How Farmers are Creating Resilient Local Food Systems

The food system depends on a healthy environment, but poor agricultural practices are responsible for environmental degradation. Beekeepers continue to lose 30 percent of honeybee colonies during an average winter—likely due to pesticides and other agrochemicals. Soil degradation is occurring at staggering rates, with soils being depleted 10 to 40 times faster than they are being replenished. And up to 100,000 plant varieties are currently endangered worldwide.

The increase in food prices in 2008, Russian wildfires brought on by excessive heat and drought in 2010, and, most recently, the worst drought in more than 100 years in California—all are warning signs that farmers and farmers’ groups, global food producers, industry leaders, researchers, and scientists must address the planet’s food security in the face of weather volatility and climate change.

This week, Food Tank and The Lexicon of Sustainability are spotlighting farming and resilience through The Food List, a cross-media messaging campaign that provides the vital tools needed for fixing the food system.

Farmers depend on just a handful of crop varieties: according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), approximately half of farmland—more than 60 million hectares, or 150 million acres—in the U.S. is planted with corn or soy. This lack of diversity limits farmers’ ability to adapt to varying weather patterns and climate change.

“The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word,” wrote food author and activist Michael Pollan.

A more resilient agricultural system is needed, especially in the face of climate change. “With 80 million more mouths to feed each year and with increasing demand for grain-intensive livestock products, the rise in temperature only adds to the stress. If we continue with business as usual on the climate front, it is only a matter of time before what we [saw] in Russia becomes commonplace,” said Lester Brown, U.S. environmental analyst, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.

Family farmers and food revolutionaries are working to create this paradigm shift by restoring ecological resilience in their local communities. Many farmers are diversifying their cropping systems and working together on projects to preserve biodiversity in fields and on plates.

According to Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune, Soil Health Division director for the U.S. National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), farmers are improving soil’s “ability to take in and hold ‘water in the bank.’ They’re even creating wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while decreasing risks from extreme weather and harvesting better profits and often better yields.”

Here’s how family farmers, food heroes, and organizations around the world are working to create resilient local food systems that are immune to the shocks of climate change and ecological disturbance.

Adapt-N is an interactive tool developed by researchers at Cornell University, designed to help corn growers reduce nitrogen applications based on site-specific recommendations. The website is part of a suite of decision-support tools from Cornell to help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change in the U.S.

DivSeek, an international partnership launched in January 2015, use big data to catalog the physical and genetic information held within international gene banks, and to make it available online. The initiative, involving 69 organizations from 30 countries, enhances the productivity and resilience of global crops by giving breeders and researchers access to information through an online portal.

In the Philippines, Dr. Wilson Cerbito, Assistant Regional Director of the Department of Agriculture, addressed the First Agriculture Summit on May 7, 2015, noting the Philippines is the third most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. The event outlined strategies for improving productivity of rice and root crops through technologies and practices that promote ecological resilience.

Full Belly Farm received the California Leopold Conservation Award for its land stewardship and conservation efforts. Judith Redmond, a manager of the farm, demonstrated resilience in the face of extreme drought by changing her crop choices, implementing drip irrigation, and reducing her reliance on groundwater. The creek that usually irrigates her crops ran completely dry last year, but Redmond was still able to water her land using micro-irrigation.

La Red de Guardianes de Semillas (The Network of Seed Guardians) is preserving rare plant varieties and culturally important seeds in Tumbaco, Ecuador. The community model for seed-saving fosters the exchange of cultural knowledge between small farmers, trains growers on permaculture techniques, and works to preserve biodiversity throughout Ecuador. The coupling of cultural heritage and biological heredity in something so small as a seed gets at the heart of the resilience concept: the more biologically and culturally varied a system, the more buffered it is against disturbance.

The Lexicon of Sustainability is spreading the word about agricultural resilience through information artworks and inventive media campaigns. Douglas Gayeton, multimedia artist and the organization’s founder, emphasizes that “there are farmers who believe in biodiversity instead of monoculture. Farmers who build soil fertility without depending on chemicals. Farmers who go beyond organic.” By defining terms such as true cost accounting, The Lexicon of Sustainability seeks to describe a vision for resilience through engaging stories.

