July 2013


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Sumant Kumar, a farmer in India’s Bihar State, recorded a world-record rice yield in 2012 using a method known as the System of Rice Intensification. He has applied the same techniques to his wheat crop. Photo by Sam Eaton.

The latest batch of “What’s for Lunch” stories on PRI’s The World highlight farming methods that don’t bust the global carbon budget.

On July 25, Sam Eaton reported from northeastern India on the System of Rice Intensification, which uses less water and fewer chemicals than conventional farming. The method has been spreading not just among rice growers, but also among producers of wheat and other crops. Still, some scientists are skeptical.

On July 15, Bianca Vazquez Toness met farmers in central India who are using human waste to fertilize their crops. Sewage contains high levels of valuable nitrogen and phosphorous, and putting it to use seems like a no-brainer: synthetic nitrogen is a major greenhouse gas polluter, phosphorous is increasingly scarce, and waste disposal is an enormous challenge in the developing world’s fast-growing cities. But human waste harbors dangerous microbes. The trick is to find ways to process and spread it without endangering consumers’ or farmworkers’ health.

On July 8, The World’s Mary Kay Magistad visited a Chinese inventor who has created what he believes may be the world’s most efficient irrigation system. China’s aquifers are in serious trouble; if farmers can radically reduce their water consumption, the country won’t need to import nearly as much of its food.

If these issues interest you, check out a post by guest blogger Shane Bryan about why can’t-miss technologies sometimes fail to catch on.

Keep an ear out for stories about urban foragers in Seattle and the search for meat alternatives in the Netherlands, both tentatively scheduled for this week. We’ll post links when we have them. [P.S. Just did!]

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In India, many farmers are returning to their traditional rice varieties, which often perform better than modern strains in salty soils. Meanwhile, scientists are working to incorporate salt tolerance into high-yielding varieties as stronger storms and rising seas increase the salinity of coastal fields. Photo by Sam Eaton.

One of the goals of the “Food for 9 Billion” project has been to show that keeping our growing number of selves fed (sustainably, equitably, healthily) is more than just a technical challenge.

That’s because food intersects with just about everything we humans do. It is social and cultural and political and economic. It’s about health and justice and demographics and taste. It ties us to our land and water and climate, and to the gazillions of other beings who share our planet.

And so we’ve produced stories about a wide range of non-technical topics, from land grabbing and trade policies to overconsumption and waste.

But the technical stuff matters, too. Certainly for better-off producers and consumers, for whom small changes can have enormous consequences. But especially, I think, for small-scale, low-income farmers in developing countries, where demand is growing the fastest, productivity is growing the slowest, undernourishment is the highest, and the strains on resources are most severely felt.

So we’ve done several pieces about technology, both high and low – agroecology, biodiversity conservation, reforestation, vertical farming, aquaponics, aquaculture, plant breeding, water harvesting, seed saving, GMOs and more.

Often, after these stories air, listeners or viewers write to tell us that we’re missing the point, that the real problem is ___________. The blank may be any number of things – population growth, poverty, lack of access to markets or land or credit or political power. No technology will help until we deal with that.

In a recent blog post in Grist, Tom Laskawy reports on efforts to get geeky tech types to turn their attention to improving the food system, then warns that it’s folly to expect technology to ensure “that adequate food is produced in a sustainable way for a growing population.” The piece carries the headline “When it comes to food, technology won’t save us.” 

Fine. But no single thing will, and it would be a shame for people to stop innovating because their particular insight or gadget or method isn’t going to save the world on its own.

I think the agroecologists have it right – the world is complex. Everything interacts with everything else. Conditions differ in important ways from place to place, and they change over time. No single technology will work everywhere. Scratch that: no single technology will work anywhere.

That’s not to say that “all of the above” is the best way forward – some technologies, like some policies or ideas, are inappropriate or dangerous or counterproductive. But it’s unlikely that “none of the above” is the answer, either.

And so we’re left with “lots of the above.” Better laws, better seeds, better education, better growing methods, better financial services, better roads, better data, better trade policies, better safety nets.

I never give a journalist grief for a headline (I rarely get to write mine), but maybe a better title for Laskawy’s piece (and, for that matter, for “Food for 9 Billion”) would be “When it comes to food, ________ won’t save us.”

But maybe many things will.

 Jon

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Dole, the world’s largest fruit and vegetable producer, is attempting to achieve carbon neutrality in its entire Costa Rica supply chain. It has reduced water use in processing facilities like this one by as much as 80 percent. And it’s cut nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer in half. Photo: Sam Eaton/Homelands Productions.

Food production, from farm to table, generates more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a vicious circle, because climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing farmers today.

In Costa Rica, farming accounts for a whopping 37 percent of all emissions. Since proclaiming four years ago that it would become the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021, the country has become a laboratory for climate-friendly agriculture. Scientists, small-scale farmers and industrial plantations are all taking part.

Sam Eaton’s report is scheduled to air on PRI’s The World today as part of the What’s for Lunch series.