GM Cotton is not killing Indian farmers, nor is it saving them | 

Farmers examine cotton for insects.
Farmers in India examine cotton for insects.
S. Jayaraj

The suicides of farmers in India are once again making headlines. Hailstorms and rain have damaged crops for millions of farmers in India, adding to the hardship caused by erratic weather patterns.

Debt concerns have driven nearly 60 farmers to commit suicide in the past month, say advocacy groups. As usually happens, the reports of suicides are followed by claims that the culprit is a genetically modified form of cotton called BT cotton. The finger of blame is often pointed at the agriculture giant Monsanto, creator of the Bt cotton seed.

“Monsanto’s seed monopolies, the destruction of alternatives, the collection of superprofits in the form of royalties, and the increasing vulnerability of monocultures has created a context for debt, suicides and agrarian distress which is driving the farmers’ suicide epidemic in India,” writes Indian activist and Vandana Shiva. “This systemic control has been intensified with Bt cotton. That is why most suicides are in the cotton belt.”

Problem is that the argument made by Shiva and others does not stand up to the available evidence.

Continue reading

A souring sugar industry in Kenya | 

DSC_0018Malava, Kenya – The essential foods that make up a Kenyan diet are as follows: maize flour, kale, black tea, milk and sugar. Maize flour is used to make ugali, a mashed potato looking brick that is used to eat with chopped and boiled kale. The rest is to make chai, the British import that is consumed multiple times a day.

Sugar cane is a significant cash crop for farmers in western Kenya. Many smallholder farmers will grow maize and a few other vegetables for mostly their own consumption and plant small plots of sugar cane to make money.

Trucks filled with cane travel thorough out the day to the Mumias Sugar Factory. The stacks of cane hang in the open for young people to steal a stalk for immediate consumption and sharing with friends. In some parts of the road to Mumias, the weight of the trucks have left ruts on each side of the road from the passing tires.

Sugar is a valuable crop for Kenyan farmers, but it is wrought with problems. Worse yet, pending changes to trade rules may reduce the value of the crop. Continue reading

One woman’s struggle to escape extreme poverty | 

DSC_0041Yala, Kenya  - The world’s leaders want to reduce extreme poverty to three percent by 2030. Mary Anyango would like to see progress now.

Getting to the overall target means halving the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide by 2020 to nine percent, World Bank President Jim Kim said earlier this month.

“Our strategy calls for more investment in fragile states, and it also calls for working on a variety of fronts to combat climate change; and to improve health and education systems, especially for the benefit of girls and women,” said Kim at the Bank’s annual meeting.

But it is one thing to talk about lifting people above the $1.25 line; it is, of course, another thing to do it.

The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) is an initiative aimed at showing how and it started in Sauri, Kenya in 2005. By providing a series of opportunities and interventions, the MVP was designed to meet some of the Millennium Development Goals and create an environment that would tackle problems like extreme poverty. Continue reading

Mobile money is transforming the business of agriculture in Kenya | 


Kisumu, Kenya – The picture of a farmer with a cell phone checking market prices is nearly ubiquitous.

Cell phones connect people to each other as families and businesses. However, it is mobile money that may be formalizing Kenya’s small businesses.

The oft-touted M-PESA cash transfer system pioneered in Kenya is changing business just as it did banking. Small businesses are using e-payments to not only collect money from customers, but expand their services.

Cell phone technologies are no longer simply places to make phone calls and check market prices. They are supporting small business growth in Kenya.

Nahashon Mugi, 46, is one business owner doing just that. His Macnut Farms sells fruit tree seedlings across Kenya. His customers make their orders and he sends a text message with information on how to pay by phone. Once the payment is received, he ships the seedlings to the customer.

“Using M-PESA is convenient and more accurate for me,” he said. Continue reading

Finding a business solution to Tanzania’s agriculture problem | 

DSC_0275-e1380999665533-300x451Iringa, Tanzania – In center of this East African nation, two organizations are working with poor farmers to prove that business, rather than traditional aid, is the key to making sustainable gains out of poverty.

