Small, Smart, & Green: Revolutionizing Organic Agriculture in West Africa

This blog post originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.
Erwin Knippenberg is a guest blogger for Brighter Green. 

Brighter Green sometimes features updates on agricultural changes, particularly the global South.Grain Coast, Inc. Logo

Sam Binda is a farmer like his father and his father before him. He grows okra, African eggplant and other vegetables to feed his family and sells whatever is left at his local market. As a member of CHAP —a community based farming organization—he pools his efforts with his neighbors, sharing tools and know-how. Sam is a Liberian, working to rebuild his country after a brutal 14-year civil war.

A little over a year ago, a local for-profit venture called Grain Coast Inc. started working with Sam and CHAP to promote organic farming, using home-made fertilizers and pesticides. Founded by Bill Tolbert, a Liberian who’d lived in the U.S. for many years, Grain Coast provides tools and training, working with farmers like Sam to increase yields and then buying the surplus produce.

Through a Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, Liberia’s first, customers buy a subscription, which guarantees them a weekly delivery of fresh vegetables. As in CSAs in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, the contents of the box vary with the harvest and the season, but a tropical climate ensures that it stays full fifty two weeks a year. Despite the challenges of operating in a post-war country, the Liberian owned venture manages to break even, ensuring its sustainability.

But wait, isn’t “organic” a “niche” product, aimed at mostly wealthy customers in developing countries? How will organics help feed an additional 2 billion people by 2050, which will require what many researches say is an estimated 70 percent increase in food production? Although agribusiness may insist that factory-farming and GMO’s are the only way, in many countries most food is produced by small-holders using little to no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Recent spikes in food prices (some linked to the Arab Spring) have led to a renewed interest in boosting agricultural production. Money from public and private investors, including the Gates Foundation has come flooding in. Unfortunately, the result is too often a “land grab”, where small farmers lose out to multinational agribusinesses like Monsanto and Cargill.

According to a World Bank report, to date agribusiness companies have sought to acquire 56 million hectares of land globally, more than half (29 million) in Africa, an area roughly the size of the state of Arizona. Farmers lose their land, while the mechanized, mono-cropping techniques introduced destroy the soils and render local populations even more vulnerable to a changing climate.

There is another way. Firms like Grain Coast work to promote organic farming among subsistence farmers. Conscious of the many barriers to accessing markets the farmers face, the firm offers a package deal. It provides tools and training to the farmers on credit. This includes natural pesticides containing self-perpetuating microorganisms, so the farmer can continue making their own.

Produce takes six to eight weeks to grow in Liberia’s lush climate. Normally the farmers then face an uphill battle to transport the crops to market and sell them. Up to half the crop is lost in transit, and they have to sell the rest on the cheap before it goes bad (food waste, in both industrialized and global South countries, is a huge problem).

To avoid this scenario in Liberia, Grain Coast buys the farmers’ crop and processes and packages it for sale in Monrovia and abroad. A portion of the proceeds goes to pay back the initial credit, and within a year most farmers are debt free and making two to three times as much in sales as they were before.

In its first year of operation, GrainCoast maintained a base of fifty customers and yielded gross income of 33,000 U.S. dollars. In 2014, Grain Coast expects to expand the CSA subscribers to 100, with sales of more than 60,000 U.S. dollars.

But Grain Coast isn’t stopping there. Founder Bill Tolbert recently launched aninternational crowd funding campaign to finance a starter kit for co-ops, drill wells and to build a processing facility.

As the campaign states, the plan is to:

-Supply a large volume of fresh okra to a European supermarket chain. Our buyer is willing to work hand-in-hand with us to ensure quality and on-time delivery.

-Use an out-grower scheme to fulfill this order and follow-on orders.

-Target fifteen smallholder farmers and two community-based farming organizations in the first year.

Bill also plans to diversify into rice, using the SRI techniques developed by researchers to end Liberians dependence on imported food. “I want to inspire entrepreneurs to transform agriculture in Africa!” he says. I suggest: stay tuned.

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A Flood of Refugees

Millions were displaced after Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

By Elana Sulakshana

Climate change is not just poised to affect plants, coral reefs, insects, and non-human mammals. With rising sea levels, increased temperatures, more extreme natural disasters, and reduced agricultural yields, entire human communities are at risk of displacement. The rise in refugees due to environmental causes is projected be one of the most significant impacts of climate change, affecting millions of people worldwide.

