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Food & agriculture - May 9

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Urban farms empower Africa

Stephanie Hanes, The Christian Science Monitor
Aid providers in Congo and elsewhere are discovering that lessons in farming can succeed where food handouts have not.
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KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo - The fields that ended hunger for Hen­riette Lipepele's family are squeezed between a trash-strewn dirt road and a cluster of one-room cinder-block houses.

They are not exactly pretty, at least not in the wide, pastoral way that one might imagine fields and farms. Ms. Lipepele's beds of sweet potatoes and leafy bitekuteku are narrow and not quite straight; the patch where she added bananas and sugar cane seems almost overgrown with competing greenery. The setting is hardly bucolic.

But these plant beds wedged into the Quartier Mombele - one of the unpaved slums of Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo - are examples of what many aid experts believe could save hundreds of thousands of people from hunger and malnutrition: urban gardens in the developing world's fast-growing cities.

For the first time, global population estimates this year show that more people live in cities than in rural areas. By 2020, according to the international Resource Centre for Urban Agriculture and Forestry, some 75 percent of the world's city dwellers will live in developing countries - many of them in poverty. Already in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN, almost three-quarters of city residents live in rapidly growing slums.

These trends present a huge challenge when it comes to food and nutrition. Bringing rural-grown produce to people living in infrastructure-poor cities is difficult. In any case, many impoverished city dwellers do not have money for fresh groceries. Many aid workers worry about a wave of city-based hunger.

UN organizations and independent aid groups have started trying to find new ways to ease these stresses. And many see urban gardens as one possible answer.
(9 May 2007)


Bands returning to agricultural roots
B.C. First Nations see traditional practices as road to economic health

Judith Lavoie and Sandra McCulloch, Times Colonist (B.C.)
The brilliant reds and purples of berry jams, displayed on a table at a downtown Victoria conference, contrast with the rough-hewn creaminess of cedar and stinging nettle soap.

Stinging nettle soap?

"It's an overall good plant. People have misconceptions and think it's a terrible plant, but the stinging wakes up the immune system," said Maurice Michell, harvesting co-ordinator for the Siska Band of Lytton.

The Siska Traditions line of jams, soaps, teas and salves represents the ideals behind the recent Indigenous Farm Conference and trade show -- get back to traditional foods and farming, use the resources on your land and create jobs and income for band members.

But it also illustrates problems facing bands with little capital. "We've been doing this for seven years and we're still going through growing pains," Michell said. "It's easy to harvest and make it, but we don't have the finances to help us market it."

...However, Siska Traditions will keep battling on because it's about more than the money, he said. It gets people back to traditional ways of harvesting and food production and teaches them skills that were dying out. Michell teaches band members about sustainable harvesting and the importance of not mistreating the plants.

"We give every plant a little gift, like tobacco, so the plant will always be there when you need it. It's give and take," Michell said, as he described how the best huckleberries grow high in the mountains, and the blackcaps -- a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry -- thrive in areas where there have been forest fires.

"It's more than a business. We need to get back to using what the Creator made for us," he said.

...Harold Aljam, chief of the Coldwater band in the Interior and president of the First Nations Agricultural Education Society, said the time is right to get bands back to traditional ways of gathering, farming and selling natural foods. Obesity and diabetes are signs that there is a need to get back to more natural foods, Aljam said.

"People are starting to question where their food comes from or what is in their food. It is a good time to act and get agriculture to the forefront for aboriginal people," he said.
(8 May 2007)
In the SF Bay Area, stinging nettle is a gourmet item, much in demand for its taste and nutrients. I highly recommend stinging nettle soup. -BA


Switch to organic crops could help poor

Nicole Winfield, Associated Press
ROME - Organic food has long been considered a niche market, a luxury for wealthy consumers. But researchers told a U.N. conference Saturday that a large-scale shift to organic agriculture could help fight world hunger while improving the environment.

Crop yields initially can drop as much as 50 percent when industrialized, conventional agriculture using chemical fertilizers and pesticides is converted to organic. While such decreases often even out over time, the figures have kept the organic movement largely on the sidelines of discussions about feeding the hungry.

