Worldwatch Report Reveals Real Agricultural Solutions | Civil Eats

Worldwatch Report Reveals Real Agricultural Solutions

We’ve started 2011 with a lot of bad news. But the newest Worldwatch Institute report, State of the World 2011, has a lot of good news: agricultural innovations that address hunger and protect our ecology are working and they are scalable. We don’t have to choose between food or the environment. In fact, the most effective strategies address both.

Worldwatch is an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C. that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. For their annual State of the World report senior researcher Danielle Nierenberg traveled throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 239 million of the world’s 925 million hungry, to investigate and documents programs that effectively address hunger and ecology. You can read about the report’s findings in her blog, Nourishing the Planet.

The meta finding of the report is that we need to move “beyond seeds, move beyond farms, move beyond Africa.” In other words, the Green Revolution’s heavy emphasis on seeds and fertilizers was too narrow and too input-intensive, and it focused on just a few key crops instead of a diverse array of nutrient-dense and climate-appropriate crops. Additionally, hunger organizations have put a disproportionate amount of resources towards food aid to urban areas. Nearly 80 percent of Africa’s population are farmers, yet African nations typically spend only 4 percent of their budgets on rural areas. Some 40 percent of the food currently produced worldwide is wasted before it’s consumed. What works more effectively are programs and incentives that support farming that is less resource-intensive and that is ecologically diverse. Aid needs to focus more on soil health, water conservation, and making better use of the food already being grown.

“The international community has been neglecting entire segments of the food system in its efforts to reduce hunger and poverty,” says Nierenberg. “The solutions won’t necessarily come from producing more food, but from changing what children eat in schools, how foods are processed and marketed, and what sorts of food businesses we are investing in.”

Most of all, the reports shows how valuable farmer collaboration can be. As Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, CEO of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network said, “A lot of the investments that we’re seeing is that researchers, policymakers want to be the ones that pass on information, that pass on knowledge to farmers or to the very people that want to develop and be in charge of their own destiny. But what we have not done is to invest in allowing them to share information with us and for us to be able to hear their voices and translate them.”

So what does this look like? Here are 15 exciting examples documented by Nierenberg:

1. Rice Breeding in Madagascar: Centre National de la Recherche Appliquee au Developpment Rual is introducing new varieties of rice in close collaboration with farmers. The organization is responding to what farmers say about which varieties they prefer growing and is also working with farmers to adapt different technologies to Madagascar’s specific ecosystem and farming practices.

2. School Gardens in Uganda: The school garden movement is gaining ground in Africa! The  Slow Food Mukono Convivium has helped establish 31 school and community gardens “to improve young people’s relationship with agriculture and to develop innovative methods for long-lasting food sovereignty.” Ugandan children are leaning to preserve their culinary traditions while the program brings nutrient-dense, local fruit to school meals.

3. One Acre Fund puts farmers first: This program in East Africa combines agriculture extension services, micro-loans, training, transportation, and access to markets to provide rural farmers with the tools they need to feed their families and increase their incomes.

4. Rainwater Harvesting: Much of Africa’s water struggles are not so much about physical water scarcity as about the need to collect rainwater during rainy seasons for use during dry spells and droughts. Most Sub-Saharan African countries use at most 5 percent of their rainwater potential. Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency has helped organize the Southern and Eastern Africa Rainwater Network, 12 national rainwater associations that work together to publicize rainwater harvesting information and innovations. On innovations, a system of rainwater collection pots, returns its $800 investment within 2-3 years and enables farmers to plant more diverse crops, which in turn improves the nutritional quality of food for the community.

5. Grain Trading in Zambia: Some food innovations happen through policy. Comon Market for Eastern and Southern Africa has established the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa to develop and implement programs that improve market access for farmers and traders. Now regional farmers’ interests are on the table in multinational trade meetings and policy talks — so trade barriers that hold farmers back from feeding their region can be changed.

6. New Cassava Varieties in Zanzibar: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture started breeding program with farmers to develop cassava varieties that can resist diseases specific to the region. IITA is working with funders on making it more affordable to grow these superior, but more expensive varieties.

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7. Solar Cookers in Senegal: Solar Household Energy Inc. (SHE, best acroynm ever) promotes solar cooking enterprises to help reduce dependence on biomass for cooking. Aside from the environmental benefits, solar cooking frees women’s time normally spent on collecting fuel so they can now work more on their farms, which increases their family income.

8. Evergreen Revolution for Africa: While the authors of the report advocate moving away from a single-minded focus on increasing yields there is increasing evidence that a new emphasis on improving the health of soil actually brings about the added benefit of increasing yields. Farmers in Malawi who have been encouraged to plant nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs like Faidherbia albida (indigenous to Africa) in their fields have seen their maize yields nearly double. Other benefits include shade protection, soil erosion control, and increased biodiversity.