Who do you know about that is creating a resilient local food system? We want to know! Share them with me at Danielle@foodtank.com.

6 incredible plants you might not have heard of

Tasty, nutritious crops that are clearly missing from your diet!

eggplant grown by Embaraga women's cooperative in Musanze, Rwanda
eggplant grown by Embaraga women’s cooperative in Musanze, Rwanda

All over the world local varieties of fruit, vegetables and grain are grown. Many are seemingly forgotten or are underutilized despite having outstanding nutritional or taste qualities. Some have good commercial potential and could be an excellent cash crop for a small scale or family farmers, aimed at the local, regional or international market.

Here are six traditional crops and six facts about them which might amaze you:

Amaranth leaves are usually picked fresh for use as greens in salads or blanched, steamed, boiled, fried in oil, and mixed with meat, fish, cucurbit seeds, groundnut or palm oil. It is gluten free and good for cardiovascular diseases, stomach ache and anaemia. It is a native species to the Andean region of South America, including Argentina, Peru and Bolivia. The leaves of the plant are frequently used in countries throughout Africa, the Caribbean, India and China

Moringa leaves are rich in protein, vitamins A, B and C, and minerals – highly recommended for pregnant and nursing mothers as well as young children.

Moringa is a genus of shrubs and trees with multi-purpose uses: its leaves, roots and immature pods are consumed as a vegetable. All parts of the moringa tree – bark, pods, leaves, nuts, seeds, tubers, roots, and flowers – are edible. The leaves are used fresh or dried and ground into powder. The seed pods are picked while still green and eaten fresh or cooked. Moringa seed oil is sweet, non-sticking, non-drying and resists rancidity, while the cake from seed is used to purify drinking water. The seeds are also be eaten green, roasted, powdered and steeped for tea or used in curries. Moringa is an important crop in India, Ethiopia, the Philippines and the Sudan, and is being grown in West, East and South Africa, tropical Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Florida and the Pacific Islands.

Moringa oleifera is the economically most valuable species and is native to South Asia, where it grows in the Himalayan foothills but is widely cultivated across the tropics. Nine species occur in eastern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and Somalia, of which eight are endemic to Africa.

Teff grains are white, mixed or red, with the white fetching the highest and red the lowest price. Teff accounts for about two-third of the daily protein intake in the Ethiopian diet and is mainly used for making different kinds of enjera (pancake-like flat bread), porridge and feed.

Teff is a staple food crop of Ethiopia and Eritrea, having originated and diversified there. It has been introduced to South Africa where it is cultivated as a cover and forage crop while it is cultivated as a cereal crop in Northern Kenya.

Cultivated finger millet was domesticated about 5 000 years ago from the wild subspecies in the highlands that range from Ethiopia to Uganda. It can be stored for up to two years without harmful pesticides, acting as a food reserve during the lean season. Cultivated finger millet was domesticated about 5 000 years ago from the wild subspecies in the highlands that range from Ethiopia to Uganda. Domesticated finger millet was then also farmed in the lowlands of Africa. This was introduced into India around 3 000 years ago, with the result that India is now a secondary centre of diversity for finger millet.

Bambara groundnut is known as a “complete food” as the seeds contain on average 63% carbohydrate, 19% protein and 6.5% fat, making it a very important source of dietary protein. It is a grain legume grown mainly by subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Bambara groundnut is a grain legume grown mainly by subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. It is cultivated for its subterranean pods, is extremely hardy and produces reasonable yields even under conditions of drought and low soil fertility. The pods are approximately 1.5 cm long, and may be wrinkled and slightly oval or round, containing one to two seeds. The colour of the seeds varies from black, dark-brown, red, white, cream or a combination of these colours. At harvest, i.e. when the pods ripen, the plant is extracted from the soil, exposing the subterranean nuts.

The nuts may be eaten fresh (i.e. boiled or roasted before they are dried) as snacks but the majority of the nuts are consumed after they are dried. The dried nuts, with very hard seed coats, are milled and sieved to yield very fine flour that is used to prepare a variety of dishes including dumplings, cakes and biscuits. Bambara groundnut is indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa where it is widely cultivated. The centre of origin is most likely North-Eastern Nigeria and Northern Cameroon, in West Africa. The species is also grown to a lesser extent in some Asian countries such as India, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.

