Rainforests provide vital ecosystem services that sustain all life on Earth. (Photo credit: National Geographic)
The world’s rainforest ecosystem services—such as increased rainfall, soil stability, and a regulated climate—are integral to the successful production of food in many parts of the world. Rainforests in the Amazon and the Congo, for example, support rainfall in key, surrounding agricultural areas.
Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five ecosystem services that rainforests provide to people and the planet:
1. Nutrient cycling and soil formation. According to the Rainforest Conservation Fund, many of the world’s tropical rainforests live “on the edge,” meaning that they receive very few nutrient inputs from the outside and must produce most nutrients themselves. When left intact, a rainforest acts as a closed-loop system, recycling the nutrients it has created; without tree cover, however, these nutrients would be lost and the forest would not survive.
Kagimbi Tharcisse, a farmer in eastern Burundi, lifts up the transparent polythene sheet and delicately pulls back some soil to proudly show the tiny banana plantlets growing underneath. Small and delicate, they will be gently taken care of for two months. Each will then be replanted in polythene bags, to grow bigger and stronger and in three months, it will be ready for the farmers’ fields.
Tharcisse proudly shows the little banana plantlets in the special sterilized chamber. (Photo credit: Catherine Njuguna)
The banana plantlets were obtained through a more complicated process compared to the traditional way of growing banana using suckers—these are the daughters growing at the base of the mother plant that farmers uproot from their own farms or buy from a neighbor. It is a slow method of obtaining planting material and it easily spreads pests and diseases from one farm to another if the suckers are not properly selected and treated.
However, this new technology, known as macropropagation, aims at overcoming these two challenges—it allows the rapid production of pest-free planting material. In this new procedure, Tharcisse explains, one starts by selecting a vigorous healthy-looking sucker—the type that only has very thin pointed leaves—and using a large knife peels off the dirt and roots. Next, it is immersed in hot boiling water for 30 seconds to kill any pests. The outer leaf sheaths are then carefully peeled off to expose the meristem—the growing part at the center of the plant.
Global meat production and consumption have increased rapidly in recent decades, with harmful effects on the environment and public health as well as on the economy, according to research done by Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project for Vital Signs Online. Worldwide meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20 percent in just the last 10 years. Meanwhile, industrial countries are consuming growing amounts of meat, nearly double the quantity in developing countries.
According to a new Worldwatch report, global meat consumption and production continue to rise. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
Large-scale meat production also has serious implications for the world’s climate. Animal waste releases methane and nitrous oxide, greenhouse gases that are 25 and 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, respectively.
Dirty, crowded conditions on factory farms can propagate sickness and disease among the animals, including swine influenza (H1N1), avian influenza (H5N1), foot-and-mouth disease, and mad-cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). These diseases not only translate into enormous economic losses each year—the United Kingdom alone spent 18 to 25 billion dollars in a three-year period to combat foot-and-mouth disease—but they also lead to human infections.
Mass quantities of antibiotics are used on livestock to reduce the impact of disease, contributing to antibiotic resistance in animals and humans alike. Worldwide, 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in 2009 were used on livestock and poultry, compared to only 20 percent used for human illnesses. Antibiotics that are present in animal waste leach into the environment and contaminate water and food crops, posing a serious threat to public health.
Olivier de Schutter has been the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food since 2008 (Photo Credit: Penn State University)
De Schutter linked our current food system problems to the “green revolution” of the 1960’s, during which the focus of agriculture in countries like Mexico, China, and India was on sheer production and providing inexpensive food for urban areas. This had a catastrophic impact on the viability of small-holder farmers, dietary diversity, and the environmental conditions of the land. During the 1980s, governments began to pull away from agriculture, investing in industry, and leaving small-scale farmers to cope with market problems on their own.
Developing countries in particular are now suffering under a “triple burden,” says De Schutter, of under-fed people—malnourished people who get enough, but empty, calories; and over-fed individuals who suffer from weight-related diseases, such as diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. In Mexico, for example, 18 percent of people are food insecure and 70 percent of adults are overweight. De Schutter says that “we have no food crisis. We have a poverty crisis, we have an environmental crisis, and we have a nutrition crisis.”
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has released a report calling on the agriculture and food sectors to play a larger role in addressing increasing rates of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) around the world.
A map of projected worldwide diabetes rates (20-79 years) in 2030 (Image credit: International Diabetes Federation)
The report, Bringing Agriculture to the Table: How Agriculture and Food Policy can Play a Role in Preventing Chronic Diseasehighlights the need for more integrated partnerships between the health, food, and agricultural sectors to combat NCDs. According to the report, NCDs will cost $30 trillion globally between now and 2030. Additionally, 63 percent of global deaths are caused by noncommunicable diseases and this rate is expected to rise. According to lead author, Dr. Rachel Nugent, “the costs of dealing with NCDs are soaring in both rich and poor countries. It is obvious that the health sector alone cannot prevent all these premature deaths and chronic illnesses, and the poor of the world are the most vulnerable.”