According to the International Red Cross, there are currently more people displaced due to climate and weather-related events than war. However, under the Geneva Convention, these people are not technically considered refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees defines a refugee as someone who is forced to flee their country due to “persecution, war, or violence”. While the official refugee count is 20.8 million, there are an additional estimated 25 to 50 million climate refugees. International law, unfortunately, is silent on this issue.

The Global Governance Project categorizes a climate refugee as a subset of the term “environmental migrant”. This group is defined by displacement “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought and water scarcity”.

Who are these refugees? They are found all over the world—in small island communities in the Pacific, mountainous regions of Nepal, and even New York City’s low-lying coastal areas (think Hurricane Sandy). Yet they are disproportionately drawn from developing nations and from the poorest sectors of society. For example, in the Far Rockaways, which is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, 27 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2011 (in comparison to New York City’s 16 percent).

The impact of extreme weather events is the easiest to envision. Hurricanes and typhoons lead to storm surge and flooding, resulting in the destruction of homes and livelihoods and forcing entire communities to relocate, temporarily or long-term. Low-lying coastal areas and small island nations are acutely at risk, since rising sea levels are intensifying the threat of flooding.

Other changes, particularly warming and precipitation extremes and variability, are leading to the breakdown of traditional food systems, which results in the loss of livelihoods. Hunger and thirst—as agricultural yields decrease and the availability of safe drinking water falls—are compelling people to move.

It is estimated that 250 million people will be forced to relocate by 2050 due to the effects of climate change—a number that is close to the current population of the United States. This raises important, unprecedented questions surrounding where they will migrate, how the law will view them, and their immigration status in other, also vulnerable, nations.

As former Maldives senior advisor Edward Cameron said, “This will be the largest migration in history. This is not migration as we’ve known it before. We’re talking about people migrating from sensitive places into other very sensitive places.”

Movement has already begun, mainly within countries. Due to changing weather patterns, many are making the trek from rural to urban areas, where they are less dependent on the unpredictable climate for their livelihoods.

In Bangladesh, for example, which is facing the gravest threats due to climate change, more and more people are pouring into the capital, Dhaka. Yet, estimates say that 15 million people could be displaced from Bangladesh alone, as 25 percent of the country (including Dhaka) floods. These people will need to find somewhere else to go, along with millions of others around the globe.

This is the second piece in a series on climate change and inequality. Read the first here and second here.

Photo courtesy of the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department of the European Commission (ECHO).

Climate Change and Food Security

By Elana Sulakshana

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Climate change will continue to affect crop yields significantly.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Working Group II recently published a report titled “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.” One of the major issues that the report raises is that of food security, exploring the connection between mounting pressures due to climate change and agriculture. These links between climate and food are intrinsically tied to inequity.

Agricultural yields are expected to fall at a rate much faster than previously predicted. Production of corn and wheat, in particular, faces grave risks due to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns—the report says yields of these two crops will reduce at least 2% per decade. This may lead to food prices rising 3% to 84% by 2050. At the same time, the global population is increasing rapidly. Predictions state that there will be at least 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050 (an increase in the world’s population by about 35%), which will require crop production to double, according to National Geographic.

Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, one of the authors of the report, stated: “Climate change is acting as a brake. We need yields to grow to meet growing demand, but already climate change is slowing those yields.”

As Oppenheimer indicates, these are not just concerns for the future. The report discusses how climate change has already impacted food supply and continues to do so. Many link the 2007-8 spike in wheat prices to political unrest and violence in the Arab spring, just one example of the far-reaching influence of fluctuations in food supply and prices.

The world is polarized in terms of hunger. The number of overweight and obese people is booming worldwide, now comprising more than 33% of the population, or 1.46 billion adults. Meanwhile, 842 million—about one in eight—people are starving, struggling with the under consumption of energy, protein, and micro-nutrients.

Recent decades, though, have seen an greater consumption in developing nations. From 1980 to 2008, the number of obese and overweight adults increased about three times from 250 to 904 million (compared to 1.7 times in the developed world). Diets in the developing world are increasingly featuring dairy and meat (check out Brighter Green’s report on industrialized dairy in Asia). National Geographic predicts that the demand for protein—i.e. meat—will increase by 103.6% in developing countries, 69.2% in the least developed, and just 15.3% in developed.

