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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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

We wanted to catch you up on the “Food for 9 Billion” project, which has been taking most of our attention lately. As loyal readers will know, Ff9B asks what has to happen for the world to be able to feed itself sustainably and equitably over the next three decades. It’s a collaboration among Homelands Productions, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), American Public Media’s Marketplace and PBS NewsHour.

So far we’ve produced nine radio features, six video features and three features especially for the web. Our reporting has taken us to Mexico, Egypt, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Brazil, India, Ghana, Japan, Niger and Vietnam. Upcoming stories are from Senegal, China, Lesotho, Zambia, Greece, Brazil and the United States.

“Food for 9 Billion” doesn’t aim to be comprehensive, but we have tried to be more or less systematic in our choice of stories. Topics include the role of science, the politics of famine and food prices, population growth and family planning, climate change, land transfers, rural development, the right to food, water scarcity, soil fertility, aging farmers, desertification and fish farming. Stories in the pipeline will look at waste, the spread of supermarkets, meat consumption, obesity, pesticide use and energy. We’re also working on a full-length television documentary, and on educational materials for high school students.

We’re particularly proud of the web features – an interactive world food map and world food timeline (both produced in partnership with the Transnational Learning group at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) and, most recently, an animated video about the impact of excessive beef consumption on the environment and human health. If you like ’em, please share ’em!

You can listen to the radio stories, watch the TV stories, and fiddle around with the web features at the project’s home page on the CIR website. And if that’s not enough links for you, please also check out the “Food for 9 Billion” blog and follow the project on Twitter.

The “Food for 9 Billion” blog is now live. It actually has been for a little while, but we didn’t tell anyone. You can see recent posts about World Water Day, the possibility that the world population might not have to reach 9 billion, Ethiopia’s villagization program, and other topics. We hope to post once or twice a week. You can sign up for an RSS feed here.

We’ve also started a Ff9B Twitter feed. If you’re a twitterer, go thither!

I hope you get to listen to the latest “Food for 9 Billion” piece on Marketplace today, about Bangladesh’s attempts to cope with climate change. It shows how, in the absence of major funding from greenhouse gas-emitting nations, the government, NGOs, scientists, communities, and farmers are scrambling to adapt to a new climate reality. You can see a slideshow on the Marketplace story page.

Muhammad Sekendar Ali on his farm on Gabura Island in southern Bangladesh. Photo: Jon Miller

Early in the story I visit a 62-year-old man named Muhammad Sekendar Ali. He’s a rice farmer on an island in the Bay of Bengal whose one-room shack was destroyed by a storm six months earlier. The whole area was flooded by seawater (he showed me the high water mark halfway up a palm tree); with nowhere to live and no way to make a living, he fled with his family to the mainland, where he and his sons found occasional work as laborers.

When I met him he had recently returned to the island to try to begin farming again, but the soil was still too salty. So he and his son, Salauddin, were expanding the earthen platform they had built to elevate their new house. It was a job made for a wheelbarrow, but they didn’t have one, so they carried wedges of mud in bowls on their heads. In that vast landscape of devastation, their effort seemed somehow heroic. But there was little reason to believe that they would be any more prepared for the next storm than they were for the last one.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Poverty makes people vulnerable to climate calamities, and climate calamities make it extremely difficult for people to get out of poverty. This is true for families and communities, and it’s also true for countries.

I lived in the Philippines for eight years and had the chance to experience the terrifying power of more typhoons and tropical storms than I care to remember. Luckily for me, I got to watch them from a sturdy concrete house with a well-attached roof and a backup electrical system. After the storms would pass, I’d turn on the radio and hear about the dozens or hundreds or thousands of people who had lost their lives in floods or mudslides or capsized ferries.

Which brings me back to Bangladesh. It’s flat and wet and prone to flooding. It has 500 miles of coastline and sits on a major cyclone path (cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are all the same thing). Because the land is made mainly of silt from the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems, there are virtually no stones with which to build levees, seawalls or dikes. In a world of rising sea levels, stronger storms, melting glaciers, and increasingly erratic rainfall, Bangladesh is a disaster waiting to happen. Or, as I found during my visit, a disaster that’s already happening.

If the sea level rises one meter by 2100, more than 15 million Bangladeshis may be displaced. Photo: Jon Miller

But what puts Bangladesh so high on the lists of vulnerable countries is not geography, but economics and demographics. More than half the population (an astounding 160 million, squeezed into a land area the size of Iowa) is involved in agriculture or fishing. There has been impressive economic growth in recent years (Bangladesh has become the world’s leading exporter of ready-made garments), but one in three Bangladeshis still lives on less than $1.25 per day. All of which means that the weather is a matter of life or death for an enormous number of people, most of whom produce food for a living, and this puts the entire population at risk.

I don’t want to downplay the physical dangers of climate change in Bangladesh or other front-line countries. They are deadly serious, and require action. But the dangers of poverty may be even more urgent.

One last thing. In my story I say that many of the people I met in Bangladesh were pessimistic about the country’s ability to stay ahead of climate change. Their pessimism may be justified. But it’s worth noting how effective Bangladesh has been at facing other challenges. My last visit was 20 years ago, shortly after a cyclone killed 138,000 people. Since then, the country has built thousands of cyclone shelters (including one about a hundred yards from Muhammad Sekendar Ali’s house) and established a nationwide early warning system that relies on community participation. In 2007, a cyclone almost identical in size and strength to the 1991 storm took fewer than 3,000 lives. Still a horrible toll, but an unmistakable sign of progress. And achieved, by rich-country standards, on a shoestring.

—Jon

Some really impressive work by the Fault Lines team at Al Jazeera English on the political and historical roots of the crisis in the Horn of Africa. See this 24-minute program about the origins of the famine in Somalia and this one about drought, food prices and climate change in Kenya. Each links the current problems to political decisions in the US and other countries.

Al Jazeera has a useful page full of information and reports from the Horn.