Lady Health Workers conduct awareness raising and training sessions in their own communities. (Photo credit: P. Amerasinghe)
The ever-increasing volumes of urban wastewater from cities in developing countries are both boon and bane to farmers and consumers alike. On the outskirts of Faisalabad, Pakistan lady health workers (LHW) are on the forefront of efforts to make wastewater irrigation of food and fodder crops safe and sustainable.
Shaheeda has a busy day ahead. On top of her routine household chores, which are many, she has a meeting with a group of farming families in her community, a peri-urban village of 11,000 people on the outskirts of Faisalabad city. The additional hours are no burden. Shaheeda loves her work as a lady health worker. “I am happy to bring knowledge that helps protect the health of farmers and the people in our community” says Shaheeda. One thing she teaches farmers is why they should wear rubber boots when working in their vegetable plots. (more…)
In the 1970s the cassava mealybug first threatened to decimate cassava crops throughout sub-Saharan Africa, causing fear of widespread famine. Although cassava (a perennial woody shrub with an edible root) originates from South America, it has been a staple crop in Africa since colonial governments first introduced it to local farmers. Some 300 years later, this hardy crop, which is useful from the leaves to the roots and requires little inputs such as fertilizer, has become a vital source of calories and income for millions of Africans. By the 1980s, the cassava mealybug threatened to wipe out cassava in Africa, which posed a major threat to food security in the region.
Since the 1970s, IITA’s researchers have found solutions to many threats to the cassava, among other crops, from which over 200 million people derive over 50% of their carbohydrate intake. (Photo credit: Catherine Njuguna)
In response, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a nonprofit organization founded in 1967, established an Africa-wide Biological Control Center in Nigeria. The IITA, headquartered in Ibadon, Nigeria, also organized a network of international collaborators and sent a group of scientists to Central and South America in search of the pest’s natural enemy. Once they found it–a parasitic wasp (Epidinocarsis Lopezi)–and introduced it into mealybug infested areas under strict controls, the wasp destroyed the mealybug populations, allowing farmers to rehabilitate their crops.
IITA’s scientists were able to reduce the damage caused by cassava mealybug by 95 percent and farmers across sub-Saharan Africa have come to rely upon the Institute’s research and innovations. With programs dedicated to all major crops produced in the region, including bananas, plantains, cereals, legumes, roots and tubers, economist, social scientists, plant pathologists, horticulturalists and agronomists working for the Institute, are dedicated to finding solutions to hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa. (more…)
Did you know that a ten minute shower uses up 150 liters of water? This is five times as much as a person living in a slum uses for drinking, washing, and cooking every day. And the water is often contaminated with feces, dirt, and disease-causing bacteria.
One-tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by improving access to clean water, adequate sanitation services and better hygiene. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
This is not just a problem of scarcity–it’s also a problem of access. Today, one in eight people lack access to clean water, and over 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation services.
A report titled, “Safer water, better health,” published by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2008, finds that almost one-tenth of the global disease burden could be prevented by improving water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The global disease burden is a comparative description of the causes of diseases and their risk factors in countries around the world.
This is the first-ever report to provide country-by-country data on how much disease can be prevented by improving access to safe water and better sanitation services. The WHO report helps serve as an important resource for local, national and global efforts aimed at reducing the prevalence of disease caused by WASH-related factors.
The report estimates the number of preventable deaths and impairments per year, caused by diseases such as diarrhea, intestinal infections (including hookworm), trachoma (a bacterial eye infection) and malnutrition.
Trachoma, for example, is a disease transmitted as a result of inadequate hygiene, which affects millions of people living in rural areas around the world. If untreated, it can cause visual impairments, and it is estimated that each year, 5 million cases of blindness could be prevented by promoting facial cleanliness, access to safe water and adequate sanitation.
In addition, each year, 88 percent of diarrhea cases are attributable to WASH, and account for an estimated 1.4 million child deaths. And, 50 percent of malnutrition cases are associated with chronic diarrhea and intestinal infections caused by WASH-related factors. Malnourished children are more vulnerable to infectious disease and are also less likely to fully recover. This indirect effect of malnutrition is responsible for 70,000 children deaths per year.
In order to find effective approaches to reduce the number of deaths caused by WASH-related factors, we need to understand how these factors contribute to disease.
Improving sanitation facilities can help reduce the number of diarrhea-related deaths in young children by more than one-third. And, if we teach children the simple lesson of hand washing, deaths can be reduced by two-thirds.
In several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, WASH-related illnesses are a major cause of low school attendance and lost time at work. Reducing the prevalence of disease can also help foster social and economic wellbeing.
But often, high-tech approaches are not required; the simplest solutions can have the most significant impact.
