In this week’s episode, we discuss a program helping farmers in Tanzania work together to earn a sustainable living, while healing the land. CARE International’s Equitable Payment for Watershed Management (EPWM) program encourages, and works closely with, smallholder farmers to use intercropping and terraces to help restore—and hold in place—the soil.
In this week’s episode, Nourishing the Planet discusses farming seaweed, an environmentally friendly crop that holds promise of mitigating greenhouse gases while supplementing incomes, providing dietary protein, and offering a sustainable source of biofuel.
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According to a recent report released by WWF UK, the increased use of soy beans has had painful consequences for the Cerrado region of Brazil. The Cerrado is the unique savannah south of the Amazon Rainforest. This landscape, once covering a quarter of Brazil, holds an amazing 5 percent of all life on Earth. Since the prehistoric days when there was only one continent, this grassy expanse has harbored not only 11,000 flowering plants (nearly half are found only in the Cerrado) but also countless animal species, including the giant anteater and maned wolf. This rich history also imbues the land with cultural significance, as it has played a key role for over 10,000 years in the culture and religion of a variety of indigenous Brazilian societies.
This rock painting in the Cerrado region provides evidence of human life in the area 12,000 years ago. (Photo Credit: WWF Brazil)
Currently, however, the Cerrado is being converted into farmland for the express purpose of growing soybeans (soya). In only 15 years, production of soy has doubled, now covering an area almost the size of Egypt worldwide. In Brazil, there are 24.1 million hectares planted with soy, equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. Such a prolific conversion has devastated the natural biodiversity of the region. A recent survey suggests that by 2008, almost half of the original vegetation cover had been lost, disappearing at a rate significantly greater than the Amazon rainforest. This also has significant consequences for climate change. According to WWF, in the six year period between 2002 and 2008, land-use change in the Cerrado released 275 million tons of CO2 per year-more than half the total emissions for the United Kingdom.
A whopping 80 percent of the soy grown worldwide is used for feeding cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock, according to the report. Current trends suggest that developing countries will continue to increase their meat consumption, until they match levels of developed countries. If soy remains one of the main components of livestock feed, then soy production will increase. Since most land planted with soy has already achieved maximum production levels (only the Indian region has room for improving yields), demand for land for soy planting will grow.
At the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Cancun, Mexico, in December, the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Jacques Diouf, emphasized the need to promote what he called “climate smart” agriculture for food security and climate change adaptation. “By climate smart,” he said, “we mean agriculture that sustainably increases productivity and resilience to environmental pressures, while at the same time reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or removes them from the atmosphere, because we cannot ignore the fact that agriculture is itself a large emitter of greenhouse gases.”
The FAO says seaweed farming could mitigate GHGs, supplement incomes, provide dietary protein, and offer a sustainable source of biofuels.(Photo Credit: Tanzanian Cardiac Hospital Project)
Diouf said that multiple climate smart agricultural practices were already widespread in the developing world, and he gave examples of practices—including crop diversification and urban farming—that could be replicated on the larger scale in the coming years. The FAO released a report just before the conference outlining some of those examples. Seaweed farming, for example, could help to mitigate GHGs while also supplementing incomes, providing dietary protein, and offering a sustainable source of biofuels.
Unlike many crops, seaweed farming does not require fertilizers, forest clearing, or heavy use of fuel burning machinery. As a result, production of seaweed does not significantly contribute to global GHG emissions.
Seaweed grows quickly and has a rapid rate of photosynthesis—the process that turns sunlight and carbon dioxide into plant energy and oxygen. This means that it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more rapidly than most plants, making the crop even more ‘climate smart.’ (more…)
Among the most inspiring presentations at the World Food Prize was a post-dinner event organized by Africare, Oxfam America and WWF (all three relatively new additions to the World Food Prize mix), featuring three farmers whose lives had been transformed by an approach to farming called Sustainable Rice Intensification.
Variations on Sustainable Rice Intensification, or SRI, have been practiced throughout Asia for a couple of decades.
Variations on Sustainable Rice Intensification, or SRI, have been practiced throughout Asia for a couple of decades. More recently, farmers across Africa have picked up the approach, and it’s now being used in 41 nations. Over one million households in Vietnam, Cambodia, India and Mali have adopted SRI methods since 2003 alone. As Nourishing the Planet documented earlier this year, SRI doesn’t depend on a particular crop variety or technology. Instead, it involves modifying the growing environment so that the rice plants can more fully express their full potential with a much more economical use of farm resources. For instance, instead of flooding the rice—as is typical throughout much of the world—the rice seedlings are planted in dry soils that are watered periodically. The plants are spaced more widely than typical rice seeding, to allow for regular soil aeration and weeding as the plants develop.
The result, which is at first both surprising and counterintuitive, is rice plants with bigger, more robust root systems, reduced susceptibility to disease and substantially higher yields. Based on studies across 8 countries, researchers found a 47 percent yield increase, 40 percent water savings, 23 percent reduction in costs per hectare, 68 percent increased income per hectare. In a nutshell, farmers have more rice to eat or sell, they use less water and other inputs (80-90 percent fewer seeds, less time for transplanting). As Norman Uphoff, a professor in Cornell’s Center for Internatoinal Affairs, and a chronicler of SRI’s use throughout the world, noted in closing remarks at the event, SRI is “an innovation that raises the productivity of land, labor, water, and capital at the same time.” (More stats can be found in the recent publication, More Rice for People, More Water for the Planet, as well as at Cornell’s online SRI resource center.)
SRI doesn’t depend on a particular crop variety or technology. Instead, it involves modifying the growing environment so that the rice plants can more fully express their full potential with a much more economical use of farm resources.
In uplifting, and sometimes miraculous stories, all three farmers were transported from situations in which their families often subsisted on one meal a day, were burdened by debt (leading to at least one teenage suicide) and had little hope for the next generation, to situations of reduced debt, increased food supplies, and extra income to invest in school, health and even some basic luxuries. In India, Mrs. Duddeda Sugunavva, a farmer in Katkur village, Warangal District, Andra Pradesh, used income from her jump in rice production to purchase a milking cow which further augmented her bottom line. In Mali, Moussa Ag Demba (with two wives and six children) opened a savings account at the local bank, added meat, fish, macaroni and even the occasional soda to his family’s previously monotonous diet, and had, in short order, attained the reputation of a “big rich man.”
And the benefits spilled over to neighbors and the surrounding environment, part of the reason SRI has attracted the interest of groups like Oxfam and WWF. In Hanoi Province of Vietnam, Le Ngoc Thach, president of Dai Nghia Cooperative, after 30 farmers piloted SRI in 2006, 800 additional neighboring farmers had picked up the techniques by 2008, reporting dramatic reductions in pesticide and fertilizer use, fuller and more tasty rice grains, and increased fish and crab catches in nearby ponds. In Douékiré, Mali, the jump in production in Demba’s community allowed them to begin building a school and forced them to organize a marketing run to Timbuktu to sell surplus produce.