This will have significant repercussions on the environment, as meat production is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, comprising 18% today. Raising livestock is highly intensive in terms of water and grain. Currently only 55% of global crop calories are used for food, whereas the rest is dedicated to feed (36%) and fuel (9%).

As we move forward, one of the key ways that we can tackle climate change and eradicate hunger is by reducing meat consumption in both developed and developing countries. If we were to shift all crop production to direct human consumption, that would create enough food for 4 billion people, easily ending hunger today and fulfilling the needs of the predicted population of 9 billion in 2050. This is wishful thinking, as we are witnessing the opposite process, as developing countries take a cue from the developed and increase meat consumption as incomes rise.

This is the second piece in a series on climate change and inequality. Read the first one here.

Photo courtesy of United Nations Multimedia.

The Inequality of Climate Change

By Elana Sulakshana

The front page of the New York Times on March 28th featured an article on the plight of Bangladesh—one of the countries most vulnerable to the rising temperatures and sea levels due to climate change. This is an example of the inequality of climate change; Bangladesh and other developing nations hardly contributed to the climate crisis, yet they are facing the greatest risks.

On the Notre Dame-Global Adaptation (ND-GAIN) index of climate vulnerability, which measures a nation’s exposure, sensitivity and ability to cope with climate related hazards, Bangladesh is ranked 147. The index closely resembles a ranking by GDP, with developed nations facing the least risks from natural disasters, increased temperature, rising sea level, and the other impacts of climate change. From 1993 to 2012, Bangladesh was the fifth nation most affected by extreme weather events, in terms of fatalities and economic losses, according to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2014.

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Bangladesh is threatened by rising sea levels due to climate change.

The projections for the country are astounding—and terrifying. According to climate scientist Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies, models predict that rising sea levels will flood 17% of Bangladesh by 2050, leading to the displacement of some 18 million people. Bangladesh is also uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters, such as cyclones, and is currently experiencing severe coastal erosion.

Bangladesh is posed to experience huge economic losses as people lose their land and livelihoods, though the nation accounts for just 0.3 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Many small island nations are experiencing a similar situation, highly in danger of permanent inundation, despite tiny populations and a minimal carbon footprint. The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea, for example, were forced to move at the beginning of April due to the threat of rising sea levels; the island is expected to be completely underwater by 2015. This makes them the first entire community to be displaced because of climate change.

Just seven countries account for 63% of the carbon emissions from the industrial age through 2005. The U.S. ranks number one, followed by China, Russia, Brazil, India, Germany and the U.K. With the exception of China and India, they are all developed nations. Additionally, many of the emissions of developing nations are due to western countries “outsourcing” their emissions to developing nations with the production of cheap goods. The prime example of this is China. Additionally, when emissions are calculated per capita, the developed countries’ numbers have overwhelmingly higher rates.

Because of this huge discrepancy, the developing nations are holding these 7 nations, and other developed ones, accountable. In recent talks, particularly COP19, the United Nations climate change negotiations in early November, small islands and other developing nations demanded both financial aid and other forms of assistance, such as refuge for migrants forced to flee for climate reasons, from the developed nations.

They spoke of a mechanism of “loss and damage,” a term coined by vulnerable island nations that refers to compensation for the “losses and irreversible damage, including non-economic losses” that have already arisen and will continue to arise due to the climate disruption, according to a statement from G77+China . These same nations staged a walkout at COP19, targeting the developed countries that have refused loss and damage and have consistently held back progress on climate action.

Though the negotiations led to the establishment of the “Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage,” there is still a long way to go to solve these complex issues of inequality within climate change.

This is the first piece in an upcoming series on climate change and inequality.

Photo courtesy of Aftab Uzzman.

Brazil’s New Dietary Guidelines: Cook and Eat Whole Foods, Be Wary of Ads

Brazilian homes

By Mia MacDonald and Judy Bankman

This blog originally appeared on the Civil Eats website.

What if your national dietary guidelines advised you to cook and enjoy fresh, whole foods, and serve them with friends and family while thinking critically about advertising? Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Well, that’s exactly what Brazil’s Ministry of Health is recommending with the “food based” dietary guidelines it issued recently.

