Food Security


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.

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A listener contacted us after our story aired on PRI’s The World about entrepreneur Charles Mulamata’s effort to start an aquaponics business in his native Uganda. (Aquaponics is a combination of fish and vegetable farming that promoters say is more efficient and productive than conventional methods.) Geoff Platt, who develops aquaponics systems in Arizona, asked us to forward his contact information to Mulamata. Here’s what he wrote today:

Does good journalism change anything? Can words make an impact? Through this interview you may well have started something much larger than you could have imagined….

I am currently helping [Charles] develop several businesses. A mobile aquaponics van, a vertical farming system capable of much larger yields, a wood gas stove designed to reduce eye problems related to smoke exposure, and a bamboo farm to provide cheap, renewable wood to burn as well as continue to build the bicycles they make out of bamboo.

Charles Mulamata surveys a plot of land where he hopes to build an aquaponics facility.

Charles Mulamata hopes to build an aquaponics facility on this plot near Kampala. Photo by Jon Miller.

He goes on to report that Mulamata, an engineer who has started several small businesses, has petitioned the Ugandan government for access to land on an island in the Nile to start an aquaponics research facility and tilapia nursery.

We have no idea how this will all turn out, but it’s great to be reminded that a six-minute radio story can catalyze real action on the other side of the world. We’ll keep you posted as things develop.

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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.

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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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Retired schoolteacher Anne Mary Mabira, 85, with her backyard aquaponics system in Kampala, Uganda. In aquaponics, fish fertilize water for vegetables and vegetables filter water for fish. The technology has been gaining traction in the US, but is still virtually unknown in Africa. Photo: Jon Miller/Homelands Productions.

Keep your ears open for a new batch of What’s for Lunch radio stories about food and climate change on PRI’s The World. The series, part of the Food for 9 Billion project that Homelands Productions is producing with the Center for Investigative Reporting, airs Mondays and Thursdays through most of July.

Today, Homelands’ Jon Miller meets Charles Mulamata, a Ugandan engineer and entrepreneur who’s trying to spark a revolution in aquaponics, a super-efficient (but slightly intimidating) method for producing vegetables and fish in small spaces.

If you miss it on the air, you can find it online on The World’s What’s for Lunch series page.

Upcoming stories are from India, China, Costa Rica, the Netherlands and Seattle, and look at issues ranging from human waste recycling to meat alternatives to urban foraging. 

We’ve had a slew of stories broadcast since our last blog post. This past Monday, The World’s Mary Kay Magistad shared a meatless meal with Long Kuan, a Beijing-based pop singer who is promoting vegetarianism and veganism in meat-mad China. Last Thursday, independent producer Sam Eaton reported from Mexico on efforts to revive amaranth, a hardy and nutritious crop that once rivaled corn in importance. And last Monday, Jon Miller sent a dispatch from Qatar, where an international team of scientists is testing a suite of interlocking technologies to produce food, fresh water and energy in harsh desert areas.

You can catch Jon’s TV story about the Qatar project on the Food for 9 Billion website. While you’re there, you can watch the four other features we produced (from SingaporeIndiaCosta Rica and California) for PBS NewsHour on the week of June 10, and hear all the radio stories that have aired to date on The World, including reports on vertical farming in Singapore, China’s “clean your plate” campaign, industrial-scale low-carbon eating in Boston and the debate over GMOs in Uganda.

In fact, if you keep clicking the “next” button at the bottom of the page, you’ll find a trove of radio and TV stories, videos, blog posts and interactive features going back to November 2011.

 

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The Sahara Forest Project facility in Qatar uses seawater and sunlight to produce vegetables, energy, fresh water, desert plants, animal feed and salt. Photo by Elsa Naumann/Sahara Forest Project.

Reporters Jonathan MillerSam Eaton and Mary Kay Magistad have been in Mexico, Costa Rica, India, Singapore, China, Qatar, Uganda and the Netherlands gathering tape for a series of radio and TV stories about the future of food in a climate-changed world. Topics will include alternatives to meat, alternative staples, GMOs, traditional seeds, foraging, vertical farming, agroecology, aquaponics, aquaculture, carbon-neutral farming and agrobiodiversity. Oh, and low-carbon cafeteria meals.

The series, part of the “Food for 9 Billion” project, will air on PRI’s The World and PBS NewsHour beginning in June. For updates, follow the project  (and look for the #Foodfor9Billion hashtag) on Twitter.

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