The Context

A recent United Nations study of world food prices indicates that food prices have risen for six months in a row and are reaching the record prices set in 1990.  When food prices were comparable in 2008, there were food riots in many places with 4 people killed in Haiti and 40 in Cameroon.   At the same time, a recent report from France (NIRA and CIRAD) indicates that food production will have to increase by as much as 100% to feed the expected 2.4 billion more people by 2050.   In the 1960s and 1970s the so-called “Green Revolution,” relying on irrigation, mechanization, high-yielding seed varieties, and chemical fertilization, hoped to “cure” world hunger.  Yet world hunger continues unabated.

There are some 925 million undernourished people in the world, up from 915 million in 2008 and down from 1020 in 2009.  The highest proportion is comprised of women and children, and one-third of child deaths are attributed to inadequate nutrition, with a child dying every six seconds from undernourishment.

Not only have millions continued to starve despite the “Green Revolution,” but the very agents of the failed cure contribute in major ways to a degradation of our environment including climate change — mechanisation requires fossil fuels, chemical fertilization produces GHG, and irrigation often requires large fossil-fuel-dependent energy systems and results in a depletion of scarce water resources (70% of water from rivers, lakes and aquifers is used for irrigation).  Paul Ehrlich, the controversial author of The Population Bomb, has said in relation to world hunger that “The only thing we have done which was beneficial – but possibly fatal in the long run – was the ‘green revolution’. But technological rabbits pulled out of the hat often have very nasty droppings.”  See Hickman, Guardian below.

Food and hunger are now as much a part of the conversation on environmental matters as pollution, landfills, and depletion of fishing.  In the Foreword to a recent report from the UK think tank, Foresight, Professor Sir John Beddington stated, “The needs of a growing world population will need to be satisfied as critical resources such as water, energy and land become increasingly scarce.  The food system must become sustainable, whilst adapting to climate change and substantially contributing to climate change mitigation.”  In Ireland 27% of the total GHG emissions, especially methane but also nitrous oxides (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2), are generated by agriculture so that any advances on lowering GHG emissions from agriculture will be important in meeting mandatory EU carbon reduction targets

These dynamics are felt everywhere but certainly nowhere more acutely than in Africa.  A majority of Africans depend on agriculture for their sustenance and livelihood.   Large-scale agriculture relying on a single crop from high-yielding seeds with substantial chemical usage for fertilizer may be the norm in many developed countries, but most in Africa still get their food from locally grown crops and they cannot afford modern chemicals and mechanization.

The Worldwatch Report

Here we digest a recent report from the US environmental organization, The Worldwatch Institute, which has published an annual State of the World survey since 1984.  This year Worldwatch’s report, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, provides a survey of the most successful and interesting innovations in sustainable farming practices in sub-Saharan Africa.  The digest focuses on some of the main issues raised in the report and we encourage you to look to the report for the many case studies and more details.

The conceptual underpinning to the report is ecoagriculture, sometimes identified as agroecology and aligned with landscape ecology.  Instead of industrial farming that relies on monoculture fields with high-yielding seeds and chemical inputs, ecoagriculture relies on a variety of sustainable farming practices including applying crop residues as surface mulch, using compost and green manure, intercropping (growing two or more crops in close proximity), and biocontrol of insects and diseases.  Examples of the application of these practices can be found in organic farming, agroforestry (mixing trees and shrubs in croplands or pastures), and zero tillage, or no-till farming, where crops are grown without disturbing the soil.


Shadowing the report is the image of women as farmers in Africa: politically marginalized, culturally suspect, and economically undervalued.  Women often work thirteen hours a day collecting wood for fuel and water and preparing food, and they are responsible for 75% of agricultural production.  Ninety-two percent are illiterate and are often barred from owning land once their husband dies.  In some areas, about 20% are heads of single-parent agricultural households.  In some places, those lucky to go to school as young girls have to trade sex for rides to distant schools.

While Freud famously said that he never figured out what a woman wants, those working with women farmers in Africa have figured out what they want and need: access to credit, expertise and markets, with the real-time information necessary for that access.  Some programs are working with women to provide them with tools and locally useful production practices.  When those practices provide added income, for school fees, healthier food and other expenses that better the lives of the women and their families, some money also can be set aside in local microcredit and microfinance institutions that fund other women to advance their production and knowledge.  Radios, mobile phones and, gradually, the internet offer the media for providing critical, real time information about weather, market prices for various crops, and financial information.