In different parts of Africa, the roots and fruits of the African garden eggplant are used as a sedative, and to treat colic and high blood pressure while the juice obtained by macerating the leaves is used to treat uterine complaints. Also, the extract of the leaves is used as a sedative and anti-emetic and to treat tetanus associated with miscarriages.

©West Africa Plants/Annette Gockele

If you’re ever in the mood to try something new, the good news is that there is certainly food you haven’t tasted before (and the list is growing)

Gates foundation spends bulk of agriculture grants in rich countries – tell me something we did not know already

Many people frown when i tell them how strongly i feel about foreign aid, and do gooders, call me skeptical, call me an angry black woman farmer, but i still stand by my views, foreign aid is modern day colonialism

Now imagine this aid in the form of INGOs and NGOs and whatever they wish to call themselves these days, and imagine them infiltrating almost every industry in the developing world. It seems to me like , ”white, near educated, come to africa and work for an NGO’, because let us face it, the only pre-requist for them to manage the INGO is not to be local…

it gets me almost mad when i see the extent at which this ‘do good’ is creeping into agriculture, the last frontier, the one thing developing countries from India, to Cambodia to countries in Sub Sahara africa, it is the one source of livelihood and the only means of feeding our growing populations. Agriculture as a sector has its problems, ie farmers face many problems which are not unique to only developing countries but a Dutch farmer last week was only telling us the difficulties he faces for being organic. Now take these struggling small scale farmers, and add foreign aid/do-gooders to the equation, and the result is a mess, and who suffers the most,  of course, the small scale farmer

Below is an article from the Guardian expressing ”surprise” at the fact that a huge chunk of this ”do-good’ money is actually not spent doing good but serving the countries it really aims to benefit, so please let us stop with the pretense and call it what it is!

Most of the $3bn (£1.8bn) that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given to benefit hungry people in the world’s poorest countries has been spent in the US, Britain and other rich countries, with only around 10% spent in Africa, new research suggests.

Analysis of grants made by the foundation shows that nearly half the money awarded over the past decade went to global agriculture research networks, as well as organisations including the World Bank and UN agencies, and groups that work in Africa to promote hi-tech farming.

The other $1.5bn went to hundreds of research and development organisations across the world, according to Grain, a research group based in Barcelona. “Here, over 80% of the grants were given to organisations in the US and Europe, and only 10% to groups in Africa. By far the main recipient country is the US, followed by the UK, Germany and the Netherlands,” it says in a report published on Tuesday.

Of the $678m given to universities and national research centres, 79% went to the US and Europe, and only 12% to Africa.

“The north-south divide is most shocking, however, when we look at the $669m given to non-government groups for agriculture work. Africa-based groups received just 4%. Over 75% went to organisations based in the US,” says the report.

“When we examined the foundation’s grants database, we were amazed that they seem to want to fight hunger in the south by giving money to organisations in the north. The bulk of its grants for agriculture are given to organisations in the US and Europe,” said agronomist Henk Hobbelink, a co-founder of Grain.

“It also appeared that they’re not listening to farmers, despite their claims. The overwhelming majority of its funding goes to hi-tech scientific outfits, not to supporting the solutions that the farmers themselves are developing on the ground. Africa’s farmers are cast as recipients, mere consumers of knowledge and technology from others.”

The private foundation – one of the world’s largest with an endowment of more than $38bn from Bill Gates, and which supports the Guardian’s Global development website – has emerged in under a decade as one of the major donors to agricultural research and development and the largest single funder of research into genetic engineering. In 2006-07, it spent $500m on agricultural projects and it has maintained funding at around this level since. The vast majority of the foundation’s grants focus on Africa.

It aims to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty but its agriculture work has been criticised for being fixated on the work of scientists in centralised labs and ignoring the knowledge and biodiversity that Africa’s smallholder farmers have developed over generations.

The single biggest recipient of Gates foundation agricultural grants is the CGIAR consortium of 15 international agricultural research centres.

