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ON THE SHELFThe Next Green Revolution

Solutions to global hunger are shifting away from high-tech and toward sustainable, local projects.

2011 State of the World: Innovations That Nourish the Planet
by Worldwatch Institute. W.W. Norton & Co., 2011. 237 pages.

Worldwide, more food is produced today than ever before, bolstered by years of technological advances. Yet some 925 million people still go hungry, and the plight of the undernourished may become increasingly dire in coming decades. How is such a situation possible after so many years of international efforts to eradicate hunger? This question forms an important starting point for Innovations That Nourish the Planet, a 2011 State of the World publication by the nonprofit Worldwatch Institute. Based on a two-year study of agricultural innovations in Africa, the findings in the volume suggest that past failures can help form better understandings of current challenges and contribute to more promising, sustainable solutions.

A key message in Innovations is that the world’s ecosystems share complex interconnections; thus, to achieve global agricultural success, fragile balances – natural and societal – must be maintained. Recognition of these complexities contributes to more carefully calibrated approaches than in the past. The widely hailed green revolution of the 1960s boosted food production through high-yield grains, chemical fertilizers, and mechanization. Yet it also contributed to displacement of local farmers and disparities in wealth, as benefits accrued only to those producers who could afford imported supplies. Moreover, those farming methods led to depletion of soil nutrients and water pollution. “As we spectacularly boosted overall levels of production during the second half of the 20th century, we created the conditions for a major ecological disaster in the 21st century,” asserts Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food. Though they are complementary objectives, increasing food production and eradicating hunger and malnutrition are not necessarily linked, De Schutter concludes.

By contrast, the Nourishing the Planet project upon which this volume is based champions “eco-agricultural” solutions, which emphasize sustainability and the interdependence of local ecosystems, economies, and public policy. Current population increases in Africa, for example, translate to smaller plots of land being farmed by more people, which leads to greater depletion of the soil and a continuing cycle of poverty and food insecurity. Chemicals offer immediate solutions but fail to ensure continued soil fertility while encouraging dependence on an expensive foreign products developed from fossil fuels. Seeking better alternatives, Nourishing the Planet project Director Danielle Nierenberg traveled to 25 African countries to study the successes of local projects that employ a combination of traditional and new techniques – rainwater harvesting, rooftop gardening, green cover crops, and locally produced biofuels.

The volume’s 14 chapters, authored by various scientists, researchers, activists, and journalists, examine food issues that range from climate change to biodiversity, soil fertility, and distribution problems – as well as solutions that involve local knowledge and skills, policy reform, and new approaches to research. Intended to serve as a working resource, Innovations follows each chapter discussion with a section that highlights a local success story, from East African rainwater harvesting to solar cookers in Senegal, an educational theater project in Mozambique and Malawi, and a livestock program in Rwanda. Prism readers involved in similar overseas programs may find particular value in learning the details of these groups’ frustrations, negotiations, and discoveries.

While Innovations focuses on Africa, other regions gain mention, such as Asia, where great amounts of produce go to waste as a result of poor harvest and distribution techniques. Post-harvest waste is a serious yet neglected problem across the globe, we learn. Yet, simple, cost-effective solutions could make a real difference in securing more food for the world’s hungry: training producers to stack fruit in wooden crates rather than tossing it into large gunnysacks, for example, or teaching about optimal harvest timing to maximize shelf life.

Many similar small but important initiatives are now being undertaken by governments, international aid agencies, and university groups. While Innovations That Nourish the Planet celebrates these developments, Worldwatch urges further action – and attention. “Agriculture is at the heart of international development,” states the book’s concluding essay, so “it must stay at the forefront of the world community’s radar.”

Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.




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