Sometimes the simplest program provides compelling results.  A program that provided bikes to ride the five kilometers (km) to school eliminated the problem of young girls trading sex for rides to school, and getting pregnant.  In Senegal, a woman participated in a project that provided solar cookers and training.  Instead of spending much of her day collecting firewood, cooking, and delivering the food to her husband in their fields, she took the solar cooker with her and was able to cook in the fields and spend her time helping her husband clear, till and plant their land.  As a result they finished the planting earlier than others and the husband was able to rent his labor out to neighbors.  The family tripled their income.

Dealing with Scarce Resources: water, soil, and biodiversity

Water and soil remain, in many parts of Africa, stressed resources.  The poor soil conditions result from inadequate animal manure, minimal fallowing (soils are overworked), and lack of chemical fertilizers because they are too expensive.  To compensate for these conditions farmers are learning how to rely on green manure, a type of cover crop such as clover and vetch that adds nutrients and organic matter to the soil and that is then plowed under.  The green manure also retains water better in the root system, suppresses weeds, and provides habitat for pollinating insects.

Rainfall in parts of Africa is variable and unpredictable, and likely to become even more so with climate change, so the challenge is to extract water from the subsurface with little money or technological resources.  Smallholding farmers are learning how to use inexpensive hand operated water pumps, such as the treadle pump that costs $35 and that can extract enough water to irrigate one-half an acre (0.2 hectare) during the dry season.  Also found effective are low-cost, micro-irrigation systems such as drip irrigation that deliver water by perforated pipes or tubes directly to the roots of plants. Runoff water can be collected in plastic-lined ponds or in roof catchment tanks, a form of rainwater harvesting used increasingly in cities in developed countries. In addition, tillage methods that leave soil structure intact are used to conserve moisture.  Sometimes power can be provided by solar panels.  To see an example of a treadle pump and drip irrigation system in operation, see “Water for Ethiopia” in the You Tube section and for more information on “Rainwater Harvesting” see the You Tube and iePEDIA sections of the current issue of irish environment.

As with many of the innovations, information technology about water and soil conservation is increasingly important and becoming more accessible through radios, mobile phones and the internet.  In one project, satellite imagery tracked soil moisture content and the information was conveyed to farmers by either the internet or telephone.

More diversity of crops reduces pests and diseases that thrive on monocultures, provides different crops at different times of the year, with better marketing opportunities and less vulnerability to price fluctuations.  Diversity also offers more varied and nutritious diets for the family.


Just as efficiency in energy use is a simple and cost-effective means of reducing energy demand, and saving on GHG emissions, so too reducing waste of crops after harvest can save substantial amounts of food.  Instead of destroying forestry for cultivation of land, better to make use of what we already have.  Some estimate that about 15% of grain, for instance, is lost after harvest.  Applying that figure to all low-income countries, approximately 150 million tons of cereals is lost, an amount that represents six times the food needed to satisfy all the hungry people in the developing world.  Farmers in Africa do not have the resources that more developed economies have to reduce waste, such as refrigerated and other climate-controlled storage, pasteurization and preservative facilities, drying equipment, and even transportation infrastructure.  Even some of the high-yielding crop strains that have been used to increase productivity are not well suited for local climates and are subject to more waste from insects and pests.

Without the technological resources or money, what can poor farmers do?  The stories tell of innovations suited to local needs such as:  using smoke and mechanical means of cleaning stores to reduce risk of infestation; building grain storage units from locally available materials, such as bamboo or bags in steel drums; establishing local milk collection centers with cooling facilities; drying nuts on natural fiber mats instead of on the ground, which contains moisture; using natural fiber bags instead of plastic; sequential harvesting where crops are brought in little by little rather than all at once, thus saving on labor resources and reducing storage costs; and using solar heat to dry locally grown fruits.

Cities and Land

Over 50% of people currently live in urban areas, and each year more are moving to the cities where land ownership is scarce or non-existent.  Poor urban households spend 80% of their money on food.  Despite these obstacles, there are efforts to develop urban agriculture, which has the advantage of proximity to markets since the food is grown where the people eat it.   In time of civil strife, these advantages are critical since food supplies, as well as lines of communication and transportation, are easily disrupted.  Currently about 15-20% of the world’s food is produced in urban areas and those who practice urban agriculture eat more and better food than those who do not practice it, and they earn incomes that help them pay for school fees and clothes.