“In the 1960s and 70s, these centres were responsible for the development and spread of a controversial ‘green revolution’ model of agriculture in parts of Asia and Latin America which focused on the mass distribution of a few varieties of seeds that could produce high yields – with the generous application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides,” says the report.

“Efforts to implement the same model in Africa failed and, globally, CGIAR lost relevance as corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto have taken control over seed markets. Money from the Gates foundation is now providing CGIAR and its green revolution model with a new lease of life, this time in direct partnership with seed and pesticide companies.”

The centres have received more than $720m from Gates since 2003. During the same period, another $678m went to universities and national research centres – more than three-quarters of them in the US and Europe – for research and development of specific technologies, such as crop varieties and breeding techniques.

Britain has been the Gates foundation’s second largest recipient, receiving 25 grants worth $156m since 2003. In the US, where universities and research groups have been awarded $880m, Cornell University has received $90m – more than all other countries except the US, UK and Germany.

“We could find no evidence of any support from the Gates foundation for programmes of research or technology development carried out by farmers or based on farmers’ knowledge, despite the multitude of such initiatives that exist across the continent and the fact that African farmers continue to supply an estimated 90% of the seed used on the continent,” says the report. “The foundation has elected consistently to put its money into top-down structures of knowledge generation and flow, where farmers are mere recipients of the technologies developed in labs and sold to them by companies.”

Grain suggests that the foundation uses its money to indirectly impose a policy agenda on African governments. “The Gates foundation set up the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) in 2006 and has supported it with $414m since then. It holds two seats on the alliance’s board and describes it as the African face and voice for our work,” it says.

“Agra trains farmers on how to use the technologies, and even organises them into groups to better access the technologies, but it does not support farmers in building up their own seed systems or in doing their own research. It also funds initiatives and agribusiness companies operating in Africa to develop private markets for seeds and fertilisers through support to ‘agro-dealers’.

“An important component of its work, however, is shaping policy. Agra intervenes directly in the formulation and revision of agricultural policies and regulations in Africa on such issues as land and seeds. It does so through national ‘policy action nodes’ of experts, selected by Agra that work to advance particular policy changes,” says the report.

The foundation, based in Seattle, responded to the report’s main points by saying they gave an incomplete picture of its work. “The needs of millions of smallholder farmers – most of whom are women – are very much at the centre of the Gates foundation’s agriculture strategy. Our grants are focused on connecting farmers with quality farming supplies and information, access to markets, and improving data so that government policies and resources are in line with their needs. Listening to farmers to understand their needs, and to developing country governments to understand their priorities, is crucially important,” said spokesman Chris Williams.

“We fundamentally believe that development should be led by developing countries themselves. We invest directly in the capacity of national governments to execute their own agricultural strategies and join with other donors to fund those strategies through multilateral mechanisms like the global agriculture and food security programme.

“Looking at the primary grantees in our database doesn’t provide a complete picture of where our funds end up and who they benefit. Many of our primary grantees sub grant funds to local institutions in African and south Asian countries, including farmer organisations.

“Many local NGOs in Africa and south Asia are small organisations without the capacity to absorb large grants and often choose to partner with larger organisations to get work done most efficiently. But at the same time, we are also engaged in direct capacity-building funding to ensure these organisations will be more able to administer grants of this size on their own in the future.”

The same is true for research funding, Williams said, adding: “We fund research on crops and livestock that are critically important to the poor, but have historically been neglected by donors. For example, with support from the British government, our foundation and others, researchers at Cornell and the US department of agriculture are now working on improved varieties of cassava, a staple crop in many tropical regions. Partners in Uganda and Nigeria are growing new plants, recording their traits, and sending genetic samples to Cornell for sequencing. This will help breeders in these countries develop new locally adapted varieties faster than ever.”

 

The question therefore remains, do we need to revise the role of foreign partnerships in agriculture and rural cooperation within developing and developed countries?

What is Synthetic Biology? Engineering Life and Livelihoods

Video Animation Explores Risks of Treating Life as a Machine

 

MONTREAL, 30 Oct. 2014–On the eve of the largest annual gathering of synthetic biologists in the world, ETC Group and the Bioeconomies Media Project are launching a new animated explanation of the workings of this emerging “SynBio” industry, often dubbed extreme genetic engineering. Thousands of scientists, students and vendors will converge at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Jamboree in Boston to share the latest advancements in what has become a multi billion dollar industry based on the industrialization of life at the molecular level.

