Agriculture


10_guerra_kuna_yala

The Guna won their land from the Panamanian government after a revolution in 1925 and have been managing it communally ever since. Here Marcos Ramirez (center) directs members of the Yarsuisuit Collective as they weed a plot that they cultivate in the forest. Photo by Bear Guerra.

Like many of the world’s indigenous groups, Panama’s Guna people are facing formidable challenges: the impacts of climate change, encroaching outside influences, and a younger generation that’s drifting away from its roots.

Yet their situation is not nearly as dire as it might be. One reason is their communal system of forest management, which is emerging as a model of conservation and the sustainable use of resources.

Homelands’ Bear Guerra and Ruxandra Guidi spent time with the Guna this summer and teamed up on a photo essay and article for the environmental magazine Ensia.

What was the most important invention in human history? The printing press? Antibiotics? Nope, says Alan Weisman in this talk from TEDxSitka. And he has a couple of simple ideas for how to undo its damage.

Image

Mealworms are nutritionally similar to beef, but are much more efficient at converting feed into protein. Photo by Jon Miller/Homelands Productions.

In the final story in the “Food for 9 Billion” project, Jon Miller races around the Netherlands hunting for climate-friendly alternatives to meat. The piece airs today on PRI’s The World.

“Food for 9 Billion” was a collaboration among Homelands Productions, The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), Marketplace from APM, The World and PBS NewsHour. We are deeply grateful for the chance to work with such fine partners.

Since the project launched in November 2011, we produced 14 radio stories for Marketplace, 14 radio stories for The World and 12 television stories for the NewsHour.

In addition to producing the television features, our friends at CIR created an animated video called “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers,” which has been viewed more than 184,000 times. 

We also produced two interactive web features (a World Food Map and World Food Timeline); thanks to Darcy Branchini and Stefan Einarson at the International Programs section of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, as well as to Chris Barrett at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, also at Cornell, for their help on those.

And of course all the partners blogged and tweeted as we went.

The project isn’t actually 100 percent finished. We’re still working on educational materials for high school students, and CIR plans to produce a long-form television feature about the food relationship between the US and China. We’ll keep you posted on those. We’ll also keep the Twitter account alive, at least for a while.

Before we go, we want to recognize a wonderful team of freelance journalists who worked as reporters, producers and editors: Charlotte Buchen, Sam Eaton, Cassandra Herrman, Beth Hoffman, Jori Lewis, Joshua McNichols, Fred de Sam Lazaro, Sandy Tolan, Bianca Vazquez Toness, Cecilia Vaisman and Gretchen Wilson (in alphabetical order).

And thanks to editors Ben Adair and George Judson at Marketplace, Linda Winslow at PBS NewsHour and Peter Thomson at The World. Sharon Tiller was the executive producer at CIR. Homelands’ Jon Miller was the overall executive producer.

To all you loyal readers, listeners and viewers: Thank you! And please do keep in touch.

Image

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!]

Image

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

Image

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.

Researcher

A Stanford University research technician erects a net on a Costa Rican coffee farm. The team has identified more than 100 species of birds on farms and associated patches of forest as part of a project to calculate the value of biodiversity. Photo: Sam Eaton/Homelands Productions.

It’s the biggest week yet for the “Food for 9 Billion” project, with five stories scheduled to air on PBS NewsHour and two on PRI’s The World.

Today on the NewsHour, Sam Eaton visits Costa Rica, where farmers and researchers are finding that biodiversity isn’t just good for the environment, but also boosts productivity and profits. Also today, on The World, Mary Kay Magistad eats a meal with the organizers of a grassroots campaign to cut down on food waste in China, where leaving food on your plate is a sign that you’ve made it.

Tuesday on the NewsHour, Jon Miller travels to Qatar to visit a high-tech experiment in transforming sunlight, seawater and carbon dioxide into food, fuel and fresh water. On Wednesday, also on the NewsHour, Sam reports on an ultra-efficient vertical vegetable farm in Singapore.

On Thursday, Jon reports for The World from Uganda, where scientists and activists have staked out very different positions on genetically engineered virus-resistant cassava. Also on Thursday, on the NewsHour, Sam visits farmers in India who are returning to their traditional seeds to protect themselves against the ravages of climate change.

Finally, on the NewsHour on Friday, Serene Fang and Susanne Rust of the Center for Investigative Reporting look at California’s resource-hungry dairy industry, which is turning to China as domestic markets dry up.

As always, if you can’t catch the stories on the day of broadcast, they will all be archived at Foodfor9Billion.org, along with slideshows, interactive graphics and other goodies.

Next Page »