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Family gardens, school gardens and urban gardening against the actual food crisis

by willem vancotthem Thu Jun 5th, 2008 at 05:45:19 PM EST

Drought is described as a very important environmental constraint, limiting plant growth and food production. The World Food Program (WFP) has recently indicated drought in Australia as one of the major factors for the difficulty to deliver food aid to millions of people suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Drought is seen as the force driving up wheat and rice prices, which contributes directly to food shortage, social unrest and disturbances at the global level. Therefore, mitigating drought and limiting water consumption seems to be essential factors for resolving the actual food crisis and to find long-term solutions to malnutrition, hunger and famine, particularly in the drylands.

Application of water stocking soil conditioners, keeping the soil moistened with a minimum of irrigation water, and seeding or planting more drought tolerant species and varieties will definitely contribute to solve the food crisis. Scientists in China and the USA have recently discovered important genetic information about drought tolerance of plants. It was thereby shown that drought tolerant mutants of Arabidopsis thaliana have a more extensive root system than the wild types, with deeper roots and more lateral roots, and show a reduced leaf stomatal density. My own research work on the soil conditioning compound TerraCottem has led to similar conclusions : treatment with this soil conditioner induced enhancement of the root system with a higher number of lateral roots. More roots means more root tips and thus a higher number of water absorbing root hairs, sitting close to the root meristem. As a result, plants with more roots can better explore the soil and find the smallest water quantities in a relatively dry soil.

As the world's population is growing by about 78 million people a year, it affects life on this earth in a very dramatic way. Droughts have caused a rise of food prices many times before, but the present situation is quite different, because it is based on specific trends and facts : the faster growing world population and a definite change in international food consumption trends and habits.

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Some experts claim that "major investments to boost world food output will keep shortages down to the malnutrition level in some of the world's poorer nations", and that "improving farm infrastructure and technological boosts to farm yields can create a lot of small green revolutions, particularly in Africa".

It seems quite difficult to believe that "major investments to boost the food output" will be able to "keep the food shortages down to the malnutrition level", wherever in this world. Indeed, the world's most famous research institutes have already developed very effective technologies to boost food production in the most adverse conditions of serious drought and salinity. Yet, not one single organization has ever decided, up to now, to use "major investments" to apply such technologies in large-scale programs, which would most certainly change the food situation in the world's poorest nations.

It seems also difficult to believe that "improving farm infrastructure and technological boosts to farm yields" will be able to create "small green revolutions, particularly in Africa". It is not by improving a farm's infrastructure that one will manage drought. Although a number of technological solutions to boost farm yields have already been developed, only those tackling the drought problems are an option to create significant changes.

I do not believe that such changes can be realized at the level of large-scale farms. On the contrary, I am convinced that application of cost-effective, soil conditioning methods to enhance the water retention capacity of the soil and to boost biomass production in the drylands, is the best solution to help the poor rural people to avoid malnutrition and hunger, giving them a "fresh" start with a daily portion of "fresh vegetables". These rural people, forming the group most affected by the food crisis, do not need to play a role in boosting the world's food production. They simply need to produce enough food for their own family ("to fill their own hungry stomach"). Application of cost-effective technologies should therefore be programmed at the level of small-scale "family gardens" or "school gardens" and not at the scale of huge (industrial) farms, where return on investment is always the key factor for survival of the business.

Preferentially, major investments to boost the food output in the drylands should be employed to improve food production in family gardens and school gardens, in order to offer all rural people an opportunity to produce more and better food, vegetables and fruits, full of vitamins and mineral elements, mostly for their own family members or kids, partly for the local market.

Splendid examples of long-term combating food shortage with family gardens can be seen since 2006 in the refugee camps in S.W. Algeria (UNICEF project). One can only hope that such a success story will soon be duplicated in many similar situations, where hungry people wait for similar innovative and well-conceived practices, with a remarkable return on investment, laying solid foundations for further sustainable development.

Recently, a number of initiatives have been taken to enhance urban gardening space, not only with allotment gardens, but also with "guerilla gardening" and transformation of open, underused spaces into small-scale garden plots for downtown dwellers, apartment dwellers and even for university students like those at the McGill University in Montreal. Many poor urban people are very keen on harvesting their own crops in such small gardens or applying container gardening on balconies, terraces, rooftops or other unused open spaces. Support for urban agriculture or urban gardening can be seen as a priority for decision-makers to reverse the world's food crisis.