 

Increasingly, scientists and civil society are sounding the alarm about the risks posed by unregulated commercialization of SynBio’s untested, experimental and unprecedented manipulation of life forms. The new ten minute video, produced in collaboration with award-winning Canadian animator Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre and narrated by ETC’s Jim Thomas, is the first output from a new Bioeconomies Media Project. Featuring work of researchers from Canadian universities and funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the video provides a succinct introduction to the science and emerging industry of synthetic biology as well as some of the ethical, biosafety and economic impacts that these “genetically engineered machines” may have.

 

“The synthetic biology industry is already a multibillion dollar enterprise involving some of the worlds largest food, chemical and agribusiness companies,” said Jim Thomas, ETC’s Programme Director. “The leaders of that industry are targeting markets supplied by small farmers in the around the world; this is likely to have real negative impacts on poorer communities in the global south.”

 

SynBio companies have commercialized several products already, including a vanilla substitute grown by synthetically modified yeast, a coconut oil replacement produced by engineered algae, and engineered versions of patchouli and vetiver fragrances. Less than two weeks ago, 194 nations at the United Nations convention on Biological Diversity unanimously urged governments to establish precautionary regulations and to assess synthetic biology organisms, components and products. Many countries had called for a complete global moratorium on the release of synthetic biology organisms.

 IMPACT ON SMALL SCALE FARMERS:

“Small farmers feed over 70% of the world; if SynBio companies cut into the tiny profits they are able to make, it could have a growing negative impact on the world’s food supply,” Thomas added. “Given how little we know about the potential effects of these highly novel life forms, there are also concerns about the risk of synthetic microorganisms escaping into the air and water.”

This prospect of lab-grown food and consumer ingredients is exciting to the 22 billion dollar flavour and fragrance industry. But, especially with those ‘natural’ claims, it’s reason enough for tropical farmers to become alarmed. Every hectare of natural saffron growing in Iran provides jobs for up to 270 people per day, and replacing that with Syn bio saffron now threatens those jobs.

An estimated 200,000 people grow, tend and cure vanilla beans in Madagascar, Uganda, Mexico, and elsewhere. Those farmers already have precarious livelihoods because of chemically synthetic vanilla. But now SynBio vanillin further undermines them.

It also threatens the ecosystems they live in, because vanilla farming is closely tied to rainforest protection. The natural vines require in tact forests to thrive. But if the price of natural vanilla crashes because of SynBio vanilla, farmers may instead resort to instead hacking away the forest to plant rice to survive.

Of course, the synthetic biology industry can’t do away with farmers altogether. Vats of engineered yeast or algae require vast quantities of sugar sourced from corn or sugarcane plantations. This is why so far, all the largest SynBio companies have set up manufacturing plants in Brazil.

Cane sugar from Brazil may be sweet to eat, but it has a very bitter side too. It’s water-hungry, chemical-laden, and is often harvested by workers in slave conditions. The expansion of sugar cane is driving destruction of Brazil’s ecologically precious Cerrado region and it’s displacing other agriculture deeper into the Amazon.

The video released today features the work of Montreal-based animator Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre, who has dozens of film festival awards to her name, most recently for Best Short Documentary at the Saint Louis International Film Festival in 2012. Saint Pierre’s last animation was featured at the most recent Cannes International Film Festival.

 

“Since I started working on this video, I’ve learned that synthetic biology is quite dangerous, and without regulations it can have repercussions for workers and farmers,” said Saint-Pierre. “It was important for me to make something that’s easy to understand, so that anyone can access information about SynBio and process it.”

 

The video can be viewed at the following locations:

http://www.synbiowatch.org/2014/10/synthetic_biology_explained/

http://www.etcgroup.org/synthetic_biology_explained

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C726wUGLdL4

 

For for information, please contact:SY

Jim Thomas, jim@etcgroup.org  phone 1 514 516 5759

Dru Oja Jay, dru@etcgroup.org  phone 1 438 930 4693

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