As Nourishing the Planet has witnessed first-hand, small-scale farmers and local communities have developed innovative ways to meet the challenges facing people across the world. But until recently, they have often lacked the ability to share their solutions, or their knowledge has been overlooked by governments and international groups.
Nourishing the Planet Director Danielle Nierenberg meets with farmers at the Ecova-Mali center. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five organizations that recognize the valuable contributions farmers can share with their neighbors, with policy makers, and with people across the world.
1. AfricaRice Center:
Created in 1971 by eleven African countries, the Africa Rice Center now works with 24 countries across the continent, connecting researchers, rice farmers, and rice processors.
AfricaRice has been developing learning tools that focus on reaching as many farmers as possible, aiming to both “decentralize and democratize learning within the rice sector.” One powerful method has been farmer-to-farmer videos, which feature local experts sharing their knowledge about seed drying and preservation, rice quality, and soil management with viewers. These videos have been translated into more than 30 African languages, with great impact.
Reaching even beyond the continent, the African Rice Center has also created a set of four videos on seed management with rural women in Bangladesh, helping to further facilitate valuable knowledge exchange between rice farmers.
In this week’s episode, Nourishing the Planet intern Julia Eder discusses the Kew Millennium Seed Bank, which is collecting seeds from endangered plant species to conserve plant diversity and to find crops that are resistant to global threats such as climate change and water scarcity.
Holiday offer: To purchase a copy of State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet at a 50 percent discount, please click HERE and enter code SW1150. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.
Shea (Vitellaria paradoxa, nilotica) is one of few trees that can withstand the harsh, semi-arid climate of the Sudan and Guinean savannas and the Sahel. Hardy, drought-resistant, and with fireproof bark, the uses of the shea tree are numerous and ancient, dating back to the 1300s.
Woman processing shea kernels into butter. (Photo credit: TREE AID)
Tools and coffins are made out of the wood, while the wastewater from processing seeds acts as a pesticide against weevils. The tree provides forage for sheep and goats as well as food for people. The sweet pulp of the fruit, similar to an avocado, is eaten fresh, providing a valuable source of nutrition early in the rainy season when food can be scarce. And, the tree’s flowers can be added to salads.
The shea tree also provides many environmental benefits. Farmers often intercrop the shea tree with cereal grains where they help to prevent wind erosion, provide shade, and contribute organic matter to the soil.
The uses of the shea nut are most widely known and offer the highest economic value. The seed contains a kernel that is eaten fresh, roasted like almonds, or processed to extract shea butter. Shea butter is traditionally used as a waterproofing material for houses, a cosmetic, a primary source of vegetable fat in cooking, and as a medicine for treating various skin diseases, arthritis, and other ailments.
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.
Tree grapes (Lannea microcarpa) are actually in the same family as mangoes, cashews, and pistachios, but they look and taste more like grapes. And although they do not grow on vines, tree grapes hang from trees in grape-like bunches.
The African tree grape, although more like a plum in structure, looks and tastes like a grape (Photo credit: B. Belem, Plant Resources of Tropical Africa).
Tree grapes are often sold in both city street markets and along roadsides in West Africa. In Burkina Faso, the tree is cultivated commercially on a small scale and the trees can be seen in and around villages. The fruit can be eaten fresh or dried like raisins for longer-term storage. The fruit makes an excellent jam, can be made into wine, and the pulp fermented into a potent alcoholic drink. The tree’s young leaves are nutritious—18 percent protein and 5 percent minerals—and are eaten by both people and livestock. An edible and water-soluble gum can also be extracted from the tree.
The tree has important non-food uses as well. The seed kernel is high in oil, which is sometimes extracted and used to make soap and skin lotions. The fibrous bark can be made into rope, and a dark red-brown dye is also extracted from it. The bark is also used to treat diarrhea. Cloth dyed with this tree is often associated with healing, because of the medicinal properties of the bark and the blood-red color. The leaves, bark, roots, and fruits of this tree are applied to treat blisters, boils, sore throat, and rheumatism. The flowers are very attractive to bees, and beekeepers often hang their hives among the branches of this tree.
