Seedstock Digest: Sustainable Ag and Tech News
March 25, 2011 | Robert Puro
Walmart and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) recently teamed up on an initiative to bolster rural farmers in Central America and integrate them into the company’s supply chain. The agreement will help small farmers to earn more from their vegetable and fruit growing operations, which will in turn enable them to improve their economic livelihood. The partnership unites Walmart’s nascent Global Sustainable Agriculture initiatives with the USAID’s Feed the Future program, a global hunger and food security initiative focused on investing in agricultural development to sustainably reduce hunger and poverty. The U.S. has pledged $3.5 billion over the next 3 years and helped to gather an additional $18.5 billion from other nations and donors for the initiative. Walmart’s President and CEO, Latinoamerica states that “This partnership with USAID allows us to broaden and accelerate our commitment to help small rural farmers in Central America lead a better life while also bringing our customers more affordable and higher quality food.” Source: USAID and Walmart Join Forces to Help Small Farmers and Enhance Food Security in Central America.
The United States government’s Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that fuel distributors incorporate a certain amount of ethanol each year is being blamed for rising worldwide food prices. When the initiative began in 2005, ethanol production only accounted for approximately 10% of corn demand. But, two years later that demand grew to 20% and today stands at 40%! Corn prices are nearing $7 a bushel, starkly higher than norms of $2 to $3. Under rational market conditions, at such high prices demand for corn would normally fall and the price would revert to historical norms. However, as the Renewable Fuel Standard requires the exact same amount of ethanol each year no matter the price of corn the normal rules of supply and demand go out the window. This month, the FAO noted that global food prices rose for the eighth consecutive month, reaching the highest levels since the agency started keeping track of prices twenty-one years ago. Source: Technology Review – Ethanol Blamed for Record Food Prices.
The Worldwatch Institute’s newly released State of the World 2011 report on Innovations that Nourish the Planet makes the case that solutions to recent record food prices will not necessarily come from producing greater amounts of food, but instead from “listening to farmers, investing in indigenous vegetables, and changing how foods are processed and marketed.” The report notes that conventional agriculture initiatives that employ expensive inputs and focus too intently on growing a finite number of staple crops such as wheat, maize, and rice have led to an unsustainable worldwide food system. From its extensive on-the-ground research in sub-Saharan Africa come three major recommendations that support and embody agriculture policies that could help to more sustainably support and feed communities worldwide:
Listen to farmers. Organizations like AVRDC and the International Development Research Centre hold periodic workshops and field days, bringing together farmers, consumers, businesses, and communities to identify varieties of onion, tomato, eggplant, and okra that grow the best, taste the best, and perform best at local markets. This helps researchers develop more nutritious and locally adapted varieties that enhance and complement specific food preparations.
Get seeds to farmers. The seeds of preferred vegetable varieties are being made more widely available in Africa and elsewhere. Better seeds mean more vitamins in the food, better-tasting food, and ultimately less hunger and malnutrition. After scientists at AVRDC developed two higher-yielding tomato varieties with thicker skins—making them less vulnerable to pests and damage—farmers growing these varieties raised their incomes by 40 percent.
Take advantage of what’s local. As the impacts of climate change become more evident, indigenous vegetables that have been neglected for decades are regaining attention because of their tolerance to drought and resistance to pests. Researchers have developed improved varieties of amaranth, African eggplant, African nightshade, and cowpea that are now widely available in many parts of Africa. In Uganda, Project DISC (Developing Innovations in School Cultivation), supported by Slow Food International, is reigniting an interest in these foods by teaching students how to grow and cook indigenous vegetables.