— Rising temperatures, erratic weather, population growth, and scarce water
resources – along with growing civil unrest and skyrocketing food prices – are
putting unprecedented stress on people and the planet. For more than 40 years,
Earth Day has served as a call to action, mobilizing individuals and
organizations around the world to address these challenges. This year,
Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project
highlights agriculture – often blamed as a driver of environmental problems –
as an emerging solution.
Agriculture is a
source of food and income for the world’s poor and a primary engine for economic
growth. It also offers untapped potential for mitigating climate change and
protecting biodiversity, and for lifting millions of people out of poverty.
Planet, a two-year evaluation of innovations in agriculture, offers 15
sustainable solutions that are working on the ground to alleviate global hunger
while also protecting soil, water, and other vital natural resources.
“Agriculture encompasses such a large chunk of the planet that creating
healthy economies, mitigating climate change, and improving livelihoods will
require a longstanding commitment to the world’s farmers,” says Danielle
Nierenberg, Nourishing the Planet co-project director.
Past attempts to
combat hunger have tended to focus narrowly on a few types of crops, rely
heavily on chemical fertilizers, and ignore women farmers. “There’s been
relatively little focus on low-cost ways to boost soil fertility and make
better use of scarce water, and on solutions that exist beyond the farm and all
along the food chain,” says Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. From
urban farming projects that are feeding our growing cities to rotational
farming practices that store carbon in the soils and help mitigate climate
change, small-scale and low-input innovations can go a long way in protecting
the environment – not only on Earth Day, but every day.
This Earth Day,
Nourishing the Planet offers 15 solutions to guide farmers, scientists,
politicians, agribusinesses and aid agencies as they commit to promoting a
healthier environment and a more food-secure future.
Guaranteeing the Right to Food.
Guaranteeing the human right to adequate food – now and for future generations
– requires that policymakers incorporate this right into food security laws and
programs at the regional, national, and international level. Governments have a
role in providing the public goods to support sustainable agriculture,
including extension services, farmer-to-farmer transmission of knowledge,
storage facilities, and infrastructure that links farmers to consumers.
Harnessing the Nutritional and Economic Potential of Vegetables. Micronutrient deficiencies, including
lack of vitamin A, iodine, and iron, affect 1 billion people worldwide.
Promoting indigenous vegetables that are rich in micronutrients could help
reduce malnutrition. Locally adapted vegetable varieties are hardier and more
dependable than staple crops, making them ideal for smallholder farmers.
Research organizations like AVRDC/The World Vegetable Center are developing
improved vegetable varieties, such as amaranth and African eggplant, and
cultivating an appreciation for traditional foods among consumers.
Reducing Food Waste.
Experts continue to emphasize increasing global food production, yet our money
could be better spent on reducing food waste and post-harvest losses. Already,
a number of low-input and regionally appropriate storage and preservation
techniques are working to combat food waste around the world. In Pakistan,
farmers cut their harvest losses by 70 percent by switching from jute bags and
containers constructed with mud to more durable metal containers. And in West Africa, farmers have saved around 100,000 mangos by
using solar dryers to dry the fruit after harvest.
The U.N. estimates that 70 percent of the world’s people will live in cities by
2050, putting stress on available food. Urban agriculture projects are helping
to improve food security, raise incomes, empower women, and improve urban
environments. In sub-Saharan Africa, the
Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO) has helped city farmers
build food gardens, using old tires to create crop beds. And community
supported agriculture (CSA) programs in Cape Town,
are helping to raise incomes and provide produce for school meals.
Getting More Crop per Drop.
Many small farmers lack access to a reliable source of water, and water
supplies are drying up as extraction exceeds sustainable levels. Only 4 percent
of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultivated land is
equipped for irrigation, and a majority of households depend on rainfall to
water their crops, which climate scientists predict will decline in coming
decades. Efficient water management in agriculture can boost crop productivity
for these farmers. By practicing conservation tillage, weeding regularly, and
constructing vegetative barriers and earthen dams, farmers can harness rainfall
Using Farmers’ Knowledge in Research and Development. Agricultural research and development
processes typically exclude smallholder farmers and their wealth of knowledge,
leading to less-efficient agricultural technologies that go unused. Research
efforts that involve smallholder farmers alongside agricultural scientists can
help meet specific local needs, strengthen farmers’ leadership abilities, and
improve how research and education systems operate. In southern Ethiopia’s
Amaro district, a community-led body carried out an evaluation of key problems
and promising solutions using democratic decision-making to determine what type
of research should be funded.
Improving Soil Fertility.
Africa’s declining soil fertility may lead to
an imminent famine; already, it is causing harvest productivity to decline 15percent
to 25 percent, and farmers expect harvests to drop by half in the next five
years. Green manure/cover crops, including living trees, bushes, and vines,
help restore soil quality and are an inexpensive and feasible solution to this
problem. In the drought-prone Sahel region, the Dogon people of Mali are using an innovative, three-tiered
system and are now harvesting three times the yield achieved in other parts of
Safeguarding Local Food Biodiversity. Over the past few decades, traditional African agriculture
based on local diversity has given way to monoculture crops destined for
export. Less-healthy imports are replacing traditional, nutritionally rich
foods, devastating local economies and diets. Awareness-raising initiatives and
efforts to improve the quality of production and marketing are adding value to and
encouraging diversification and consumption of local products. In Ethiopia’s
Wukro and Wenchi villages, honey producers are training with Italian and
Ethiopian beekeepers to process and sell their honey more efficiently, promote
appreciation for local food, and compete with imported products.