Food aid, be it with billions of dollars, can only be very effective if priority is given to local food production for the poor rural or urban people, who can not afford to buy the expensive commercial food products in shops or supermarkets. Small-scale family gardens, school gardens, allotment gardens and urban gardens in unused open spaces should be our strategic counter-attack against the actual food crisis.

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Independent - Malawi's farming revolution sets the pace in Africa

A green revolution taking place in the fields of Malawi has, in three years, turned a nation that was once reliant on international aid to feed half its population into a food exporter.

In doing so, it has set an example for other developing countries struggling to feed themselves. But it has done it all against the express wishes of Britain, the United States and the World Bank - its largest donors.

Malawi suffered a catastrophic drought in 2005. The World Food Programme estimated that five million people - out of a population of 12 million - needed food aid and many villages reported people dying of starvation.

A new government, led by Bingu wa Mutharika, believed the problem was straightforward. Farmers were using seeds that were highly susceptible to disease and weevils, and too few were using fertiliser. If farmers could afford high-yield maize seeds and fertiliser, the government argued, they would be able to grow enough food. At a cost of £30m, the government launched a subsidisation scheme. With a state coupon, the price of a bag of fertiliser fell from 6,500 kwacha (£23) to 900, while a 2kg bag of hybrid maize seed dropped from 600 kwacha to 30.



keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 02:39:34 PM EST
Thanks Helen.  You are completely right : the recent "Green Revolution"in the drylands of Malawi is at least partly due to small-scale horticulture by the rural population.  NGOs play a very important role in this (r)evolution.  Their successes should inspire donors, and not only the largest ones,to provide substantial financial aid for duplication of these "best practices" at the largest national and even international scale.  

Food aid can only be a temporary relief, because it is never eliminating the causes of the drought catastrophe. Think at my variant of the Chinese proverb : "Don't bring these people food, teach them how to grow it".

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 - B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 03:34:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
One of the stories that hangs in the back of my mind from years ago is that of an ecologist who discovered a bush bean in Central America that not only produces a nutritious bean crop, but provides a microclimate for the growth of other crops such as maize and, when they have been cropped, provide food for goats which then fertilize the area for next years cycle.

Was this a figment of my imagination ?

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 01:55:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hello Helen. Sorry for the delay of this reply, caused by a busy schedule.  A number of crops (beans, peas, etc.) belong to the leguminous plants, known for their ability to stock nitrogen from the air and to transform it into proteins, which are then broken down to nitrates, fertilizing the soil.  Such nitrogen fixating crops are very useful indeed.  They should be grown at a larger scale to fertilize the soil, particularly in the drylands.  So, it is not your imagination !

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 - B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)
by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Sun May 11th, 2008 at 05:59:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Welcome to ET, Willem.

I tend to agree with you that small farming (and, why not, urban etc gardening, about which I have a diary in preparation, with application to Europe)is likely to feed people more and better than large-scale industrial plantation enterprises.

But can you tell us why the drought management techniques you propose could not be used by big farms as well as small?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 03:59:37 PM EST
Hello afew.  Small-scale gardening in rural or urban areas is more effective for the poor, hungry people than the industrial farms, for different reasons.  It is determined by daily actions at their own level and not by sophisticated mechanization or high-tech production schemes.  Return on investment is always significantly higher, because investment in simple horticultural tools and materials is low and production is always close to the kitchen, without intermediary transport and stocking costs.

The drought management techniques I mentioned (water stocking soil conditioners) can certainly be used by big farms too.  However, it is my personal experience that it is very difficult to convince industrial farmers to change their traditional farming methods (e.g. use of mineral fertilizers and fine-tuned irrigation systems).  Investment in "new" soil conditioners seems only possible after years of experimentation.  But the day will come ...

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 - B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 03:50:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Can someone provide some numbers on family/urban/school garden productivity? It's important to get a handle on this, in terms of kilocalories per day on an annualized basis.

Adult diets are around 2000 kilocalories per day (about 2.3 kilowatt-hours, if you prefer those units for some inscrutable reason -- about like a 100 W light bulb).

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 05:08:28 PM EST
The range of climates, micro-climates, technological level, cultivar availability, weather patterns, land use patterns, farming/gardening practices - to name a few - of urban areas, considered globally, make it impossible to determine useful comparative statistics.

In general, horticultural techniques yield more food value per land area and diverse agricultural production operations (many different crops and mixed-use areas) yield the highest food value.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 01:28:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hello technopolitical.  I take the point of the next comment below : it is almost impossible to make valuable statistics on comparative horticultural productivity because of the dramatic differences in location, climatic variation, soil quality etc.

