In April this year, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) agreed to co-finance a three year project to improve the performance of pro-poor sheep and goat value chains for enhanced livelihoods, food and nutrition security in Ethiopia.
The project is led by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) partnering with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR).
The project emerged from recent work by ICARDA and partners to identify the key opportunities to transform small ruminant value chains in the country.
The project will improve livelihoods and assets, particularly of women, through increased incomes, reduced risk and improved market access in selected sheep and goat meat value chains. It will do this by testing appropriate approaches and strategies to increase herd productivity, producers’ income, and meat production.
The four project…
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The first time an owner of a family farm is accused of owning a “factory farm”, that farmer is quite confused. “What do you mean ‘factory farm’? I’m just a little guy in this business!” is often the farmer’s thought. However, to folks that aren’t in agriculture, this farmer’s 250 cows and 2000 acres of land looks like a kingdom. Shows like Green Acres and Little House on the Prairie have given people the idea that it only takes a few animals and a few acres to make a living. The truth is much more complex.
Let’s use the farmer in the first paragraph as our example. Let’s say this farmer is only in cattle ranching, therefore the only product the ranch makes weaned calves (That makes this much simpler to illustrate, but many farms have…
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This week a new paper entitled Leverage Points for Improving Global Food Security and the Environment was published in the journal Science. (Science Daily summary)
The authors focus on the 17 major crops that account for the vast majority of calories produced and consumed, inputs used and environmental impacts from agriculture. The heavy hitters, no surprises. Corn, wheat, rice and cotton. The big impacts that they focus on are water use; carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and methane pollution of air and water, and tropical deforestation. The major points of leverage included switching from crops for meat production to crops for human consumption, better irrigation, closing the massive yield gap in countries with low performing agriculture, reducing food waste (especially meat waste) and improving the precision use of inputs like nitrogen and water in countries where overuse is the biggest problem.
Two things might surprise folks who get their sustainable ag news from urban reporters and not from academics. The first is that the percentages of over use of inputs in the US are fairly low, while our impact is large, not because our farmers are out of control, but rather that we produce so much freaking food that a few percentage points of over use is a big impact relative to the production in other countries.
The second is the absence of even a mention of pesticides as a major environmental impact anywhere in the paper. Why is this? Because, while pesticides remain a labor issue for farm workers, especially in developing countries, they have improved so much in their mode of action and use in the last half century that they really don’t rate as a major environmental impact, at least in comparison to the big foot issues raised in this paper.
The salience of pesticides as an environmental impact doesn’t come from the size of their effect on the environment, but rather on their psychological impacts. It’s better understood by run of the mill chemophobia. Just as we are more afraid of shark attacks than slipping in the shower, pesticides as poisons or carcinogens have a much greater grip on the public imagination than unsequestered carbon, gulf deadzones, or methane pollution. