COVID-19 and the Global Food Supply: Big Lessons From the World’s Small Farms
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed both the strengths and limitations of globalization. The crisis has made people aware of how industrialized food production can be, and just how far food can travel to get to the local supermarket. There are many benefits to this system, including low prices for consumers and larger, even global, markets for producers. But there are also costs — to the environment, workers, small farmers and to a region or individual nation's food security.
These costs have led many people to look once again at the benefits of small farms and locally produced fruits, vegetables and meat.
Of course, farmers on relatively small plots producing for local markets are the norm in developing countries. While it has many benefits, small-scale agriculture is far from idyllic. It often translates into low incomes and even poverty.
But it doesn't have to.
There are many successful initiatives to help farmers raise their productivity and incomes, improve their communities and amass capital to expand agricultural output and start small businesses. All of this can be done in an environmentally sustainable manner that builds resilience to external shocks, including climate change and even pandemics. As Edd Wright, World Neighbors Regional Director for Southeast Asia notes, "In Timor-Leste, to control the spread of the virus the government called a State of Emergency, which included the closing of all markets where people would normally buy and sell their weekly basic goods. Small-scale farmers have continued to have a secure supply of food during this emergency as they predominantly live off what they grow on their own land." These holistic community-based development programs also improve health and sanitation, teach literacy and help develop local leaders who plan and advocate for their communities.
Successes in farming communities in Nepal, India, East and West Africa, Guatemala, Peru, Burkina Faso, and several other countries hold lessons for those in the US who look to small farms as a way to build resilience and food security. "Small-scale agricultural producers have a strong capacity for innovation," notes Do Christophe Ouattara, World Neighbors Senior Program Officer in West Africa. "In Burkina Faso, indigenous soil and water conservation techniques improve production and contribute considerably to food security."
While each community success story is different, they have a few essential commonalities:
Organic Methods. Vegetables, fruit, eggs and meat produced using organic and sustainable techniques is healthier, due to the lack of pesticides and other chemicals. It's also safer for farmers, who do not have to handle dangerous chemicals. Finally, organic production has far less impact on the environment.
For small farms, the advantage of organic agriculture is clear — higher profits. Replacing chemicals with organic pesticides and fertilizers can significantly reduce costs. Because of consumer willingness to pay a premium for "cleaner" food with a smaller environmental footprint, farmers can charge more. According to Binu Subedi, a World Neighbors Senior Social Mobilizer in Nepal, "Organic farming is based on the insight that there really is no such thing as 'waste.' Finding a use for byproducts is the easiest way to cut input costs and raise returns."
While organic techniques are becoming well-established throughout the world, there are still many techniques to learn from farmers in developing countries. These include animal-derived pesticides, closed loop aquaculture, simple low-water irrigation systems, and more.
Cooperatives. There are many successful cooperatives in the US and other countries. By banding together, small holder farmers cut out middlemen and gain leverage with purchasers. They also provide the resources to invest in marketing, government advocacy and other activities that build markets and increase sales.
Cooperatives are especially helpful — even necessary — in countries in where agricultural production is highly concentrated among a relative handful of dominant companies. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on this reality in the United States' meat processing industry. A handful of transnational companies dominate and have a monopoly on the industry. When meat processing workers got sick and meat production went down, the costs fell on workers and livestock farmers. The profits, in the form of higher meat prices to consumers, went to the handful of meat processing companies.
Small scale livestock farms, as well as processing plants, organized into cooperatives, could help address this. While the final products would likely be a bit more expensive, the meat is far less likely to become contaminated with E. coli, salmonella or other contaminants. In addition, smaller processing plants tend to be safer and have less environmental impact on surrounding communities.
Successful cooperatives in Kenya and other developing countries have a lot to teach, including how to generate capital through savings and credit groups. These groups pool savings of small holder farmers and loan to members at very low rates. They eliminate onerous loan conditions and show forbearance if borrowers encounter setbacks. Savings and credit groups are often the first step to larger, more comprehensive cooperative relationships. It's time to introduce these mechanisms in the US so that small scale farmers can thrive.
Heritage Varieties. Industrial farming has resulted in consistent and attractive produce and meat. But to achieve this, and at the scale necessary for profitability, the variety has been greatly reduced. In most stores in the U.S., there are relatively few types of each fruit or vegetable. And these tend to have fewer nutrients and flavor than varieties grown and eaten prior to the domination of industrial farming. The same is true with meat. Factory farmed chicken and turkey are all but flavorless compared to traditional breeds.
The desire for more variety, flavor and nutrition is the reason many consumers are slowly rediscovering heritage or heirloom varieties. Produced on small farms, these products are often available at high end restaurants, farmer's markets and specialty supermarkets. Of course, this is just how organics started.
Like organics, heritage produce and meat often command a higher price. When produced organically, that translates into higher profits for small farm owners.
Peru, Guatemala and many other countries in the Global South have a great deal of experience with indigenous produce.
The need to grow more of it is especially pressing now, as large food companies successfully market highly processed food in these countries. The result has been the worst of all worlds: Chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have reached epidemic proportions. Small scale organic farmers have experience cultivating produce that is healthier and can counter these diseases. A resurgence of these traditional varieties brings increased self-sufficiency and food security as well. This expertise — as well as the heritage varieties themselves — can and should be put to use on American small farms. As Olga Chivalan, a single mother who farms her own small vegetable garden in Guatemala said, "My neighbors and I grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, including those native to our region. We believe the reliance on indigenous varieties contributes to our community's good health."
Globalization — of ideas, goods, capital and cooperation — is a significant achievement. It can also have downsides. They include how food is produced, transported and consumed on a large scale. Ironically, those downsides are best addressed by more globalization. Specifically, small holder farmers in developing countries sharing their innovations with like farmers in developed countries. There's never a downside to learning how to improve incomes, health and security in responsible and sustainable ways.
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Coronavirus Shines Light on Zoos as Danger Zones for Deadly Disease Transmission Between Humans and Animals
By Marilyn Kroplick
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By Kate Whiting
Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
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Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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Deforestation coupled with the rampant destruction of natural resources will soon have devastating effects on the future of society as we know it, according to two theoretical physicists who study complex systems and have concluded that greed has put us on a path to irreversible collapse within the next two to four decades, as VICE reported.
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By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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