How do they do it?  One example is of vegetables grown in vertical basket gardens made from recycled sacks filled with soil mixed with livestock manure, raw sewage, or partially treated wastewater.  People practicing urban agriculture generally live close to one another so there are enhanced opportunities to learn about innovations and to exchange knowledge and technology.  A challenge remains to make land available for urban agriculture, a challenge especially for local governments.

The uncertainties of land ownership also impact a new development that is full of risks of exploitation by rich investors in developed countries.  In certain countries, particularly in the east where there is a scarcity of farmland to support growing populations and accelerating economies, Africa is viewed as an opportunity where farmland can be bought cheap and food produced for export back to the investing country.  Some consider this an instance of “land grab.”  For instance, investors from Saudi Arabia have expressed  interest in purchasing millions of acres of Ethiopia, and South Korean interests agreed to develop almost 400 square miles in Tanzania.  The offers to develop these uncultivated lands bring lots of promises to construct infrastructure, bring new technologies, create jobs, and boost productivity.

Such deals are fraught with difficulties, including the great uncertainty over who owns land in many parts of Africa and who gets paid for the use of that land.  If such deals are to benefit local communities, and not corrupt politicians, then it is imperative that the local communities are involved in the projects and that there are clear enforceable rules over who pays for the development and who reaps the profits.  Some options for controlling the outcome include having the investors put up the money and expertise with the local community or small farmers harvesting the crops and selling the food to the investors, or the small farmers producing the food and the investors packaging and marketing the products.

Climate Change

Climate change is affected by and affects agriculture. Any practices that can reduce agriculture’s loading to the climate deserve attention.

The report shows how farmer-run programs can halt soil degradation and sequester more carbon in soils and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.  Farmers in Africa are learning that improved feed can lower methane, although the costs are high, while small-scale digesters can convert animal waste into usable energy.  At the same time, more effective storage of manure cuts GHG emissions.  Planting trees among crops, an instance of intercropping (growing two or more crops in close proximity), can reduce wind speeds and evaporation and sequester carbon and increase biodiversity.  Certain tree species can also fix nitrogen and enhance soil fertility; other species can provide fodder for livestock.  Finally, eliminating use of petrochemicals in food production can be accomplished by organic farming which can yield as much or more than traditional farming practices and use less energy and less water in the process.


The report acknowledges the open question of whether ecoagriculture practices can substitute for the traditional high-yield chemical-dependent monoculture, an issue characterised as a debate on “mainstreaming.”  One also wonders how many people in sub-Saharan Africa are being fed by the practices and programs described in the report, and what would be the cost of extending these practices so that a substantial portion of people, say just in Africa, could be fed.

The report concludes, “Evidence available now indicates that these approaches can feed a large portion of the world — while at the same time addressing a host of present and looming problems of environmental degradation, livelihood insecurity, and poverty.”  At 23.  Through its well-documented studies and instances of the viability of ecoagriculture in a variety of settings, the report is convincing that a bottom-up system that relies on the local knowledge of farmers does work, especially where chemicals are too expensive or not even available and where local soil and other conditions favor a more sustainable approach.  Only about 10% of the world’s food production enters international trade, and domestic production for domestic consumption remains central.  Any approach that relies on the farmers’ local knowledge likely will provide more sustained results than an approach parachuted in by helicopter.

A minor criticism creeps in here.  For someone who likes to know where he is at all times, the absence of any map of Africa and the regions referred to in the various case studies was a glaring omission.  American audiences in particular are notorious for their lack of knowledge of any geography outside the USA.



Worldwatch, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet (January 12, 2011).


Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, FAO Food Price Index.

National Institute for Agricultural Research (NIRA) and the Centre for Investigation, Research and Discovery (CIRAD),  Agrimonde: Scenarios and Challenges for Feeding the World in 2050 (January 2011).

Foresight, The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability (24 January 2011), from the UK Government’s futures think tank, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Development.

Jill Treanor, “World food prices enter ‘danger territory’ to reach record high,” The Guardian, 5 January 2011.

Leo Hickman, “The population explosion,” The Guardian, 14 January 2011.

“2.4 billion extra people, no more land: how will we feed the world in 2050?” The Independent, 22 January 2011.

See State of the World Population 2009 – Facing a Changing World:  Women, Population and Climate in the Reports section of irish environment (December 2009).

Updated sources:

“Failure to act on crop shortages fuelling political instability, experts warn,” The Guardian,  07 February 2011, at

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