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Worldwatch Institute | 2011 State of the World: Innovations that Nourish the Planet

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“We’re not telling people or governments or farmers what to do. We’re learning from them and we’re highlighting the work that’s being done on the ground to help alleviate hunger and poverty.”

On January 12, the Worldwatch Institute released its annual State of the World report. This year’s report is the culmination of two years of research and travel under the auspices of the Nourishing the Planet program, founded in June of 2009.
The project director for Nourishing the Planet is Danielle Nierenberg, a Missouri native who grew up in Defiance. Growing up around farmers, Nierenberg was interested in agriculture from a young age. That interest blossomed after she spent two years with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. “Growing up around them [farmers] and seeing what they struggled through, and then seeing a different side of that struggle in the Dominican Republic, sort of shaped my interest in food and the environment and agriculture,” said Nierenberg in a phone interview last week.
Nierenberg took her interests to Monmouth College, a small liberal arts college in Illinois, where she literally designed her own major course of study. “To be honest, when I was in undergrad, I made up my own major,” she said. Though she graduated with a B.A. in Environmental Policy, she made sure to take plenty of courses in the hard sciences, such as zoology, ecology and biology. After her time in the Dominican Republic, she attended graduate school at Tufts University, earning an M.S. in Agriculture, Food, and Environment.
Since leaving Tufts, Nierenberg has been with the Worldwatch Institute, “I started out as an intern here and then made them hire me,” she said.
In 2009, the Institute received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to study agricultural practices in Africa. In June of that year, the Nourishing the Planet movement was formed. Nierenberg, employed as a senior researcher for the Worldwatch Institute, was the project director during a year and a half time span in which dozens of scientists and researchers visited 25 nations in sub-Sarahan Africa.
The purpose of that travel and research was to document the innovative practices developed by small farmers across the continent. Nierenberg describes the project this way: “We’re not telling people or governments or farmers what to do. We’re learning from them and we’re highlighting the work that’s being done on the ground to help alleviate hunger and poverty.”
The results of their travels and research are documented in the report released this week. The report consists of 15 different chapters, each focusing on a different challenge faced by African farmers, such as soil fertility, water scarcity, adaptation to climate change, innovative governance and public-private partnerships, access to markets, and more. Though each chapter is written by a different researcher or team of researchers, the book is quite readable and presents a coherent theme throughout: innovation on the ground.
The forward of the report notes that it is written for policy makers, but individual citizens could learn a great deal about agricultural innovation by reading it. Nierenberg herself noted that the practice of using cover crops to help fix nitrogen in the soil is common here in Missouri, where farmers plant alfalfa for that purpose.
The timing of the book’s release is also worthy of comment, given that it comes on the heels of strong comments from a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Peter Turkson. As head of the Church’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Turkson decried the influence of multi-national corporations on the African environment, calling the dependence of farmers on genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) “a new form of slavery,” according to 
Nierenberg declined to comment on Turkson’s remarks, but she did comment on the impact of transgenic crops in Africa. “Transgenic drops and biotechnology haven’t yet been able to really help poor farmers. What they’ve been able to do is make money for international corporations.”
Nierenberg acknowledged that biotechnology may yet have a role to play in alleviating hunger, and the report notes that public-private partnerships involving St. Louis-based Monsanto have proven promising, most notably the Water Efficient Maize for Africa program, known by its acronym, WEMA.
Overall, the tone of the report is not prescriptive, but documentary. Nierenberg and her fellow researchers diligently report on a variety of promising local innovations, concerning many different crops and practices in a multitude of nations and regions.
Some of the most interesting innovations, according to Nierenberg, involve the handling of food after harvest. She cited a statistic that estimates between 25% and 40% of all food is spoiled or wasted before it ever reaches someone’s table. The introduction of improved granary designs for grain storage and hermetically sealed bags for transport are two of the innovations Nierenberg was particularly excited about.
In addition, innovations that help improve the natural fertility of the soil, protect the topsoil from erosion, connect farmers to markets and to one another, as well as reintroduce indigenous crops to drought-affected regions, all find space in the book.
Anybody interested in the world’s food supply in general, or in sustainable agriculture specifically, would be well-served by reading this short, value-packed report. | Stephen Fairbanks
Copies of 2011 State of the World: Innovations that Nourish the Planet may be purchased at

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