional warehouses across the country, the ECX is able to provide farmers with up-to-the-minute price information. Trades are conducted and recorded digitally, allowing instantaneous communication of prices. When a farmer delivers a harvest to the ECX’s warehouses they know they are getting the right price for it. Additionally, the ECX’s modern facilities help minimize post-harvest losses from rotting. The ECX and its founder, Eleni Gabre-Madhin, were featured in a PBS documentary following the initial days of the exchange’s life.

While the ECX is streamlining the market, in Kenya techies have been developing mobile applications to help farmers manage their land and animals. They are building on the success and popularity of the mobile banking application M-PESA, a service that allows anyone with a cell phone to transfer money domestically. The best known of these is iCow, an application that helps farmers manage their herds. The application allows farmers to register their cows, allowing them to receive individualized messages reminding them of their cow’s gestation and feeding schedules. It sends updated market prices and best practices advice, and keeps a database of experts for consultation.

In Turkey, the Agricultural Directorate is utilizing the ubiquity of cell phones to distribute critical pest and weather information to farmers. Utilizing data gleaned from meteorological stations around the country, the Directorate sends text message alerts to farmers before peak pest season and before an oncoming frost. This has allowed farmer’s to reduce the number of pesticides applied each year, and to take preventative measures to protect their crops from frost.

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Jun07

Innovation of the Week: Multifunction Platforms

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By Sheldon Yoder

In rural villages in East and West Africa, electrical connections are humming and light bulbs are shining for the first time in homes that only knew candlelight before. Although no power lines yet reach these villages, multifunction platforms (MFPs) are filling the energy void, powering not just lights but machines that lessen the drudgery of farmer’s work.

Multifunction platforms can be used to run food processing equipment in remote villages. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

What is the multifunction platform? Though the name sounds a bit daunting, the MFP is basically a stationary diesel engine that can be attached to about anything that rotates: grain milling and husking machines, water pumps, and power tools. The MFPs are quiet, 6 to 8 horse power, 750-lb Listeroid engines and their basic construction and features have not changed significantly since their debut in the 1930s. The engine has more than proven its durability, efficiency, and hassle-free maintenance over the years. Their efficiency and raw power make them perfectly suited for continuous electrical generation and work.

With MFPs farmers can mill their own corn and wheat for food and sale, while earning income by processing the crops of neighboring farmers. Members of cooperatives can run mechanical tools, power rural electrical grids, and soon it is hoped, irrigate crops with the machines.  Organizations working with the platform have paid special attention to women users, hoping to free up several hours per day that can be devoted to other priority tasks.

The first MFPs were installed in Mali and Burkina Faso in 1994 by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began to install MFPs in 1996 and the project is still ongoing, having expanded to include other countries in West Africa. To acquire the platform, a group of men and women from a village usually create a formal organization to request and purchase a generator. The cost is usually subsidized between 40 to 50 percent  by the UNDP. Residents are given training and then placed in charge of installation, maintenance, and repair of the platforms.

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May23

Protecting “The Last Farmer” from Globalization

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By Leah Baines

Throughout the world, agriculture from small farmers provides food for 70 percent of the population, while industrial agriculture only supplies 30 percent. But, ironically, most of the 2.8 million people living in poverty around the world are farmers. The documentary “The Last Farmer” highlights how small-scale farmers are suffering from poverty as a result of globalization and the growing shift towards industrial agriculture.

"The Last Farmer" highlights the lives of small-scale farmers in developing countries. (Image credit: "The Last Farmer")

Directed by Giuliano Girelli, the documentary follows three farmers and their families in Indonesia, Guatemala, and Burkina Faso throughout their day. It draws attention to the struggles they face from lack of agricultural diversity, diminishing soil fertility, food insecurity, and decreasing incomes. The video also includes commentary from experts about the effects of globalization all over the world.

“Agriculture [has] the word culture in there, right? It’s actually doing something in a cultural way,” said Hira Jhamtani, an environmental activist in Indonesia. “But we have made it into an industry…the multinational companies are taking over the role of small farmers. Everywhere…whether it’s Europe, whether it’s in the US or whether it’s in Indonesia, family farmers are being displaced by big companies.”

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May18

Obama Calls for an End to “the Injustice of Chronic Hunger” at Chicago Council Symposium

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ annual symposium, Advancing Food and Nutrition Security at the 2012 G8 Summit, is underway this morning. Tune in to the livestream here and follow the discussion on Twitter with @globalagdev #globalag 

President Obama addressed the Chicago Council Symposium this morning. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

President Barack Obama just delivered the keynote address, calling for G8 leaders to focus on the “injustice of chronic hunger” in the midst of world economic issues and austerity measures. He called for leaders to mobilize the $22 billion that was committed at the launch of L’Aquila in 2009 (of which only 22 percent has been delivered), continue GAFSP, and to mobilize more private capital into agriculture. He said our goal is to make emergency aid less and less relevant—that is how development is supposed to work.

To kick off this effort, Obama announced that 45 companies (both multinationals and African firms) have pledged $3 billion to fast track new agricultural projects that will reach those in need quicker. African agriculture will experience hugh leaps through the development of better seeds and better storage. Cell phone data is now being used to educate farmers about when to plant, harvest, and sell their products. A single bad season or change in season should not plunge a family into poverty. Obama reiterated a common theme we’ve been hearing today: that focus needs to be placed on nutrition—especially in children. It is the smart thing to do, improves a child’s potential, and lowers healthcare costs.

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