State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet

by Bhavani Prakash

Several decades have lapsed since the “Green Revolution” promoting large scale agriculture and intensive use of pesticides, yet nearly a billion people on the planet continue to starve.

With growing realisation about the toxic effects of fossil-fuel based inputs on top soil, water, workers’ health as well as the increasing opposition to technologies such as genetic modification of seeds, World Watch Institute’s latest report “State of the World 2011: Nourishing the Planet” comes as music to the ears.  Launched on 12th January 2011, the report advocates a shift to small scale agriculture as a sustainable path for food security and hunger alleviation.

The report is a result of the visit of Nourish the Planet‘s team to 25 countries of sub-Saharan Africa over a one year period, which draws from hundreds of case studies and face-to-face examples of working solutions. Founded in 1974 by economist and farmer Lester Brown, World Watch Institute has been releasing informative and indepth environmental reports every year.

Some of the main facts highlighted in the report:

* According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 925 million people around the world go hungry everyday, 239 million of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.

* Agriculture’s share of global development aid has dropped from more than 16% in 1980 to a mere 4% today. Much of that money fails to reach poor farmers of Africa.

* The prescriptions of the Green Revolution are not always appropriate or applicable to the 60% of the food-insecure who live in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, mostly on small farms. In sub-Saharan Africa only 4% of the cultivated land is equipped for irrigation.

*In sub-Saharan Africa, 75 percent of agricultural producers are women. Yet women also make up half of the population that is living on less than US$1.25 a day. The Millennium Development Goal to halve hunger by 2015 will not be met without a revolution in the way decision makers think about women—not just as agricultural producers, but as business people who need access to markets and financial services.

The report interestingly invites ‘farmers, scientists, donors, agribusiness executives, and the global community’ to consider three main paradigm shifts:


In a world dominated by a few varieties of crops, the focus is usually on new seeds including GM seeds to increase production. However, what works in the long term is nourishing and managing soil, indigenous crops and scarce water resources.

Innovations such as human powered pump and treadle pumps are effective local solutions, and so is intercropping with trees which reduces solar gain and heat intensity on the fields, while increasing crop yields. The focus needs to shift from single crop yields of large scale agriculture to biodiverse yields of small farms.


The mindset has to move from ‘more production’ to preserving what has already been produced. A quarter to half of food harvested in poor countries is  contaminated or spoilt before reaching the table. Better silos and low cost methods such as plastic bags can help .

According to the report, “ Although reliable figures are lacking, official estimates suggest that post-harvest losses across Asia average around 13 percent. China lost 15 percent of its grain harvest—up to 11 percent of the nation’s rice—in 1993. In Vietnam, 10–25 percent of rice is normally lost, and in extreme conditions as much as 40–80 percent can be lost. In Brazil and Bangladesh, crop losses average 22 and 20 percent, respectfully. Despite the magnitude of this problem, only 5 percent of investments toward agricultural improvements are directed at reducing post-harvest loss.

Another trend the report makes note of is the increasing urban populations. It mentions, ”In 2008, the share of people living in urban areas broke 50 percent for the first time, and UN projections place more than 65 percent of the global population in urban centers by 2050. As more people migrate from rural areas, hunger is moving to cities as well. In Africa, 14 million people migrate to cities each year, and worldwide some 800 million people depend on urban agriculture for their food needs. Urban agriculture is one of the key ways to promote security.


Agriculture and the global food system are major contributors to climate change mainly due to the intensive use of fossil fuel based inputs and factory farming of livestock. Livestock production is estimated to contribute 18 percent of global emissions of greenhouses gases, especially methane which is more potent than carbon dioxide. Large scale clearing of forests for agriculture causes about 17 percent of human-caused CO2 emissions and reduces their ability to absorb carbon. However, agriculture can become part of the solution. By intercropping farmlands in Africa with trees, 50 billion tonnes of carbon can be sequestered over the next 50 years, and that is a sizeable contribution equivalent to an entire year’s weight of global carbon emissions,  from a continent which contributes very little to the problem in the first place.

