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Nourishing a Budding Sustainable Agriculture Movement

by Mathew O. Berger

With a record number of people undernourished last year – and that number only down about 10 percent this year – this year's World Food Day carried with it a new sense of urgency. But in the conferences and events held to commemorate the day, there was also a sense of hope and opportunity.

That hope is coming from the discovery of both new ways to feed a crowded, hungry planet and new efforts to spread and implement those practices.

Danielle Nierenberg has spent the past year traveling the globe as co-director of the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet project, whose mission has been to assess and raise awareness of the state of agricultural innovations — everything from cropping methods to irrigation technology to agricultural policy — with a dual emphasis on sustainability and productivity.

Last week she was in the heart of U.S. farm country at the World Food Prize's conference in Iowa, where she and representatives of other organizations from around the world were discussing the solutions that might make feeding seven billion people a bit easier.

"What we really wanted to do was offer really concrete examples of what is going on on the ground, and be a partial roadmap for the funding and donor communities by pointing them to projects that are really working," she said in a phone interview.

"For the first time in a long time, funders and donors are really interested in Africa again after years of neglecting agriculture there. I think there is a huge opportunity to point them to projects that are not based on silver-bullet technology but instead on low-cost but high-payoff ways of helping feed people and improving their income while also protecting the environment," Nierenberg said.

In Iowa, she, co-director Brian Halweil and others from her program were previewing some of their research, which will be published in full in January as the next installment of Worldwatch's annual State of the World report.

Nourishing the Planet was inspired in large part by the momentum gathering behind efforts to take on global hunger through sustainable approaches to agriculture. Nierenberg points particularly to the 2008 report by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a three-year project by hundreds of scientists.

That report recommended greater reliance on traditional and agro-ecological approaches to increasing agricultural production rather than highly technological, industrial solutions.

"It was sort of the first time it was said out loud like that," Nierenberg explained.

Nourishing the Planet was then born in spring 2009 after securing a grant from the Gates Foundation. Since then, Nierenberg has been on the road, traveling to more than 25 countries across sub-Saharan Africa looking at environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty.

In her travels, some themes emerged. Innovations in food storage, for instance, have the potential to make a large impact. Forty percent of food is wasted after the harvest, she says, largely because it rots due to inadequate storage.

She points to research on technical ways to keep food from going bad, such as hermetically sealed bags for storing cowpeas, or less expensive ways, such as solar dryers used to preserve fruit.

"In places like Niger, cowpeas are only harvested once a year and they're a staple, so keeping enough of them free of mold or away from rats is very important," Nierenberg said.

Urban migration and finding ways to keep youth involved in agriculture are two other major, and slightly related, themes.

"Fourteen million Africans move to urban areas every year – the biggest rural to urban migration in history – and finding ways for those folks to feed themselves is becoming more important than ever before," she said.

Moreover, "so many youth migrate to cities because they think there are no opportunities in their villages. Making sure they have jobs that not only help feed their communities but are attractive to them is becoming more important than ever before."

Making those jobs more attractive might involve adding value to the crops grown, she said, through juicing, drying or even growing higher-value crops they might be able to export.

Assessing ideas and innovations in these and other areas has meant evaluating the work of a variety of groups.

Nierenberg pointed to Nairobi-based Urban Harvest, which works mainly with slum-dwellers on such goals as helping them find different ways to keep their foods ripe. They are also helping these urban farmers to grow food for seed, particularly for indigenous vegetables, which they can then sell to rural farmers who might not have the time to grow these crops for seed.

"There's sort of been a shift of urban areas helping feed rural areas," Nierenberg said.

Elsewhere, groups like Slow Food International – much more commonly associated with high-end Western consumers – are helping groups already on the ground in Africa with work like promoting biodiversity on farms and building school gardens. But they are also going beyond the farm to help re- teach how to cook indigenous foods.

"In the U.S. we often cook things in microwaves that we find in boxes at grocery stores, and in Africa so many imported foods have infiltrated the market that people don't even cook their own rice anymore or they don't remember how to use the indigenous vegetables that they now call weeds," she explained.

This work highlighting successful projects has meant sometimes making sure that people know about organizations that "maybe don't have a great website or that aren't really noticed by the Rockefeller Foundation or the Gates Foundation – making sure the good work they're doing is not going unnoticed because it deserves more support."


This post originally appeared on Worldwatch Institute.

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