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Agriculture Becomes Our Top Environment Issue

Worldwatch Institute released its annual State of the World report this week, with a clear message that the state of agriculture–both small- and large-scale, domestic and local–is a mirror from which we can gauge the health of the planet and the fate of our species.

Traditional views toward hunger alleviation, for the more than 1 billion people around the world who do not have enough to eat, have emphasized increased agricultural production without clearly thinking through distribution roadblocks or environmental consequences. As a result, the planet is growing more food than ever, but hunger is more pervasive than ever, according to Worldwatch.

Photograph of drip irrigation in Niger by Bernard Pollack, courtesy Worldwatch Institute.


Many existing agricultural methods have stripped soils of nutrients, sucked aquifers dry, and polluted water with pesticides and fertilizers. And now, working with depleted and degraded resources, we must face climate change, which is already starting to express itself in changing rainfall patterns, more intense floods and droughts, and changing global temperatures that interfere with traditional growing seasons.

“As we spectacularly boosted overall levels of production during the second half of the twentieth century we created the conditions for a major ecological disaster in the twenty-first century,” writes Olivier De Schutter, United Nations special rapporteur on the Right to Food, in the report’s introduction.

Starting Small

A glimmer of hope comes from the small-scale, innovative agricultural methods starting to grow out of, or in some cases make a comeback in, the developing world–strategies that conserve natural resources, reduce dependency on imports, and return a profit to local farmers.

In a State of the World chapter on irrigation (“More Crop Per Drop”), Global Water Policy Project Director and National Geographic Freshwater Fellow Sandra Postel highlights some of these game changers.

(Read more about the relationship between food and water.)

In rural Uganda, where farmers are generally unable to access the internet to get satellite data related to soil moisture, they are using a phone hotline called Question Box, funded by a California nonprofit, which connects them to an operator who speaks their language and can answer inquiries about weather, crops, and more, so that they may plan more efficiently.
In a hilly region of southern Kenya that was once almost complete desert, women farmers turned to a terracing technique–with support from the Kenyan government and the Swedish International Development Agency–that studies suggest increased maize yields by 50 percent. Some of the green beans grown in this region are now sold in supermarkets in the United Kingdom.

In northern Benin, a new solar-powered drip irrigation system has been credited with improving nutrition, freeing children to go back to school, and raising incomes for farmers.

The system is relatively expensive–$18,000 for a 1.2-acre (0.5-hectare) plot, plus an estimated cost of $5,750 annually to maintain. A Stanford University study estimated payback time of 2.3 years, assuming $10,000 in annual sales the first year and $16,000 for subsequent years.

“While financially out of reach for most poor famers in Africa, if larger-scale local manufacturing and distribution can bring costs down over time and if reasonable access to credit is available, the benefits of these systems could spread more widely,” Postel writes.

(Related: “Drip Irrigation to Solve Famine in the Sahel?“)

Poverty, and a lack of land, water, and labor are all enormous obstacles in the face of feeding families, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where arid and semi-arid regions are expected to increase up to 220 million acres (90 million hectares) in the coming decades.

(Related: “How to Stem a Global Food Crisis? Store More Water.“)

The Worldwatch report encourages governments to reward these small-scale efficiency measures with assistance in creating farmer-to-farmer and farmer-to-consumer networks that facilitate both learning and commerce. The nonprofit also recommends taxing the externalities produced by large-scale, environmentally damaging agribusinesses.

So, the question is whether the shortfalls of the Green Revolution can be made up for in the much less cookie-cutter age of social entrepreneurship, information, and innovation.

(Read the latest issue of National Geographic magazine, about population increases and strains on the planet.)