Researchers in Denmark found, however, that food security for sub-Saharan Africa would not be seriously harmed if 50 percent of agricultural land in the food exporting regions of Europe and North America were converted to organic by 2020.

While total food production would fall, the amount per crop would be much smaller than previously assumed, and the resulting rise in world food prices could be mitigated by improvements in the land and other benefits, the study found.
(5 May 2007)
Sharon Astyk at Casaubon's Book likes the idea.


High hopes for native sandalwood

Sean Murphy, ABC Landline
SALLY SARA, PRESENTER: Our next story is about a native crop which is thriving in salt-affected areas in Western Australia. Native sandalwood produces a high-value nut within five years, and within 20 years the mature sandalwood is worth up to $10,000 a tonne. As global supplies of Indian sandalwood decline, the native variety is delivering a triple bottom-line from its timber, nuts and landcare benefits.

SEAN MURPHY, REPORTER: They're the trees that helped build the West Australian economy in the early days of European settlement. And now, native sandalwood holds the promise of a new golden era.

This tree is just seven years old and is being harvested by University of Western Australia researchers to help gauge its potential at age 20.

...SEAN MURPHY: Although in its infancy, WA's native sandalwood plantation industry is booming. From as little as 700 hectares under cultivation in 2000, the industry has grown to nearly 6,000 hectares this year, and an expected 8,800 hectares next year. It's now the highest growth tree crop in the wheat belt.

AARON EDMONDS, AUSTRALIAN SANDALWOOD NETWORK: The sandalwood tree is an amazingly logical fit for the Australian wheat... well for the West Australian wheat belt and that's mainly because it's native. So it allows us to, basically produce within the constraints that each season throws us. They're adapted to drier conditions. They can grow in wetter conditions as well. And the other beautiful thing about the crop being a perennial, it allows us to manage environmental issues, like salinity, and hosting on legume trees, or leguminous trees, it removes the need to apply fertilise, and that's very topical at the moment. You've had urea prices rise by 70 per cent in the last five months.

So, clearly, there's the need for agriculture, broadacre agriculture, to start looking for ways in which we can move to systems that don't rely so much on fertiliser for profitability.

...SEAN MURPHY: The Australian Sandalwood Network believes the biggest potential for further research will be into sandalwood nuts. In about three years, nut production will exceed the demand for growing more plantations.

AARON EDMONDS: The tree produces an oil seed or a nut, which is 60 per cent oil and 18 per cent protein, so it's highly nutritious, and that production of the nut begins after about year five. And we're finding that we can get, you know, equivalent of say 25 per cent of broadacre crop yields with the sandalwood, with the sandalwood nut and obviously with the nuts currently fetching anywhere from $25 to $40 a kilo, there's quite attractive gross margins there for no or little inputs, 'cause you don't have to fertilise and there is no irrigation infrastructure necessary. It's a dry-land crop.

GEOFF WOODALL: So, these are dry-roasted kernels and then I've... they've then been lightly salted. And, yeah, they're quite pleasant to eat. Very nice.

SEAN MURPHY: Geoff Woodall has been investigating potential markets for the nuts, their husks and, also, soap made from their oil.

GEOFF WOODALL: There is quite a lot of interest from various players in the body-products sort of arena and I guess the thing we're looking into at the moment is the potential to use that oil for... to exploit its potential anti-fungal properties and anti-bacterial properties. Not as the oil itself, but when the oil is modified chemically, then it imparts strong anti-microbial activities.

SEAN MURPHY: Developing products and markets from their nuts is likely to make sandalwood plantations a short-term viable option for more broadacre farmers. It could mean a new era where natural resource management turns a profit, and the native trees, which were cleared to help create the West Australian wheat belt, are now replanted to help it survive into the future.

AARON EDMONDS: I can foresee that we won't be able to keep up with demand as it grows, because it's got such an amazing story to the tree. Environmentally, it's such a great advantage to be producing this sort of crop in Australia. What producer wouldn't back a product that utilises that sort of commodity with that sort of story attached to it?
(27 April 2007)

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