9 Steps for a Greener Food System in the Developing World

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

By using biogas collection tanks, farmers in Rwanda are already helping to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.
By using biogas collection tanks, farmers in Rwanda are already helping to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Many of us are thinking about the changes we want to make this year. For some, these changes will be financial; for others, physical or spiritual. But for all of us, there are important resolutions we can make to “green” our lives. Although this is often a subject focused on by industrialized nations, people in developing countries can also take important steps to reduce their growing environmental impact.

“We in the developing world must embark on a more vigorous ‘going green’ program,” says Sue Edwards, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD). “As incomes rise and urbanization increases, a growing middle class must work with city planners to ensure our communities are sustainable.”

ISD’s Tigray Project recently received the Gothenburg Award for Sustainable Development 2011, shared with Kofi Annan, Chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Since 1996, Tigray has worked to help Ethiopian farmers rehabilitate ecosystems, raise land productivity, and increase incomes through such practices as composting, biodiversity enhancement, the conservation of water and soil, and the empowerment of local communities to manage their own development.

Broadening sustainability efforts is essential to solving many of the world’s challenges, including food production, security, and poverty. The United Nations has designated 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

Hunger, poverty, and climate change are issues that we in the developing world can help address. Here are 9 simple steps to green your food and water consumption in 2012:

1. Recycle

Urbanization is on the rise throughout the developing world. According to the United Nations, the highest urban-area growth is 3.5 percent per year in Africa. But waste management is not keeping up with population growth. It is inefficient in urban areas and virtually nonexistent in rural areas, resulting in the pervasive unloading of waste in unmanaged dump sites and bodies of water and endangering public health.

 What you can do:

  • Collect your household’s waste in two separate containers—-one for organic waste like scraps of food and one for other waste like plastic, glass, metal, and paper. You can compost the organic waste (see #11).
  • Cities such as Johannesburg have recycling drop-off sites. If your city doesn’t, look for neighbors who are interested in salvaging and reselling items like cans. Brazil, for example, boasts a 96.5 percent aluminum can recycle rate due in large part to the 180,000 Brazilians who collect and resell cans for profit.

2. Reduce fossil fuel consumption

Over the last two decades, roughly 75 percent of human-made carbon dioxide emissions were produced by fossil fuel burning. Coal and other environmentally polluting fossil fuels can be replaced by renewable resources, including biofuels. Globally, some 25 million homes convert biogas into energy for lighting and cooking, including 20 million households in China and 3.9 million in India.

What you can do:

  • Instead of burning coal or wood, use biogas converted from the methane produced by either livestock manure or weeds such as water hyacinth. In Rwanda, the government is working to make biogas stoves more affordable—-by the end of 2011 they had hoped to see them being used in 15,000 households, and in Ethiopia, the target is 14,000 biogas digester plants with rural households by the end of 2013.
  • Use an environmentally friendly solar cooker to utilize solar energy instead of fossil fuels. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is committing $50 million to advance the goal of securing 100 million such stoves in developing countries by 2020. 

3. Re-use water bottles

Worldwide, 900 million people do not have access to safe drinking water, and more than 4,000 children die each year from preventable diseases. As a result, many consumers use bottled water. We consume 200 billion bottles of water globally. It takes 1.5 million barrels of crude oil to produce these bottles and 2.7 tons of plastic, 86 percent of which ends up as garbage or litter.

What you can do:

  • Stainless steel reusable water bottles are the best solution, but you can also reuse plastic bottles every time you encounter a clean water source. When it is time for a new bottle, recycle the old one.
  • The Life and Water Development Group Cameroon has partnered with Thirst Relief International USA to bring clean water to those without access. One filtration unit uses layers of crushed rock, sand, and naturally forming bacteria to remove 99 percent of harmful bacteria from drinking water.