From food to fragrance, virtually no part of the sweet detar tree (Detarium microcarpum) goes unused. A study of the Mare aux Hippopotames Biosphere Reserve in western Burkina Faso identified the tree as one of six multi-use species “most appreciated by people” and thus “most important”. Two varieties of the species exist. The tall, forest variety produces bitter fruit while the shorter savannah variety produces a sweet, green fruit that is particularly popular in West Africa. The brown pods of sweet-sour fruit have the shape and size of apricots but a shell and pulp akin to its relative the tamarind.
Illustration of detar fruit and flower published in 1891. (Photo credit: Paul Hermann Wilhelm Taubert via Wikipedia Commons)
Usually eaten fresh by children, the fruit is sometimes sun-dried then sold in markets. The fruit is boiled with jackalberry and black plum and concentrated to make fruit leathers in northern Nigeria, while in Sierra Leone, it’s made into a drink. Detar is higher in vitamin C than guava, and has a very good shelf life. It can be returned to its fresh state if it dries out by soaking it in sugar water, and the liquid by-product makes a fruity drink.
Boiling the fragrant seed breaks down the seedcoat to expose a kernel rich in essential amino acids and fatty acids, which is pounded into ofo flour in Nigeria and used to thicken egusisoup. Alternatively, cooking oil is extracted from the kernels by crushing them, with the by-products of this process used as an animal feed. When the seeds are not eaten, they are strung together to make fragrant necklaces.
The fragrance of other parts of the tree is useful as well. If the bark is damaged, a sticky, fragrant gum is secreted that is used to deter mosquitoes. Heated roots produce a sweet scent that is used as a perfume by women in Sudan, and as a mosquito repellent in Chad.
Resistant to moisture, weathering, and pests, the dense, hard wood is workable and thus highly desirable for carpentry and joinery when making houses, boats, and fences. The wood is also sought for firewood and charcoal since it lights quickly, even in the presence of moisture.
The bark, leaves, and roots help to treat a variety of ailments throughout West and Central Africa. Boiled powdered bark is used as a painkiller, fresh bark or leaves are used to dress wounds to prevent infections. In Mali, the bark is used to treat measles and hypertension while the leaves or roots are used to treat meningitis and cramps in people and diarrhea in cattle. The fruit pulp is used in Burkina Faso to treat skin infections, whereas in Niger and Togo the fruit is used to treat dizziness. In Senegal, the leaves mixed with those of other trees and milk is used to treat snakebites, while in Benin the leaves are boiled to treat fainting and convulsions.
The tree itself is heat and drought tolerant and capable of thriving on infertile sites. With its many uses, the tree would be a good candidate for reforestation of degraded lands.
Its usefulness, hardiness, nutritive value, and ability to be propagated by budding also make the tree a good candidate for domestication, according to a study of wild African fruits in 2008 by the U.S. National Research Council.
Kim Kido is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
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This post is part of a series where Nourishing the Planet asks its readers: What works? Every week we’ll ask the question and every week you can join the conversation!
Farmers in the Sahel are using creative solutions to combat desertification. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Throughout the Sahel, recurrent drought, deforestation, and over-farming, is turning once lush farm land into desert. And when the sand starts spreading, it can be difficult to stop. Picked up by the wind, dust and sand travels vast distances to cover villages, roads, crops, and irrigation systems, making it increasingly difficult to farm and maintain infrastructure.
Farmers are especially impacted by desertification. Dry, cracked and depleted soils make for poor harvests, while sand covered roads make it nearly impossible to transport crops to the market. Yet, farmers are also the people who hold some of the best tools with which to put a stop to the spreading sands.
In Mauritania, for example, where moving sand dunes cover two-thirds of the country’s land area, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), partnered with the government of Mauritania to help protect the country’s towns and cities. Between 2000 and 2007, a series of fences were designed to use wind to create artificial dunes surrounding Nouakchott, the country’s capital. These dunes reduced the strength of the wind and slowed the advancement of more sand. Set at a 120 to 140 degree angle, deflection fences were also erected in order to redirect the incoming winds and sands, further reducing sand build up. Both fences are made from branches and twigs that were collected from mature forests.