Unlike the U.S. dietary guidelines (or “MyPlate”), which focus on reducing solid fats and added sugars, and pinpoint a long list of nutrients to consume or reduce, Brazil’s guidelines keep it simple by encouraging people there to eat more fresh, unprocessed foods.

Here are the guidelines in full:

1. Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.

2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.

3. Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink products.

4. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.

5. Eat in company whenever possible.

6. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.

7. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.

8. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.

9. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.

10. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.

“I think it’s terrific that [Brazil’s guidelines] promote real foods, cooking, and family meals, rather than worrying about the nutritional quality of processed foods or dealing with single nutrients,” Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, told us recently.

Like many developed and developing countries, Brazil has seen recent spikes in the numbers of overweight and obese people. In 2011, nearly half of Brazilians were overweight, and about 16 percent were obese. Carlos Monteiro of the University of Sao Paolo attributes this widespread increase in body mass index (BMI) to the transition from unprocessed or minimally processed foods such as rice, fruits, and vegetables to “ultra processed foods.”

Like the U.S., Brazil is a major agricultural producer. Brazil-based JBS is the world’s largest processor of animal protein, and the nation tops the world in exports of beef and chicken. It’s also a leading player in the global soybean boom, and miles and miles of Brazil’s rainforest and savannah have been bulldozed in recent decades to grow livestock feed. In addition to their thriving export trade, Brazilians have begun eating more meat, dairy products, and eggs. And as the Brazilian middle class has grown, transnational food companies like McDonald’s, KFC, and Coca-Cola have expanded their operations and marketing in Brazil, spreading U.S.-style fast food culture further.

But these new guidelines are pointing in the opposite direction: They advocate slower food. By focusing on the importance of taking the time to prepare meals and eat in good company, the new Brazilian dietary guidelines prioritize food culture and the environment in which meals are eaten. This is extremely important: Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown a link between eating outside the home and increased obesity.

Brazil’s new dietary guidelines are especially illuminating when we compare them to the ones we’ve been told to follow here in the U.S. Our latest guidelines, dating from 2010, focus entirely on specific nutrients. They include statements like “reduce daily sodium intake” and “consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.” While these are clearly good recommendations, their specificity makes it difficult to know exactly what foods to consume. This complicates and can even obscure the fundamentals of a truly healthy diet.

Critics have also pointed out that the U.S. guidelines implicitly protect the food industry by leaving out a recommendation to eat less of specific food products. They also complicate individual decision-making. For example the guidelines state, “Replace protein foods that are higher in solid fats with choices that are lower in solid fats and calories and/or are sources of oil.” For those well-versed in nutrition, this statement might mean, “replace red meat with plant proteins.” But for many others, it’s hard to know for sure what you’re being encouraged to do (or not do).

As the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee works on the 2015 guidelines, they’ve also been accepting public comments. Some commenters have suggested the Committee use Brazil’s new guidelines as a model. “It’s clear from the questions the Committee is asking that its members are increasingly concerned about cultural and environmental influences,” says Nestle. “This is a good sign.”

The tenth and final recommendation, “Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products,” is particularly unusual in the world of dietary guidelines. This indicates the Brazilian government is aware of the harmful effects of advertising and is actively trying to combat food industry manipulation through its policy statements (and actions).

There’s a history here. In 2013, the city of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, fined McDonald’s $1.6 million for using toys and other inducements to appeal to children. São Paulo also was the first city in Brazil to adopt Meatless Mondays (“Segunda Sem Carne” in Portuguese), which has now expanded to 15 cities across the country. Brazil’s government has also mandated healthier school food.

In contrast, our dietary guidelines mention food marketing to kids just once, on page 59 of a 95-page document. And while non-profit groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are working to combat junk food marketing to kids, most government agencies are silent on the issue. First Lady Michelle Obama did announce a new proposal to regulate the marketing of junk food in schools, but it is yet to be seen whether any such language will make it into the 2015 dietary guidelines.

Perhaps the drafting Committee will look south, and Brazil’s pioneering food guidelines will encourage our own policymakers to put more value on a critical-thinking, home-cooking, socially vibrant culture of real food than on the interests of the food industry.

See Brighter Green’s multimedia policy research on climate change, animal agriculture, and natural resources in Brazil here (in English and Portuguese).