4. Conserve water

Each of us requires 3,000 liters of water a day to meet our dietary needs. Yet half of people worldwide live in countries where water tables are falling. Because 70 percent of water is used to irrigate agriculture, it is important that we better conserve water as we grow our food.

What you can do:

  • Growing one ton of grain requires 1,500 tons of water, but many crops indigenous to the developing world require much less. In Asia and Africa, the pigeon pea is drought-resistant and can grow in low-nutrient soil with little water while still producing a yield that is 20 percent protein.
  • Rainwater Concepts in India is working to popularize simple rainwater harvesting techniques, successfully recharging 90,000 wells.

5.  Support food recovery

Each year, roughly a third of all food produced for human consumption—-approximately 1.3 billion tons—-gets lost or wasted, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. In the developing world, this often happens because of premature harvests or a lack of proper storage facilities, sufficient infrastructure, or appropriate preservation methods. Every metric ton of food waste sent to landfills emits 4.5 times the amount of carbon dioxide, and decomposing food in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

What you can do:

  • Farmers in Pakistan have saved 70 percent of their harvest by switching from jute bags and containers constructed with mud to more durable metal containers.
  • In West Africa, farmers use solar dryers to save the 100,000 tons of mangos that would otherwise go to waste annually. This technique can be used with other fruit to save them from perishing after harvest.

6. Buy local, indigenous crops

Rice, wheat, corn, and soy are the crops that modern agriculture focuses on most. Reliance on so few crops is dangerous. The 2010 drought in Russia decimated a third of the country’s wheat harvest, and the developing world felt the shock as food prices skyrocketed. Indigenous and traditional crops, however, are often hardier and more resistant to pests and disease. 

What you can do:

  • Find out what crops are indigenous to your area and which farmers are growing them. Buy directly from those farmers or ask your local market to carry their products.
  • Grow indigenous crops in your own garden (see #10) and share with your neighbors.

7.  Plant a garden

Fourteen million people in Africa migrate from rural to urban areas each year, and studies suggest that by 2020, an estimated 40 million Africans living in cities will depend on urban agriculture to meet their food requirements. Home gardens helped families in Kibera, Nairobi, survive when unrest after the 2008 elections shut down roads and prevented food from coming into the city. And the sale of garden surplus is an excellent way to supplement family income.

What you can do:

  • If your access to land is limited, you can create a “vertical garden.” Fill tall sacks with soil, poke holes on different levels, and plant seeds in the holes. Use waste water from your home and compost (see #11) to keep your soil rich and healthy, improving the quality of your food. If you live in an urban area and don’t have access to land, reuse old tires or buckets to create portable planters.

8.  Compost organic waste

The World Bank estimates that 50 percent of an average developing country’s solid waste can be composted. By repurposing compostable waste such as food scraps, wood waste, and paper and cardboard products, we can reduce landfill space and add reclaimed nutrients to our agricultural efforts

What you can do:

  • Work within your family to compost your own organic waste, or work with your community to establish a collective compost site.
  • To make the most of your compost, use it to nourish local gardening efforts.

9.  Eat meat that is raised right…and eat less of it

Livestock are raised on a third of the Earth’s land, accounting for approximately 18 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. In the developing world alone, 1 to 2 trillion cubic meters of water per year is needed to raise crops for these animals. Global meat production has increased 20 percent since 2000, and nearly 90 percent of additional growth is expected to occur in the developing world, predominantly on large, industrial farms.

What you can do:

  • Think about where your meat comes from. Giant, industrial farms pollute the environment through heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and other harmful inputs. Pastoral farms can help reduce pollution and supports the livelihoods of local farming families.
  • If you’re a farmer, consider building a biodigester so that you can convert the organic waste from your animals into a nutrient-rich fertilizer and biogas, a renewable energy source that you can use for heating and electricity.

The most successful and lasting new year changes are those that are practiced regularly and have an important goal. As we embark on this new year, let’s all resolve to make 2012 a healthier, happier, and greener year for all.

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