Once the dunes have been halted with hand-woven fences, the process of creating long-term barriers begins. Although dunes are perhaps the least hospitable environment upon which to grow trees and other vegetation, walls of mature plant growth also provide one of the most effective barriers for sand. Depending on the climate and soil conditions, drought-tolerant and indigenous tree species are selected and planted to act as barriers.
In rural parts of the developing world where many people depend on subsistence farming practices, food security is not about consistent access to a supermarket but about consistent access to seed. Small farmers typically depend on local seed systems, in which farmers save and exchange seed, as well as commercial suppliers for the seeds that they have to buy from agro-dealers.
The FAO has begun seed aid efforts to help countries in crisis, but many are concerned about possible biopiracy that could come with it. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Often, though, access to seeds is tenuous. Commercial seeds can be prohibitively expensive and because of inadequate storage facilities, local supplies are often at risk of disease, pests, and inclement weather. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Pakistani farmers lost an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 metric tons of wheat seed in this year’s devastating floods.
Lacking access to quality seed, many smallholders are unable to produce adequate amounts of food for their communities. Making things even more difficult, in farming communities that depend on saved seed a crisis like a flood, drought, or crop failure can extend food shortages into the next season because farmers have to depend on damaged/old seed or are left scrambling to find a new source.
In countries in crisis, the FAO, with the help of the European Union Food Facility, have been distributing emergency seed supplies. Beginning in November in Pakistan, these two groups began handing out wheat seed, and this past summer they distributed seed in Burkina Faso, where droughts devastated crop yields, forcing many people to eat their seed as food. And in Nicaragua, the European Union and FAO have started working with the local government to provide farmers with “quality seeds” that could boost the country’s agricultural productivity.
But despite the apparent good intentions of such efforts, there’s still reason to be concerned.
Seed aid may create long-term problems in much the same way food aid does. Farmers become dependent on commercial varieties provided by seed aid, which can undermine local seed systems already in place. This scenario is especially alarming given the possibility that some of the seeds these farmers are receiving could be genetically modified, “climate ready” seeds from the handful of agribusiness corporations that dominate the industry.
Recently, these companies have been filing for several patents that would designate their genetic modifications as intellectual property, possibly allowing them to sue farmers or farmer groups that avoid buying new seed every year by saving seed, a practice farmers have been using for millennia. On its website, agribusiness corporation Monsanto openly defends its previous lawsuits against farmers who save their patented seed. But many environmental and food activists and NGO’s, including Vandana Shiva, ETC Group, Food First, and La via Campesina, have cried foul, labeling such efforts as “biopiracy.”
The treaty adopted in the U.N.’s recent 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 10) on Biodiversity solidified a protocol that ensures countries and indigenous groups are compensated for supplying plant genetic resources that are then used to develop profitable, commercial varieties. And in an amicus brief filed October 29th in the case of The Association of Molecular Pathology v. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Obama Department of Justice reversed several years of government policy, claiming that native genes, human or otherwise, cannot be patented. Neither of these developments, however, addresses highly modified, synthetic genes, the types that are common in genetically modified crops. The debate over genetic patents is far from over.
It remains unclear whether or not the FAO and EU are indeed distributing modified seeds.
This is the first in a three-part series about the Africa Sustainable Development Council.
His name says it all. The translation of Salibo Some, the Director of the Africa Sustainable Development Council (ASUDEC) in Burkina Faso, means “What will you leave behind from this life?” For Dr. Some, that means making ASUDEC into a “laboratory for development in Africa,” and “helping farmers find better ways of thinking and doing” by promoting education—some 50 percent of adult farmers can’t read or write; strengthening the socio-economic resiliency of vulnerable groups—at least 70 percent of the farmers in Burkina are women, with little access to land tenure or extension services; and finding ways to produce food while preserving the environment.
By working with communities, ASUDEC is building trust among farmers and having success. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
ASUDEC “helps the poor transition from subsistence to entrepreneurship,” not through handouts, but through integrating livestock with crop production so people not only have chickens and goats (to sell in times of need), but eggs and milk to sell along with okra, African eggplant, maize, cucumbers, and other crops that were grown with composted manure as fertilizer. ASUDEC is also helping facilitate small loans from a microcredit agency so that farmers can buy things like easy to use and inexpensive Kick Start pumps that help irrigate crops, during the dry season, allowing for year-long crop production. (more…)