Here’s a short video about the study:

Conclusion : The report is optimistic and shows a pragmatic way forward to tackling a number of issues – climate change, food security, women’s welfare, poverty alleviation and self-reliance in the poorest of countries while highlighting several ground level innovations that work.

The document quotes sustainability researcher Jules Pretty as having surveyed in 1999, more than 286 projects in 57 developing countries.  She found that the average crop yield gain was 79 percent over previous production practices. Similar studies of sustainable rice intensification (SRI) plots in eight developing countries found that, on average, farmers increased yields 47 percent using mostly organic fertilizers and also saw a 40 percent water savings, a 23 percent reduction of input costs, and a 68 percent increase in income.

Organic farming can feed the world’s poor, while at the same time addressing fundamental issues of poverty and environmental degradation. The world needs to reorient itself towards small scale, locally adapted agriculture as a viable solution instead of large scale techno fixes that benefit a few.

A must read, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet is available in summary version in the Google Document here and is available for purchase from the World Watch Institute website.

Further links you may be interested in:

1. EWTT: Prakash Singh Raghuvanshi : One Farmer’s Crusade to Save Indigenous Seeds

2. EWTT: Soil Biodiversity – The Invisible Hero

2. Nourishing the Planet Blog , Facebook Page and Twitter Page

Other Videos by Nourish the Planet:

1. Seeding Food Security with Urban Farming Nourishing the Planet co-Project Director, Brian Halweil discussed how urban agriculture will play a critical role in improving urban food security and alleviating global hunger and poverty.

2. Compensating Farmers for Sequestering Carbon in Soils: Brian Halweil discusses how farmers can help to mitigate climate change through agroforestry and intercropping.


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Posted by on Jan 16 2011. Filed under Agriculture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet”

  1. Dear Colleagues,

    Perhaps the most revealing “leading indicator” to watch is the increasing growth of absolute global human population numbers.

    We are routinely presented with plenty of factoids, figures and statistics as well as the misleading and tragically flawed Classical Demographic Transition Model. Where is the scientifically-driven evidence regarding the population dynamics and unbridled, skyrocketing growth of the human species on Earth?

    As humanity’s most luminous beacon of truth, science provides us with a last best hope for the survival of life as we know it on Earth. We must make certain that scientific evidence is never downplayed, distorted and denied by religious dogma, politics or ideological idiocy.

    Let us not fail for another year to acknowledge extant research of human population dynamics. The willful refusal of many too many experts to assume their responsibilities to science and perform their duties to humanity could be one of the most colossal mistakes in human history. Such woefully inadequate behavior, as is evident in an incredible conspiracy of silence among experts, will soon enough be replaced with truthful expressions by those in possession of clear vision, adequate foresight, intellectual honesty and moral courage.

    Hopefully leading thinkers and researchers will not continue supressing scientific evidence of human population dynamics and instead heed the words of Nobel Laureate Sir John Sulston regarding the emerging and converging, human-driven global challenges that loom ominously before humankind in our time, “we’ve got to make sure that population is recognized…. as a multiplier of many others. We’ve got to make sure that population really does peak out when we hope it will.”

    Sir John goes on, “what we want to do is to see the issue of population in the open, dispassionately discussed…. and then we’ll see where it goes.”

    In what is admittedly a feeble effort to help John Sulston fulfill his charge to examine all available scientific evidence regarding human population dynamics, please give careful consideration to the following presentation and then take time to rigorously scrutinize the not yet overthrown science from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation.


    Please accept this invitation to discern the best available science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation; discover the facts; deliberate; draw logical conclusions; and disseminate the knowledge widely.

    Thank you.

    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    Chapel Hill, NC

  2. Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet [www.NourishingthePlanet.org] just put out a really cool new one minute book trailer for State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet. Check it out here: http://bit.ly/e8q0Zb

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