Photos courtesy of Gabriel Prehn Britto

Got Milk?: New Policy Paper on Industrialized Dairy in Asia

Dairy consumption is increasing across Asia

Dairy consumption is increasing across Asia

Brighter Green is excited to announce the release of a new policy paper exploring the growth of industrial dairy systems in India, China, and countries of Southeast Asia. The report, Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia, explores the trend toward increased dairy consumption and production and argues that the growth of industrial systems results in severe consequences for the environment, public health, animal welfare, and rural economies.

By 2025, countries in the global South are expected to consume nearly twice as much milk and dairy products as they did in 1997, and Asia is now the world’s highest dairy-consuming region, with 39 percent of global consumption. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms” for dairy production are being set up across the continent, many housing thousands of cows, but the detrimental impacts of this phenomenon for Asia are still largely undocumented.

The report analyzes the effects of CAFOs on a range of ecological, economic, and social systems, and it discusses the possibility of a sustainable future in dairy production with far fewer negative effects on the environment, livelihood, and equity. Country case studies chart the growth and effects, current or anticipated, of CAFO-style dairy production in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

“It’s crucial for policy makers and civil society to take notice of the consequences of dairy CAFOs now,” says the paper’s author Jessika Ava. “Many operations are in the early development and planning stages, and can thus be halted, allowing for the reintroduction of more traditional, more sustainable plant-based agricultural systems for long-term food and livelihood security.” Beyond the Pail: The Emergence of Industrialized Dairy Systems in Asia includes a set of recommendations for policy-makers, civil society organizations, international institutions, and the private sector to move in this direction before it’s too late.

Photo courtesy of: Meena Kadri

Sochi & Environmentalism (& Brighter Green’s Primer in Russian)

By Elana Sulakshana

This blog originally appeared on the Brighter Green website.

Brighter Green is partnering with the Global Forest Coalition (GFC) and Biofuelwatch on a new project studying the intersection of deforestation, climate change, and industrial animal agriculture, in hopes of bringing attention to the connections between these issues at the global policy level. Brighter Green and the Global Forest Coalition recently produced a primer on this project that can be viewed here. We also recently translated this primer into Russian, opening it up to a wider audience. Russia is a significant importer of meat products from Latin America, where the livestock and feed industries are major players in the region’s deforestation.

Russia also has been in the hot seat by environmental standards, as much controversy swirls around the Sochi Olympics. In 2007, when Russia received the bid for the games, the administrators claimed that they would work as hard as possible to be “green” and produce “zero waste,” but the past few weeks have revealed a lack of follow-through on these ambitious (and vague) promises.

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi Olympic Park

Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi Olympic Park

Though they spent nearly $51 billion, environmental standards were almost completely ignored; there is absolutely no mention of provisions for waste disposal in the budget. The Russian government relaxed environmental standards in order to build the Olympic village, which cuts through 8,000 acres of Sochi National Park and the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The construction destroyed much plant and animal life, in what is considered the region of Russia with the most biodiversity.

Despite their zero-waste promise, tons of waste was produced, and it has been disposed of in the Akhshtyr dump, an illegal landfill located in a water protection zone. This trash has contaminated Sochi’s potable water and is expected to continue to do so for 10 years; journalists covering the Olympics have reported disgusting yellow-colored tap water.

Russian administrators have taken drastic steps to suppress all who have raised awareness of these issues. Russian environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko co-authored a report that chronicled the ecological impact of preparing for the Olympics, detailing, among many problems, the devastation of salmon populations and the building of ski slopes inside Sochi National Park. He was recently sentenced to three years in prison–for spray painting a fence. Members of Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, with whom Vitishko conducted research and wrote the paper, have reported being in a “state of war” with the Russian government, facing threats from the Federal Security Service.

Russia has continuously put up a front against these claims. A representative for Olympstroy, the state-owned company in charge of the majority of Olympic construction said, “Issues of environmental protection have become a priority in the design and construction of Olympic infrastructure.”

Russia must get on board with the protection of our earth and allow free environmental expression and activism, and the international community should place pressure on them to do so. We cannot face these same issues in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 or Pyeongchang in 2018; sustainability must be a key feature of future Olympics.

Photo courtesy of: Kenyee/Flickr