Data on adult diets and the number of kilocalories or joules are undeniably important. However, one should also take into account that the daily consumption of fresh food (vegetables and fruits) plays an extremely important role in public health, particularly for children, because of a significant enhancement in vitamins and mineral elements. Having a small family garden or a school garden will perhaps not solve ALL the food problems of the rural or urban poor, but it certainly will avoid a number of classical diseases and hunger.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 - B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 04:04:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, there's a lot more value from gardens than just calories.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Wed May 7th, 2008 at 01:13:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Three points:

1.) Urban gardening is fun and useful. You can use all sorts of high-tech methods for irrigation and for controlling water loss, because the incremental cost of extra equipment is low. This is a "big deal" in the American southwest, where we historically tried to grow Kentucky Bluegrass but have now moved to more realistic plantings.

http://www.csu.org/environment/xeriscape/index.html

2.) Farmers are very sensitive to inefficiencies in their methods--because the costs go to their bottom line. My uncle in Nebraska (farming the desert on government subsidies) explained to me in detail how they had modified their central pivot irrigation system to reduce evaporative loss.

3.) The real problem is too many people. Improving farming efficiency just allows a few million more people to survive. Malthus and all that...

by asdf on Mon May 5th, 2008 at 11:05:23 PM EST
Thanks asdf.I agree that urban gardening is fun and useful, in particular if "one can use all sorts of high-tech methods for irrigation and for controlling water loss, because the incremental cost of extra equipment is low."  However, the basic thoughts of my diary on small-scale family gardening started with an analyis of the hunger situation of the poor rural and urban people in the drylands.  For these people gardening does not have to be "fun".  It is a bare necessity !  Helping them to produce daily fresh food is more than just doing a noble thing.

You are completely right about the demographic constraints : one of the main problems is population growth.  We all know how difficult it is to change that pattern.  Even if "Improving farming efficiency just allows a few million more people to survive. Malthus and all that...", we should never hesitate to give those few millions a chance for a better life, be it only with a small family garden.  They have the right to become a bit more happy, don't you think ?

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 - B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 04:18:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well sure, as a fellow human, one wants to help improve the lot of others. But I wonder whether there should be some sort of an arrangement along the lines of "Here's some help on how to run a subsistence farm, but alongside is some help on how not to have more babies."

There is a persistent assumption that by some sort of change to the political or economic or technical environment, the earth will be able to sustain more and more people. We should try to change that assumption, and work to get the global population down by quite a bit. Or, we can wait until Mother Nature does it for us by disease or famine or war...

by asdf on Wed May 7th, 2008 at 08:28:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Malthus seems to have come to his conclusions on the basis that birth control was just too immoral to consider using. I must finish that book and diary it.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 01:59:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you Prof. van Cotthem for this diary.

Application of water stocking soil conditioners, keeping the soil moistened with a minimum of irrigation water, and seeding or planting more drought tolerant species and varieties will definitely contribute to solve the food crisis.

This is exciting information as it implies a means to halt the desertification of sub-Sahara Africa, a path to reclaiming land lost to desertification, as well as the developing world's food crisis.  

A triple win.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 01:45:21 AM EST
Sincere thanks ATinNM. With my team at the University of Ghent (Belgium), I have developed this water and fertilizer stocking soil conditioner.  In more than 20 years it has shown its benefits for horticulture, agriculture and forestry in the drylands.  Several humanitarian projects in Africa and Asia have been remarkably successful.  Actual projects in Algeria (Tindouf area) and India (Tamil Nadu) show the same positive results.

The question remains : why is it so difficult to convince the donors to invest in large-scale application of this cost-effective technology. Like you said, it is "a means to halt the desertification of sub-Sahara Africa, a path to reclaiming land lost to desertification, as well as the developing world's food crisis."

When will this message be understood ?

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 - B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)

by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 04:34:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for this informative and inspiring article.

willem vancotthem: why is it so difficult to convince the donors to invest in large-scale application of this cost-effective technology.

In the article about that Helen referenced above, it says that Malawi's largest donors (Britain, the United States and the World Bank) initially refused to fund Malawi's "revolutionary" program that provided subsidies to farmers to buy high-yield seeds and fertilizer.  However, upon seeing the results, "international donors [including Britain], after early scepticism, now support the scheme".

willem vancotthem: Several humanitarian projects in Africa and Asia have been remarkably successful.  Actual projects in Algeria (Tindouf area) and India (Tamil Nadu) show the same positive results.

What is the visibility of these programs to the decision makers in large donor organizations and bureaucracies?  Do you have anyone inside them to champion the use of your soil conditioner?

Also, have you approached deep-pocketed private donors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation?  It seems probable that some of these large charitable organizations would be very interested in supporting you.  And assuming the results of these pilot projects continue to be positive with only minimal (if any) harmful side-effects, then such major philanthropies may also have the connections and/or influence on governments to persuade them to use TerraCottem on a more wide-scale basis (in addition, obviously, to the money to fund them).

A language is a dialect with an army and navy.

by marco on Tue May 6th, 2008 at 06:07:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Dear Marco.  You are completely right : international and private donors, even deep-pocketed ones, are well-known. They could (should) be interested in providing funds for large-scale application of "success stories".  However, this picture changes as soon as "a good idea" is "commercialized".  The soil conditioner TerraCottem, which I developed at the University of Ghent (Belgium), showed its potentialities all over the world : plants can be grown easily and successfully with a minimum of water and fertilizer.  So far, so good for our nice idea !  But from here to convince donors to finance larger quantities of such a "commercial" product (produced by a spin-off company of the Ghent University) is far more difficult.  That small TerraCottem company is not in a position to fund large programs at the global level.  Thus the money should come from donors.  The question is : will they contribute to the prosperity of a business company, even if that soil conditioner can help to solve the problems of drought, desertification and poverty ?  We all know that TerraCottem can be one of  the best tools to make the life of poor rural or even urban people quickly better by making small kitchen garden very productive.  But who wants to purchase such a commercial product for humanitarian projects ?  It will need serious lobbying and introduction of numerous files.  And I am not a lobbyist !  Who is interested ?

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 - B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)
by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Sun May 11th, 2008 at 06:20:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
welcome, professor!

i enjoyed this diary, it is heartening to hear such good news from Academia, especially about issues as important as this.

i have seen consumer houseplants soil conditioners before, how is Terracottem different?

i have read in organic gardening magazines that simple rock dust adds great fertility to food gardening. i am thinking of going to the local quarry and getting a load to test out.

i have not heard of anyone doing this in my area, so they will probably give quite a funny look!

(rock dust is touted for its helping the longterm uptake of important nutirtional minerals in food crops, a bit OT from the thread about water retention, but similar enough not to be too much of a distraction, i hope).

if this works, wouldn't it be a relatively inexpensive way to help the poor eat better from their own gardens, and wouldn't it be smart to get this program running with the last of the fossil fuels we are burning so profligately? rock dust is heavy, and there's only so much donkeys can carry!

thanks for adding your voice and reports of your good work to ET, we are fortunate to have more authoritative info on soil science joining us here. other than the quality of air we breathe and water we drink, (obviously very connected to the amount we waste on inefficient crop watering), what else can be more relevant to our continued survival as a species?

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed May 7th, 2008 at 03:17:24 AM EST
Dear melo.  Thanks for your appreciation of my work on the soil conditioner TerraCottem, which is a compound of more than twenty different substances, working in synergy to produce more biomass with less water and less fertiliser.  In this it differs from most of the available soil conditioners, which are mostly single products, consisting of one or two chemical substances.  TerraCottem's most important objective, apart from other application possibilities, is to help poor rural and urban people to more fresh food with a minimum of water and fertiliser.  Small kitchen gardens can be made in almost every free space, even on roofs.  One can also switch to container gardening in almost every kind of container (flower pots, bottles, barrels, old wheelbarrows, yoghurt pots, etc.).  One can find a lot of applications of container gardening on my blog containergardening.wordpress.com.  You are right in saying that rock dust can be used as a good fertiliser for poor soils.  Indeed, rocks contain a number of fertilising mineral elements and rock dust, mixed with a poor soil (e.g. sand) will certainly contribute to the enhancement in dosage of certain, but not all mineral elements.

Prof. Dr. Willem Van Cotthem Beeweg 36 - B 9080 Zaffelare (Belgium)
by willem vancotthem (willem.vancotthem@gmail.com) on Sun May 11th, 2008 at 06:37:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Working in an urban school, the biggest problem I can see with school gardens is vandalism.  The children have tried growing things in raised beds, but they were destroyed.  Even sunflower seeds left in pots on window ledges get destroyed.  Vandals have even climbed over the school roof to poison a courtyard wildlife pond.

It's really hard to get children and staff motivated in those circumstances.  We recently visited another school's eco-area, and I've identified a hidden corner of our grounds where we might be able to get away with a discreet bog garden.

But no-one wants to put in the work and funds for something that can be destroyed overnight by spite and a bottle of bleach.

by Sassafras on Fri Jun 6th, 2008 at 03:10:59 AM EST


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