As one of the world’s poorest and war ravaged nations, it’s hard to imagine that the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could endure much more suffering. Yet 5 years ago, another threat emerged. This time, the threat is not from guns or violence, but from a highly-contagious plant disease called Banana Xanthomas Wilt (BXW), more commonly known as Banana Bacterial Wilt.
Committees elected by their villages are tasked with caring for healthy banana shoots, looking for signs of wilt and helping control the disease in the shared fields. (Photo Credit: Action Against Hunger)
First observed in Uganda nearly a decade ago, Wilt affects the vascular system of plants. In low-lying parts of eastern DRC, and in many of its east African neighbor states, banana plantations dominate the landscape. As both a staple food and cash crop for rural communities, the viability of the banana crop has an enormous impact on livelihoods. So when Wilt arrives, it damages more than just crops.
With bananas (which regenerate through a bulb or rhizome), yellowed leaves are the first sign of Wilt. The disease then rots the fruit and eventually the entire tree. Left unabated, Wilt can wipe out entire banana plantations, where many households earn up to 80 percent of their income.
In keeping with its mission to treat and prevent acute malnutrition, Action Against Hunger , a global humanitarian organization committed to ending world hunger, has been working with residents of DRC’s North and South Kivu region to help address the short-term food security needs created by the spread of Wilt, while also ensuring long-term recovery of their livelihoods.
In their Wilt program, which is now in its third phase, Action Against Hunger is helping communities to construct wood-framed nurseries designed to grow healthy banana shoots that can replace diseased crops. To help farmers make it until these shoots have grown to maturity, Action Against Hunger has provided local community members with seeds to grow alternative crops, such as maize and beans.
With funding from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the program has flourished: nearly 14,500 farmer households have been involved in the awareness campaign; over 100 village-based nurseries have been established (plus 10 more underway); and 100 hectares of diseased banana crop have been uprooted and replaced.
Action Against Hunger has not worked with farmers alone. The organization has also been including local authorities in its training sessions, to order to bolster the government’s ability to address the problem through their own initiatives.
Yet, in the DRC and throughout the region, Wilt continues to spread. What’s needed to stop it, according to Muriel Calo, a Food Security and Livelihoods advisor at Action Against Hunger, is a committed, broad-based movement that involves all levels of the government, partnered with the United Nations, non-profit organizations and affected communities to develop a more coordinated effort to combat this menace over the medium and long term.
A family drinks water purified by a bio sand filter at a training workshop in Kumbo, Cameroon. (Photo credit: LWDGC)
While Peter was growing up in Nkuv, the small village in Cameroon where he was born, no one had clean water. The water available for drinking was also used by livestock and wildlife, as well as for the whole village’s washing. Every year at least one child would die from illness caused by the dirty water and most households reported having at least one sick family member in the past six months at any given time. “When I was growing up that’s how everyone lived,” said Peter. “But when I left the village and came to Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, I saw that things were so different from my village and I wanted to change things to make them better.”
Six years later, LWDGC, with help from Engineers Without Borders USA Hope College Chapter taught the technicians of LWDGC how to construct and install bio sand filters in the village of Nkuv. In 2008, Thirst Relief International USA partnered with LWDGC and has been bringing access to clean water to over 6 villages in addition to Nkuv, as well as providing wells and latrines for 23 schools, and providing education about hygiene and sanitation practices. And they are providing access to the clean water with a very unlikely technique–they are using dirt and bacteria to make the dirty water clean.
Technicians cast a bio sand filter in Nkuv, Cameroon. (Photo credit: LWDGC)
LWDGC and Thirst Relief International are building bio sand filters and teaching households how to use and maintain them, greatly improving the cleanliness of drinking water and all but eliminating diseases caused by contaminated water. Bio sand filters are built with the help of an iron mold. Concrete forms the base of the filter and its center is filled with layers of differently-sized, crushed rock. Two layers of gravel and then fine-grained sand create three levels through which water is poured over the course of three weeks. Slowly on the very top forms what is called a biolayer. Once that final layer has formed, the filter removes 99 percent of the bacteria in water that passes through it and is ready to use.
The drinking water slowly filters through the layers of naturally formed bacteria and sand at a rate of about 1 liter per minute and comes out clean and ready for consumption from a pipe that’s connected through the concrete from the bottom to the side top outlet of the filter. If properly maintained a biosand filter can be used for up to 12 months without the need for much maintenance.
When LWDGC partners with a community to provide the filters, the first thing the organization does is hold a series workshops, teaching basic hygiene and sanitation such as hand washing and other measures to prevent the spread of disease. “The workshops are important,” says Peter, “because not everyone realizes that there is a problem.” And then there is the task of convincing the community that dirt and bacteria are enough to actually clean their water. “No one believes us when we say that everything that will filter the water is already in the water,” continues Peter.
But once that lesson is learned, lives are changed forever. The bio sand filters “really help the community” said Peter. “When we finish working with a community they always tell us that they don’t have the sickness like before. It’s helping and saving the lives of people.”