The idea is a popular one in the development community, and seemingly obvious, but moving from concept to reality has it challenges.

The government of Tanzania and foreign donors are intensely focused on improving food security. Two foreign firms, Cheetah Development and the One Acre Fund, are promoting market-based solutions to farmers that they contend are more productive and sustainable than charity or hand-outs.

It is worth noting, perhaps, that both are non-profit organizations that depend upon charity and donations in the West to catalyze their for-profit business solutions in Africa. But more important is that One Acre Fund is monitoring and evaluating its projects; Cheetah simply assumes if people buy-in to its small for-profit venture here, that’s proof enough of its impact.

The two organizations are neighbors in Iringa, a small agricultural community in a very dry part of the country. The rains have not yet arrived and red dust coats the withered maize stalks.

Though located literally next door to each other, Cheetah and One Acre Fund take significantly different approaches to the needs of Tanzanian farmers. Cheetah takes a page from the business handbook, having launched a for-profit subsidiary that tracks sales of products – like its newly launched solar food drying system – to determine what is or is not working. One Acre Fund (OAF) offers loans, does farmer training and evaluates progress each step of the way.

The number of people reached by the two may reflect their respective tactics. Reservoir, a business under Cheetah that sells solar drying racks to farmers, has reached only 55 farmers so far this year. OAF worked with 1,150 farmers in the 2012 growing season, its first in Tanzania, and will enroll more than 3,000 for the upcoming planting season. Continue reading

Irrigation leads to better crops and more malaria | 

An irrigation canal in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat.

Andres Baeza

An irrigation canal in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat.

Mosquitoes and plants thrive where there is water. Farmers in arid regions who use irrigation systems to collect water also construct a mosquito breeding ground.

New research shows that irrigation systems malaria prone areas can cause an increase in local malaria risk that lasts for more than a decade. Even when health authorities mount a response to kill off mosquitoes using insecticides, the problem of malaria is still worse than before the open water.

“In these dry, fragile ecosystems, where increase in water availability from rainfall is the limiting factor for malaria transmission, irrigation infrastructure can drastically alter mosquito population abundance to levels above the threshold needed to maintain malaria transmission,” said lead author and University of Michigan graduate student Andres Baeza.

Baeza and her team studied cases of malaria in northwest India. Infrequent and inconsistent rain makes for more challenging farming and is why farmers employ various irrigation methods to ensure crop health. The study looked at the effects of a large irrigation project that will provide enough water to cover more than 47 million acres.
Continue reading

Don’t be too quick to dismiss organic farming for Africa | 

By Lisa Stiffler, special correspondent

CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

A bean farmer tends her crop in DR Congo

One of the world’s leading advocates of the need for agricultural reform in Africa, speaking in Seattle earlier this week, said organic farming methods are already being used by poor farmers and they aren’t working. Organic farming cannot alone meet our planet’s food needs was the message.

Organic farming has lots of benefits: It doesn’t require expensive and possibly toxic pesticides; it emphasizes natural practices to build richer soils over a heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers; and it grows food that’s arguably healthier.

But when you consider that one in seven people worldwide will go to bed tonight hungry, it does seem fair to ask: Can organic deliver the goods for the developing world?

New research says yes – but not everywhere and not for everything.


“This is not an argument that organic can or cannot feed the world,” said John Reganold, regents professor of Soil Science and Agroecology at Washington State University in Pullman. “No one system can feed the world.”

A recent study in the journal Nature sought to answer the question of whether organic farming could match the output of conventional agriculture. The researchers, who did not include Reganold, compiled 316 comparisons of crops grown both ways and found that in developed nations, organic practices returned 20 percent less produce. The spread increases to 25 percent when data from developing nations are included.

But in a follow-up letter published in Nature this week, Reganold notes that the difference in yields between organic and conventional farming varies greatly between crops.  For some fruits there was only a 3 percent yield difference in the farming practices, but the spread was more than 33 percent for certain vegetables.

The answer, then, to the organic-versus-conventional debate is clear as mud.

Continue reading