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Agriculture: The Unlikely Earth Day Hero

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For over 40 years, Earth Day has served as a call to action, mobilizing individuals and organizations around the world to address these challenges. This year Nourishing the Planet 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.

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.

1.  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.

2.  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.

3.  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.

4.  Feeding Cities. 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, South Africa, are helping to raise incomes and provide produce for school meals.

5.  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 more effectively.

6.  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.

7.  Improving Soil Fertility. Africa’s declining soil fertility may lead to an imminent famine; already, it is causing harvest productivity to decline 15–25 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 the Sahel.

8.  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.

9.  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.

10.  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.

11.  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.

12.  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.

13.  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.

14.  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.


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All you wanted to know about organic food

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A special report from the USA!
India is here in every aspect of organic food movement!
What’s so great about organic food?

Food purists are now everywhere.  In the West, why even in India, of course, they are few and far between.  But there is a great awareness these days about organically grown food, vegetables, fruits, cereals and even the way food is cooked and served and much more
Here is a fascinating latest coverage!

Of course there is a lot of difference between organic food in the USA and here in India.  Readers should keep this distinction in mind!

Just eat what your body wants you to eat? Your body wants meat; your  body wants fat; your body wants salt and sugar? Your body will put  up with fruits and vegetables if it must, but only after all the meat, fat, salt and sugar are gone. And as for the question of where your food comes from — whether it’s locally grown, sustainably raised, grass-fed, free range or pesticide-free? Your body doesn’t give a hoot.
But you and your body aren’t the only ones with a stake in this game. Your doctor has opinions about what you should eat.

So does your family. And so too do the food purists who lately seem to be everywhere, insisting that everything that crosses your lips be raised and harvested and brought to market in just the right way. If you find this tiresome — even intrusive — you’re not alone. “It’s food, man. It’s identity,” says James McWilliams, a professor of environmental history at Texas State University. “We encourage people to eat sensibly and virtuously, and then we set this incredibly high bar for how they do it.”

The ideal — as we’re reminded and reminded and reminded — is to go organic, to trade processed foods for fresh foods and the supermarket for the farmers’ market. Organic foods of all kinds currently represent only about 3% of the total American market, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but it’s a sector we all should be supporting more.

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Eco-farming can double food production in 10 Years - UN radio

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Small-scale farmers, can double food production within 10 years by introducing ecological methods in regions where the hungry live, according to a new United Nations report

Agro-ecology does not depend on chemical fertilizers but enhances soils productivity and protects the crops against pests by relying on the natural environment such as beneficial trees, plants, animals and insects.

The United Nations independent expert on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, says that countries that are now investing in agriculture, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa should focus on agroecology.

"My message is investments should focus less on the provision of inputs: chemical fertilizers and pesticides at subsidized prices and more on teaching agricultural practices that allow farmers to be less dependent on these inputs and to produce more with less."

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Indian state allows claims against Coca-Cola

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NEW DELHI (AP) — An Indian state has passed a law allowing residents to seek compensation from soft drink giant Coca-Cola for alleged environmental damage from a former bottling plant.

Coca-Cola Co.'s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages, says the legislation passed Thursday by Kerala state is "devoid of facts, scientific data or any input from or consideration given to" the company.

Environmental activists and local residents say the plant in Palakkad district contaminated ground water, caused severe water shortages and leeched dangerous chemicals before it was shut down in 2004.

Coca-Cola denied the allegations. A Kerala committee recommended that a tribunal be set up to hear compensation claims, which the new law facilitates.

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Climate-smart agriculture is needed

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"2011's biggest problem will be food," John Beddington, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, told a meeting in London on 28 February.

Agriculture must become central to future climate-change discussions, he said, because it contributes a "significant" proportion of global carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions.

The need to tackle climate change while producing more food to feed the world's growing population means that "climate-smart agriculture" is the only way forward, he told scientists, farmers and policy experts at the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science.

Beddington says that the World Bank will attempt to push agriculture up world leaders' agendas when they meet at the end of the year to negotiate a climate deal at the seventeenth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa.

Between 70% and 80% of agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions, such as nitrous oxide, come from the production and use of nitrogen fertilizers. So future rises in food production must be achieved without corresponding boosts in fertilizer use, added Gordon Conway, professor of international development at Imperial College London.

Conway heralded the 'fertilizer trees' Faidherbia albida as the future, particularly for farmers in Africa. These trees, which reintroduce nitrogen to the soil, have been shown to quadruple African maize yields in soils with no artificial fertilizer added.

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But David Powlson, a retired soil scientist with a visiting professorship at the University of Reading, UK, urged caution. He says that countries' fertilizer use should differ according to their stages of development, particularly in Africa, which has soils that are starved of key nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

The overuse of nitrogen fertilizers elsewhere in the world, such as in China, "should not be used as an excuse not to give nitrogen fertilizers to Africa", he says.

Keith Goulding, a soil chemist at the agricultural research centre Rothamsted Research, in Harpenden, UK, and his colleagues are researching other methods of mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture. "We are looking at ways of controlling the loss of nitrogen from the soil," he told the conference.

Goulding and his team are studying the soil microbes that convert nitrogen (from nitrogen-based fertilizers) into nitrous oxide, which is released into the atmosphere. In particular, they hope to manage the microbes, or their genes, so that less nitrogen is lost from the soil.

Preliminary results show that as nitrogen concentrations in the soil rise, there is a change in copy-number of some microbial genes that encode enzymes key to nitrogen escaping from soils. But in test soils with or without added fertilizer, there is little difference in which microbial genes are present, the researchers found. "The genes present are not necessarily the ones that are active," says Goulding. Researchers are now looking to identify the activity of these genes, not merely their presence or copy-number.

In a related experiment, they also found that soils release more nitrous oxide if they are dry and then suddenly become wet — a situation that may become more frequent with climate change. The researchers recommend that farmers keep soil moist to help keep nitrous oxide emissions down.

A group of thirteen scientists, including Beddington, began work last month to figure out how to achieve sustainable agriculture that contributes to food security, while tackling climate change. The scientists, who are working together as the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, held their first meeting in Washington DC on 15 February. They will deliver their findings in a report to world leaders at the UNFCCC meeting at the end of the year in Durban.

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