Nourishing the Planet; Searching for Sustainable Farming Methods

To raise awareness and to direct available funds effectively, Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project is working to assess global agricultural innovation, from farming methods and technologies to agricultural policy.

by Delores Broten

For many years Worldwatch In­stitute has beenreleasing State of the Planet reports. Several of them grace my bookshelf, although “grace” might not describe the way they sit there, waiting for someone to gath­er the courage to open them, filled with heavy and rather dreadful facts about the prognosis if we Homo sapiens continue on the path we have, so far, chosen. You know the stuff – ice fields melting, erosion, soil de­pletion, pollution, poverty … all the usual depressing reading that makes one sure the grim reaper is just around the corner. Perhaps I exaggerate, be­cause for years now the organization has also been insisting that the global transition to renewal energy is already well underway.

Nonetheless, it was with consid­erable surprise that I found myself eager to read this year’s tome, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet, and I was not dis­appointed. I was, however, surprised at how hopeful it left me.

Researchers with Nourishing the Planet (www.NourishingthePlanet. org) traveled to 25 countries across sub-Saharan Africa to meet with more than 350 farmers groups, NGOs, gov­ernment agencies, and scientists, highlighting small-scale agricultural efforts that are helping to improve peoples’ livelihoods by providing them with food and income. The State of the World report highlights their findings.

Nourishing the Planet’s research in Africa has unveiled innovative and cost-effective approaches to agricul­ture where farmers are treating land as a resource rather than solely as a means for food production. Many of these solutions (inter-cropping, green manures to refresh depleted soil, shade trees in the fields, growing and preserving local fruits and vegetables, storing rainwater by restoring the soil, manual pumps and drip irrigation) are scalable and can be adapted to farming systems around the world. “The global connections go beyond Africa. Everyone is in this together in more ways than one,” said Danielle Nierenberg, Director of Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project, a two-year evaluation of envi­ronmentally sustainable agricultural innovations to alleviate hunger.

Not only do these methods dra­matically increase production with­out destroying farm lands, they also restore humus and carbon to the soil: “African farmers could remove 50 bil­lion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the next 50 years, primarily by planting trees among crops and stewarding nearby forests. That is like eliminating an entire year of the world’s greenhouse gas emis­sions …” Perhaps most importantly, the findings are distilled from the actual actions of groups of people, some organizations but mostly just small self-organizing communities, each on their own ground, developing actions appropriate for their fields, their diets, and their ecologies. Many many small efforts, involving, in the end, millions of African farmers, as well as those in Asia and Latin America.

As the global population increas­es, so does the number of mouths to feed. The good news is that in addi­tion to providing food, innovations in sustainable agriculture can provide a solution to many of the challenges that a growing population presents.

“Agriculture is emerging as a so­lution to mitigating climate change, reducing public health problems and costs, making cities more livable, and creating jobs in a stagnant global economy,” said Worldwatch’s Nieren­berg.

This year, the world’s popula­tion will hit 7 billion, according to the United Nations. Reaching this unprecedented level of population density has prompted the UN Popu­lation Fund (UNFPA) to launch a “7 Billion Actions” campaign to promote individuals and organizations that are using successful new techniques for tackling global development challeng­es. By sharing these innovations in an open forum, the campaign aims to foster communication and collabora­tion as our world becomes more popu­lated and increasingly interdependent.

Not even demographers can ac­tually forecast how many people will be added to world population over the coming century, noted Robert Engel­man, a population expert and World­watch Executive Director. As more women and their partners gain access to reproductive health services and manage their own childbearing, aver­age family size has fallen significantly in recent decades and could continue to do so, assuming expanded support for reproductive health and improve­ments in women’s autonomy and sta­tus. The likelihood of continued popu­lation growth for some time, however, remains high. And that will add to the need to harness the ingenuity of hu­man beings to sustain both people and the planet.

“We’ll have to learn how to mod­erate our consumption of materials and energy and to jumpstart new tech­nologies that conserve them,” Engel­man said. Innovations in farming will be among the most important: with planning, agriculture can operate not only as a less-consumptive industry, but also one that works in harmony with the environment.

Nourishing the Planet highlights four ways agriculture is helping to ad­dress the challenges that a growing global population will bring.

• Urban agriculture for nutri­tious food and a cooler climate. The UN predicts that 65 per cent of the global population will live in cities by 2050. Urban agriculture provides an increasing number of city residents with fruits and vegetables, leading to improved nutrition and food secu­rity. Urban farms are already gaining popularity around the world, from the Victory Programs’ ReVision Ur­ban Farm in Boston, to Lufa Farms in Montreal, to the slums of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya.

• Farming for employment and education. Opportunities in agri­culture can reduce poverty and em­power a growing population. In Los Angeles county, the organization Farmscape Gardens has helped tackle a 16 per cent unemployment rate by hiring workers to establish and main­tain edible gardens. To teach the lo­cal community about food and agri­ culture, L.A.’s Fremont High School established a school garden of 1.5 acres that is open to students and the greater community. And in Uganda, project DISC (Developing Innova­tions in School Cultivation) partnered with Slow Food International to de­velop 17 school gardens that are used to educate students about growing, harvesting, and preparing nutritious local foods.

• Agroecology for a healthier environment. Agroecology, which offers numerous benefits to the envi­ronment while also feeding people, includes organic agriculture, agro­forestry, conservation agriculture, and evergreen agriculture. In Niger, farmers promote the re-greening of dried farmland by allowing sponta­neous regeneration of woody species. The restored growth has provided farmers with wind breaks, decreased evaporation, sequestered carbon, and provided non-timber forest products. In the United States, the Environmen­tal Protection Agency has partnered with representatives from metropoli­tan Washington, D.C. to create the Chesapeake Bay Program watershed partnership. Through collaboration, the group has developed policies, laws, incentives and best practices for farmers whose production zone lies within the local watershed. These agr­oecological practices, including cover crops, planting riparian forest buffers, and practicing conservation tillage, have helped preserve the Bay.

Innovations in food waste to make the most of what we have. According to the U.N. Food and Ag­riculture Organization, industrial­ized countries waste 222 million tons of food annually, or almost as much as sub-Saharan Africa’s 230 million tons of net food production per year. Decreasing food waste makes it pos­sible to feed people across the planet without increasing agricultural pro­duction. In Washington, D.C., the D.C. Central Kitchen Project partners with area restaurants and food suppli­ers to pick up food that would other­wise go to waste. Volunteers prepare the food and redistribute it as meals to the city’s poor. In central and east­ern Africa, a partnership between Bayer Crop Science and the Interna­tional Potato Center hopes to develop a sweet potato that is resistant to pests and diseases, which are responsible for 50 to 100 per cent of crop losses among poor farmers in the region.

State of the World 2011 is ac­companied by informational mate­rials including briefing documents, summaries, an innovations database, videos, and podcasts, all available at The project’s findings are being dissemi­nated to a wide range of agricultural stakeholders, including government ministries, agricultural policymakers, and farmer and community networks, as well as the increasingly influential nongovernmental environmental and development communities.

If you are looking for inspiration this new year, you will find it here.


—Worldwatch Institute

2011 State of the World: Nour­ishing the Planet, Worldwatch In­stitute. W. W. Norton & Co., New York NY, 2011, ISBN 978-0-393- 33880-5, $25 Can. 237 pp., pb. See

[From WS January/February 2012]

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital