Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Other "Green Revolution"

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Oxfam America recently co-hosted “The Other Green Revolution: Farmer-Led Change in the Sahel, 1980-2010.” The Sahel, a semi-arid region just south of the Sahara desert in Africa and comprising parts of Senegal, Mauretania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea, experienced a terrible drought and ensuing desertification in the late ’60s and into the ’70s. Because the land became too dry to farm, millions of people left their villages.

A farmer in Burkina Faso named Yacouba Sawadogo became famous because he stayed behind and revived several techniques allowing reclamation of the land for farming. He spent three years in the bush experimenting. One of these techniques is “zaï”– pits dug in the fields to catch water; Yacouba also added manure and other organic materials to fertilize the fields and attract termites, aerating the soil. Another, “cordons pierroux”, are lines of stones laid across the fields to slow the movement of water and allow it to soak into the soil, collecting silt. The silt nurtures local plants, providing another barrier against water runoff and breaking up the soil. This system of farming actually changes the soil structure. Interestingly, these techniques were used by the Nabateans and other tribes who farmed parts of the Negev, Sinai, and Arabian deserts in the pre-Islamic period.

Yacouba noticed that trees naturally grew in the pits. He allowed them to mature and saw that they anchored the soil against wind and driving rain, improved soil quality by breaking it up, and fertilized the fields with leaf litter. He planted additional trees and became an innovator in agro-forestry, growing sorghum, millet, and other cereals. These techniques have been adopted all over the Sahel and other desert regions. Now, Yacouba travels around the area teaching farmers and organizing market days to exchange seeds.

Yacouba was joined by Sakina Mati, from neighboring Niger, the poorest country in the world. With other women in her village, she has formed an agro-forestry co-op that now encompasses six villages. These women learned how to raise trees from international organizations and use them to increase the productivity of their farms. Now, she says, there are so many trees that she’s had to learn how to prune them. Besides protecting their crops, the trees also provide forage for goats and extra income from firewood and timber.

Many organizations have become interested in the efforts of people like Yacouba and Sakina. Dr. Edwige Botoni, of the Comité permanent Inter-Etats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse dans la Sahel (CILSS), roughly, “the permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel,” spoke about some of the organizations involved with their work, including USAID, which has supported many of her projects. These organizations have found that battling climate change and food insecurity requires a flexible, regional approach. As a result of their work, food crises are now more localized and less frequent.

Some groups, including the USDA, believe that the increase in greening is due to an increase in rainfall. However, rainfall did not start to increase until the ‘90s, while satellite images show rising tree density earlier than that. The US Geological Survey (USGS) also compared the intensively managed areas in the Sahel to northern Nigeria, which receives about 50% more rainfall, and found that tree density was much higher on the managed lands. USAID was heavily involved in re-greening projects in Niger in the ’80s and early ’90s and seems to have been fairly successful. While USAID has been less active in the last fifteen years, this will likely change soon, as the State Department’s new food security initiative places much more responsibility on them.

Dr. Chris Reij, a human geographer and natural resource specialist from VU University Amsterdam, addressed another aspect of this “Green Revolution.” Working with Dr. Mahamane Larwanou, an agroforestry expert at the African Forest Forum, and Dr. Mathieu Ouedraogo, of the Africa Re-Greening Initiative, Dr. Reij has spent the last thirty years working for official policy changes that benefit farmers like Yacouba. They work with the media and other communications channels to teach these farming techniques locally and bring international attention to their work. The majority of families in Niger and Burkina Faso have at least one mobile, which farmers can use to communicate about market days, and internet access is becoming more common. Rural radio is quite prevalent and has been a very successful communications tool. Dr. Reij and his colleagues have met with great successes mobilizing the western media– they even featured in a lengthy National Geographic article on soils, along with Yacouba.

So what’s next? Economists have found huge increases in returns to families using these techniques, but more improvements can be made. Many countries in the Sahel have nothing resembling property rights, as we know them, but obtaining them would go a long way towards incentivizing responsible land management. Farmers who own their trees (and the land itself) are much more likely to practice long-term stewardship. Niger is moving in this direction, and the change in governance has seen huge results. Fertilizer and other benefits of Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution have also largely failed to reach these communities, and yet modern farming technology could produce huge yield increases.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Climate Change Events in DC

Last month, the Science Policy Office attended many climate change events, such as the CQ-Roll Call Climate Change Conference on various aspects of global warming, in the context of the Waxman-Markey Bill (cuts carbon emissions 17% by 2020) and the Kerry-Boxer Bill, now before the Senate (increases cuts to 20% and reduces allowances). Later in October, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held three days of hearings on K-B. Sen. Kerry testified that his bill would balance the rising costs of farming in the Midwest by providing farmers extra income from carbon offsets and renewables production. USDA Secretary Vilsack submitted comments supporting this statement, assuring farmers and ranchers that such legislation will benefit them if quick action is taken. However, Bob Stallman, president of the Farm Bureau, stated that income to farmers from offsets will fail to make up for cost increases in food, fuel, and feed, crippling American agriculture.

It is generally accepted that legislation will change many aspects of business in the US, including agriculture. While much of the attention paid to agriculture and climate change focuses on offsets, the panelists at the Conference posited that it may be far more lucrative for farmers to produce renewable energy on the side, rather than offsetting carbon by resting land. For example, biogas produced from animal waste, grasses grown for cellulosic ethanol (also sequestering carbon dioxide), or wind turbines placed in the margins between fields can all provide added sources of income and/or energy. The Farm Bureau wants the USDA to assess whether potential revenue from offsets makes up for the increased costs to the farmer associated with those offsets. However, such studies have already been done.

Farmers are legitimately concerned that W-M makes no provisions for fossil fuel alternatives. Natural gas is a good alternative to oil, but is also used to produce fertilizer, and so its increased use as a fuel raises the price of synthetic fertilizer. More widespread employment of soil nutrient analysis would allow farmers to strategically fertilize, in many cases reducing the cost of fertilizer in their operations and the risk that nutrients will reach nearby bodies of water. There are also alternatives that can reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers needed, such as chicken litter, although this can also cause problems with nutrient pollution. Efficiency is a relatively easy first step in addressing most aspects of climate change.

Many industries, including agriculture, are wary of the EPA, which has just issued their final Endangerment Findings on GHGs under the Clean Air Act. The Farm Bureau prefers to take their chances with legislation, but they are concerned that K-B leaves the Clean Air Act too powerful. According to the EPA, though, agriculture and forestry now sequester 11% of current GHGs and have the potential to offset upwards of 20%; there is much that can be done to clean up the responsible operations (mostly AFOs and CAFOs). Agriculture produces 7-8% of GHGs yearly.

This week, 25x’25, a coalition of farm leaders, conservationists, and industry, released a report that should help put this debate to rest. The study was conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Bio-Based Energy Analysis Group, which is composed of a varied group of researchers– agricultural economists, engineers, agronomists, and environmental scientists. They found that a cap and trade system with a “meaningful but moderate” carbon price and opportunities for agricultural offsets would net positive returns for farmers, even considering rising prices of inputs. This scenario offers significant carbon benefits and does not incentivize the conversion of agricultural land to forest. They compared several models, including one with EPA regulation instead of cap and trade. Farmers fared very poorly in this scenario, experiencing net losses and losing sixty million acres of cropland to forest.

I also saw Senator Bernie Sanders speak in person twice, and he gave a very poignant speech. He is one of the rare politicians who can reconcile agriculture with the environment in his state, supporting both. So I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the day, explaining why he thinks it’s necessary to take strong and swift action against climate change. “Let me remind people who might say that the vision I am outlining is too radical, I want you to think about December 8th, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, when President Roosevelt declared war against Japan. Within a year and a half . . . the United States had transformed its economy . . . [into wartime production]. We did that in a year and a half in the early 1940’s. So please do not tell me that in the year 2009 with all of the advanced technology out there that this country cannot lead the world in transforming our energy system . . ..”

Monday, November 16, 2009


Dust comes from two sources—indoors and outdoors. Indoor dust is composed of residue from carpet fibers, skin cells, bug parts, and other decomposing household materials, while outdoor dust is made up of soil particles. ’Dustologists’ have found that dust is actually very complicated– both types can be mixed with a variety of organic and inorganic compounds, some of which may be harmful. For example, DDT, a chemical long banned in the U.S., is still found in dust samples today, as are toxic flame-retardants from industrially-manufactured furniture. However, most dust in our homes– upwards of two-thirds– is of the outdoor variety. Outdoor dust is either tracked in on shoes or blown in through doors and windows. Humans then assimilate dust through respiration and ingestion. So, how do you reduce your dust exposure? The answer is simple—vacuum, often, with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter. Oh, and tell your kids not to lick things.

To read more or listen to the story, visit NPR’s website:

- R. Poor, Science Policy Intern

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Soil on Mars

NASA held a teleconference today about their efforts to free the trapped Spirit rover on Mars. The rover was driving backwards when its wheels broke through a thin, crusty soil and became stuck in the slick sand layer underneath. Initial attempts to escape caused the rover to sink further into the sand pit. While trapped, Spirit has collected data from the site, known as Troy, and scientists have found the highest sulfur content measured on Mars in the sands. Scientists believe that the sands, which are distinctly layered and tinted, may have been produced in hot springs or a similarly steamy environment. Such an environment resembles the conditions that many scientists believe spawned life on Earth.

To read more, see “NASA to Being Attempts to Free Sand-Trapped Mars Rover”.

Obama Appoints Head of USAID

The White House announced today that they have nominated Dr. Rajiv Shah to head the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Shah has been the Under-Secretary for the Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area at USDA for the past ten months. Before his appointment as Under Secretary, Shah spent seven years as the Director of Agricultural Development for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and he campaigned with both President Obama and former Vice President Al Gore. Shah has a medical degree and an MS in health economics.

USAID is at the center of the State Department’s new policy favoring international development and diplomacy, but the agency has suffered severe funding cuts in the last twenty years. Apparently, the appointment of the position was delayed due to an intense vetting process.

The Science Policy Office has worked extensively with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and REE under Shah. We look forward to continuing this relationship as we work with USAID. We appreciate his support and wish him the best in his new position.

For more information, see articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post.