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DEVELOPMENT: Food for Thought on Earth Day

Enrique Gili

SAN DIEGO, California, Apr 22 2008 (IPS) - As Earth Day celebrations kicked off around the world last weekend, the event has evolved from teach-ins on park lawns into a multi-day media extravaganza replete with corporate sponsorship.

A hanging wall garden in Havana, Cuba, where residents grow much of their own produce. Credit: Zorilla

A hanging wall garden in Havana, Cuba, where residents grow much of their own produce. Credit: Zorilla

In 1970, when the idea of Earth Day was first born in the United States, global warming was barely a blip on the radar, and the green revolution still held promise for sustainably feeding much the world&#39s population.

But as the recent three-year International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report on food security indicates, if anything, the livelihoods of farmers in both North and South are becoming more and more precarious.

Confronted with rising food and fuel prices and an unpredictable climate, the substance of sustainability will be sorely tested in coming decades if the findings of the IAASTD bear out.

The report highlights the need for a radical transformation of the global food network, which will have to feed an estimated additional three billion people by 2050.

"This report is a wake-up call for governments and international agencies," said Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network and one of the lead authors of the IAASTD report.

"The survival of the planet&#39s food systems demands global action to support agro-ecological farming and fair and equitable trade," she told IPS.

The report calls for a back-to-basics approach that rings true for food advocates, many NGOs, and scientists working on the front lines of food security issues. And while the prevailing model of big, input-intensive agribusiness won&#39t be disappearing soon, there are many innovative projects currently underway to change the way the world feeds itself.

Development in Gardening (DIG): Hospital food has never been famous for its high quality, but the situation at one West African facility was especially bad. Peace Corps activist and health-care worker Steve Bollinger worried that inadequate nutrition was further weakening his patients living with HIV and AIDS. So he and colleague Sarah Koch came up with the idea of DIG, which teaches patients basic gardening skills and how prepare their own meals. They started three kitchen gardens at medical facilities in Senegal, and each lot now produces up to 600 pounds of food per month.

They&#39ve also trained dozens more Senegalese urbanites on how to set up home gardens, a skill that&#39s been lost among city transplants with very little connection to rural life. Home gardens are not only a source of sustenance but provide much-needed income for households often surviving on less than one dollar per day. DIG has plans to expand to orphanages in South Africa and perhaps even Asia.

Tilapia in Brooklyn: As worldwide demand for fish increases, aquaculture is booming. Unconcerned that he lived in the middle of a bustling metropolis, Dr. Martin Schreibman decided to cultivate tilapia, a hardy breed of fish, on the campus of Brooklyn College in New York. He&#39s been doing so for years. Schriebman envisions tilapia as an engine of economic development for regional markets – taking abandoned warehouses, for example, and converting them into urban fish farms.

The advantages of harvesting tilapia are obvious. They are fast-growing, disease-resistant and require very little space to thrive. They&#39re not flesh-eaters, eliminating the criticism of feeding fish pellets to fish, as is often done with farmed salmon. Raising tilapia in tanks also eliminates the contamination associated with penning fish in open water, as fish excretions drift into adjacent areas.

Cheap overseas production has so far hindered the widespread adoption of Schriebman&#39s tilapia project – but he has proven that fish farming can be sustainable in urban areas.

Organoponicos: In 1989, a then four-decades-long U.S. embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba&#39s economy in shambles. Staples like eggs, meat and vegetables became scarce. Moreover, Cuba lacked the cash to import fossil fuels, fertilisers, and pesticides, needed to operate modern farms.

Instead of starving, Cubans began urban farming, stitching together a food system from the nation&#39s decaying infrastructure that wasn&#39t dependant on fossil fuel or crop subsidies.

Today, Cuba is dotted with thousands of organoponicos, urban allotments that produce healthy food at a low cost. Much of Havana feeds itself on locally grown produce. In the process, Cuba has reinvented back-to-basics farming techniques relying on compost, natural pesticides and beneficial insects, producing solid harvests year after year.

Smart Breeding: After decades of research, scientists are discovering plants that have long dormant traits for resistance to disease, drought and blight. Without relying on genetic modifications, it is possible to turn these traits on and off.

Farmers have been tinkering with plants for thousands of years to produce desirable results. It has brought us staples like corn, apples and tomatoes. A better understanding of a plant&#39s genome can speed up the entire process. The technique was first introduced by Nadem Kedar, who cross-bred beefsteak tomatoes that would ripen on the vine and remain firm in transit.

It doesn&#39t stop with tomatoes. Commercial applications hold the promise of applying smart breeding to crops that can withstand extended dry spells and hot, arid conditions. Scientists are looking for ways to produce resilient crops in a manner that pleases both agronomists and food activists.

"Clearly significant gains have been made in terms of productivity," noted Greg Jaffe, director for biotechnology policy at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest and a co-author of the IAASTD report.

"But industrial farming has an enormous environmental footprint. In order to feed current and future generations it has to become more sustainable," he told IPS.

If the benefits of agricultural technology and trade continue to be distributed unevenly between the North and South, much of what has been preserved in terms of biodiversity and open space will be lost as a hungry planet attempts to feed itself – giving Earth Day revelers something to think about.

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