"The oldest and most common dig against organic agriculture is that it cannot feed the world's citizens; this, however, is a supposition, not a fact. And industrial agriculture isn't working perfectly, either: the global food price index is at a record high, and our agricultural system is wreaking havoc with the health not only of humans but of the earth. There are around a billion undernourished people; we can also thank the current system for the billion who are overweight or obese." says Mark Bittman in his recent NY times opinion piece.
"Yet there is good news: increasing numbers of scientists, policy panels and experts (not hippies!) are suggesting that agricultural practices pretty close to organic — perhaps best called “sustainable” — can feed more poor people sooner, begin to repair the damage caused by industrial production and, in the long term, become the norm." says Mark Bittman in his recent NY times opinion piece.
Industrial (aka “conventional”) agriculture depends upon a great deal of low cost resources, including large amounts of water and the fossil fuel that are required in the production of chemical fertilizer, large scale machinery to work the land, extensive irrigation, and, of course, vast levels of transportation. The end result is that the "conventional" system needs more resources than the earth can replenish, as is obvious in the use of non-renewable fossil fuels and limited resources like water. "Fun/depressing fact: It takes the earth 18 months to replenish the amount of resources we use each year. Looked at another way, we’d need 1.5 earths to be sustainable at our current rate of consumption." according to the NY Times article "Sustainable agriculture can feed the world" by Mark Bittman
Agro-ecology and related methods are going to require resources too, but they’re more in the form of labor, both intellectual — much research remains to be done — and physical: the world will need more farmers, and quite possibly less mechanization. Many adherents rule out nothing, including in their recommendations even GMOs and chemical fertilizers where justifiable. Meanwhile, those working towards improving conventional agriculture are borrowing more from organic methods. (Many of these hybrid systems were discussed convincingly in Andrew Revkin’s DotEarth blog last week.)
Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011 Shows Agriculture Innovation
Is Key to Reducing Poverty, Stabilizing Climate
Nearly a half-century after the Green Revolution, a large share of the human family is still chronically hungry. While investment in agricultural development by governments, international lenders, and foundations has escalated in recent years, it is still nowhere near what is needed to help the 925 million people who are undernourished. Since the mid-1980s when agricultural funding was at its height, agriculture's share of global development aid has fallen from over 16 percent to just 4 percent today.
In 2008, $1.7 billion dollars in official development assistance was provided to support agricultural projects in Africa, based on statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—a miniscule amount considering the vital return on investment. Given the current global economic conditions, investments are not likely to increase in the coming year. Much of the more recently pledged funding has yet to be raised, and existing funding is not being targeted efficiently to reach the poor farmers of Africa.
“The international community has been neglecting entire segments of the food system in its efforts to reduce hunger and poverty,” said Danielle Nierenberg, co-director of Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet project. “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.”
Serving locally raised crops to school children, for example, has proven to be an effective hunger- and poverty-reducing strategy in many African nations, and has strong parallels to successful farm-to-cafeteria programs in the United States and Europe. Moreover, “roughly 40 percent of the food currently produced worldwide is wasted before it is consumed, creating large opportunities for farmers and households to save both money and resources by reducing this waste,” according to Brian Halweil, Nourishing the Planet co-director.
State of the World 2011 draws from hundreds of case studies and first-person examples to offer solutions to reducing hunger and poverty. These include:
In 2007, some 6,000 women in The Gambia organized into the TRY Women’s Oyster Harvesting producer association, creating a sustainable co-management plan for the local oyster fishery to prevent overharvesting and exploitation. Oysters and fish are an important, low-cost source of protein for the population, but current production levels have led to environmental degradation and to changes in land use over the last 30 years. The government is working with groups like TRY to promote less-destructive methods and to expand credit facilities to low-income producers to stimulate investment in more-sustainable production.
In Kibera, Nairobi, the largest slum in Kenya, more than 1,000 women farmers are growing “vertical” gardens in sacks full of dirt poked with holes, feeding their families and communities. These sacks have the potential to feed thousands of city dwellers while also providing a sustainable and easy-to-maintain source of income for urban farmers. With more than 60 percent of Africa’s population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, such methods may be crucial to creating future food security. Currently, some 33 percent of Africans live in cities, and 14 million more migrate to urban areas each year. Worldwide, some 800 million people engage in urban agriculture, producing 15–20 percent of all food.
Pastoralists in South Africa and Kenya are preserving indigenous varieties of livestock that are adapted to the heat and drought of local conditions—traits that will be crucial as climate extremes on the continent worsen. Africa has the world’s largest area of permanent pasture and the largest number of pastoralists, with 15–25 million people dependent on livestock.
The Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) is using interactive community plays to engage women farmers, community leaders, and policymakers in an open dialogue about gender equity, food security, land tenure, and access to resources. Women in sub-Saharan Africa make up at least 75 percent of agricultural workers and provide 60–80 percent of the labor to produce food for household consumption and sale, so it is crucial that they have opportunities to express their needs in local governance and decision-making. This entertaining and amicable forum makes it easier for them to speak openly.
Uganda’s Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (DISC) program is integrating indigenous vegetable gardens, nutrition information, and food preparation into school curriculums to teach children how to grow local crop varieties that will help combat food shortages and revitalize the country’s culinary traditions. An estimated 33 percent of African children currently face hunger and malnutrition, which could affect some 42 million children by 2025. School nutrition programs that don’t simply feed children, but also inspire and teach them to become the farmers of the future, are a huge step toward improving food security.
The State of the World 2011 report is accompanied by other informational materials including briefing documents, summaries, an innovations database, videos, and podcasts, all of which are available at www.NourishingthePlanet.org. The project’s findings are being disseminated to a wide range of agricultural stakeholders, including government ministries, agricultural policymakers, farmer and community networks, and the increasingly influential non-governmental environmental and development communities.
In conducting this research, Worldwatch’s Nourishing the Planet project received unprecedented access to major international research institutions, including those in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system. The team also interacted extensively with farmers and farmers’ unions as well as with the banking and investment communities.
The Worldwatch Institute and the Nourishing the Planet project are gratefully supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and additional foundations, governments, and institutions including the Rockefeller and Surdna Foundations, the United Nations Foundation, the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Shared Earth Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, the Winslow Foundation, and many more.