9. Sustainable oyster fisheries in Gambia: TRY Women’s Oyster Harvesting Association has joined with Ba Nafaa, a sustainable fisheries projected funded by USAID, to create a sustainable co-management plan for oyster fisheries. By extending the closed season and adopting practices that promote a healthy ecosystem participants have seen harvests increase. They are now working on raising the price of oysters for the tourist market and on creating a permanent market.

10. Safer wastewater irrigation in Ghana: International Water Management Institute is working with Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture, universities, and growers in three cities with large urban agriculture spaces on new methods for safer water fetching and irrigation. Meanwhile, a team of researchers has strategized on how to “sell” the idea that paying more for cleaner food would benefit consumers. This new connection between agriculture extension services and research brings academic research back into the real world by implementing workable solutions.

11. Composting toilets: All over the world people are working on composting toilets that keep farm fields clean and nutrient-rich and help people manage their human waste. One example is the composting toilets from Stacia and Kristof Nordin’s permaculture project in Malawi.

12. Theater that gives women farmers a voice: Three quarts of agricultural workers in Sub-Saharan Africa are women. Women do all the food processing and most of the storage, transportation, marketing. Yet because cultural barriers keep women’s interests from being represented in decision-making bodies women experience relatively low productivity and little access to markets. In recognition of the important role women play in ensuring household food security, Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network has launched Women Accessing Realized Markets in Mozambique and Malawi. There popular theater performers use scripts based on FANRPAN research followed by community discussions that allow women to tell development organizations what they need–but in a culturally-sanctioned way.

13. Food storage bags that cut waste: One of the biggest culprits of food waste is pests, so new food storage bags are being developed to keep out pests safely and inexpensively.  Community Markets for Conservation in Zambia is promoting grain bags from GrainPro, Inc. to protect maize from weevils and grain borers, and Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage bags (via Purdue University) protects cowpea crops in western Africa. Mazingira Institute is training communities in Kenya on how to preserve foods like grinding and bottling nuts.

14. Churches connecting with farms: Throughout Africa churches (often the largest NGO in the area) are going beyond addressing hunger by distributing food. Many are working with Educational Concerns for Hunger Organizations to collect and disseminate agricultural knowledge to help support food sovereignty.

15. Small-scale livestock production: In Rwanda Heifer International contributes to the country’s recovery by giving farmers South African dairy cows to raise along with livestock training. The goal of the One Cow Per Household Program is to provide 257,000 of the poorest households with cows, training, and access to cooperatives in what will eventually be a self-sustaining system.

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Now that we know… what’s next? The main audience for Nourshing the Planet is governments, policymakers, NGOs, and donors. The report includes briefing documents, summaries, a database, videos, and podcasts all intended to make the case for a wide-spread, coordinated effort to support ecologically healthy food sovereignty world-wide.

As citizens we can read about effective programs and send our own financial support. Our individual contributions are small, but they add up and and signify a vote. We can also hold our government, policymakers, funders, and corporations accountable. Report contributor Anna Lappé suggests four things to keep our eyes on in the future:

  • How are our Federal policies helping and promoting food systems that mitigate and adapt to climate challenges? (Hello, Food and Farm Bill 2012!)
  • Are international policies offering “perverse” incentives to deforest the landscape or discourage food and seed storage? Or are they offering incentives that protect the climate and support stable markets for farmers?
  • What international funding/finance are we seeing and where is the money going?
  • How are agribusiness and food companies responding to civil society’s questioning? Are they accountable to their supply chain?

Learn more via Nourshing the Planet’s blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr. Purchase a copy of State of the World 2011 in print, PDF, or Kindle form and access additional materials via Worldwatch Institute.

Worldwatch Institute’s 15th Annual State of the World Symposium takes place in Washington, D.C. this Wednesday, January 19. Live streaming will be available at

Adriana Velez is Communications Coordinator for Brooklyn Food Coalition and a freelance writer who most recently contributed to Cookie Magazine's online content. She lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn. Read more >

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  1. C.Lewis
    Thanks for this piece. Even though I feel I do what I can personally to live a more sustainable lifestyle and I fortunately live in a community that is very involved in the shift as well, I can't help but see the bigger obstacles which revolve around government, big business, and the people in power making these decisions that effect us all. Perhaps this is also why I believe educating the younger generation is so important. There will be a need for that generation not just in the fields but in positions of power, right there among the lobbyists for big AG, demanding explanation of their methods.
  2. Bernie Pollack
    Thanks for this terrific article!
  3. S. Futrell
    thanks for this great overview. it's so encouraging to see farmer-centered solutions gaining visibility in so many parts of the world.
  4. Excellent piece--I feel better informed and more able to act. Thanks!

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