Coping with Climate Change and Building Resilience. Global climate change, including higher
temperatures and increased periods of drought, will negatively impact
agriculture by reducing soil fertility and decreasing crop yields. Although
agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for about
one-third of global emissions, agricultural practices, such as agroforestry and
the re-generation of natural resources, can help mitigate climate change. In Niger,
farmers have planted nearly 5 million hectares of trees that conserve water,
prevent soil erosion, and sequester carbon, making their farms more productive
and drought-resistant without damaging the environment.
Harnessing the Knowledge and Skills of Women Farmers. According to the U.N. Food and
Agriculture Organization, women represent 43 percent of the agricultural labor
force, but due to limited access to inputs, land, and services, they produce
less per unit of land than their male counterparts. Improving women’s access to
agricultural extension services, credit programs, and information technology
can help empower women, while reducing global hunger and poverty. In Uganda,
extension programs are introducing women farmers to coolbot technology, which
uses solar energy and an inverter to reduce temperatures and prolong the shelf
life of vegetables.
Investing in Africa’s Land: Crisis and Opportunity. As pressure to increase food production
rises, wealthy countries in the Middle East and Asia are acquiring cheap land
in Africa to increase their food productivity.
This has led to the exploitation of small-scale African farmers, compromising
their food security. Agricultural investment models that create collaborations
between African farmers and the foreign investing countries can be part of the
solution. In Ethiopia’s
Rift Valley, farmers grow green beans for the Dutch market during the European
winter months, but cultivate corn and other crops for local consumption during
the remaining months.
Charting a New Path to Eliminating Hunger. Nearly 1 billion people around the world
are hungry, 239 million of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.
To alleviate hunger, we must shift our attention beyond the handful of crops
that have absorbed most of agriculture’s attention and focus on ways to improve
farmers’ access to inputs and make better use of the food already produced.
Innovations – such as the human-powered pump that can increase access to
irrigation and low-cost plastic bags that help preserve grains – offer models
that can be scaled-up and replicated beyond Africa.
Moving Ecoagriculture into the Mainstream. Agricultural practices that emphasize
increased production have contributed to the degradation of land, soil, and
local ecosystems, and ultimately hurt the livelihoods of the farmers who depend
on these natural resources. Agroecological methods, including organic farming
practices, can help farmers protect natural resources and provide a sustainable
alternative to costly industrial inputs. These include rotational grazing for
livestock in Zimbabwe’s
savanna region and tea plantations in Kenya, where farmers use
intercropping to improve soil quality and boost yields.
Improving Food Production from Livestock. In the coming decades, small livestock
farmers in the developing world will face unprecedented challenges: demand for
animal-source foods, such as milk and meat, is increasing, while animal
diseases in tropical countries will continue to rise, hindering trade and
putting people at risk. Innovations in livestock feed, disease control, and
climate change adaptation – as well as improved yields and efficiency – are
improving farmers’ incomes and making animal-source food production more
sustainable. In India,
farmers are improving the quality of their feed by using grass, sorghum, stover
and brans to produce more milk from fewer animals.
15. Going Beyond Production. Although scarcity and famine dominate
the discussion of food security in sub-Saharan Africa,
many countries are unequipped to deal with the crop surpluses that lead to low
commodity prices and food waste. Helping farmers better organize their means of
production – from ordering inputs to selling their crops to a customer – can
help them become more resilient to fluctuations in global food prices and
better serve local communities that need food. In Uganda, the organization
TechnoServe has helped to improve market conditions for banana farmers by
forming business groups through which they can buy inputs, receive technical advice,
and sell their crops collectively.
Nourishing the Planet traveled to 25 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, where they met with more than 250 farmers’
groups, scientists, NGOs, and government agencies. Their stories of hope and success
serve as models for large-scale efforts beyond Africa.
The project’s recently released State of the World 2011: Innovations that
Nourish the Planet report draws from over 60 of the world’s leading
agricultural experts and provides a roadmap for the funding and donor
communities. “One of our main goals is to ensure that the increasing
amount of agricultural funding goes to projects that are effective and
long-lasting, and help build up local agricultural resources,” says Brian
Halweil, Nourishing the Planet co-project director.
Worldwatch is an
independent research organization based in Washington, D.C.,
that works on energy, resource, and environmental issues. The Institute’s State
of the World report is published annually in more than 20 languages. For more
information, visit the Worldwatch website.
Over at the EPA
Environmental Protection Agency offices around the country are listing events
and activities in and near your community. Events range from easy,
family-friendly events to more strenuous volunteer environmental cleanup
opportunities. For example, there’s a Mystic
River cleanup in Massachusetts,
Auntie Litter’s Parade in Birmingham
Alabama, the Mountain Area Earth
Day Fair in Evergreen Colorado, and many, many more. Visit the EPA’s Eventspage for events near you.
The EPA also
offers a number of online activities for Earth Day:
Pick 5 for the Environment.
Join others in the United
States and around the world and commit to
small steps that fit your lifestyle, but are powerful actions that help protect
the environment. Check out the Pick 5 page on the EPA website.
State of the
Environment Photo Project – Beginning this month and continuing over the coming
year to Earth Day 2012, EPA invites photographers to submit photographs on the
state of the environment as they experience it, to add to the Documerica
project. Read more about the history of Documerica and how to enter your photos
on the EPA’s Flickr page.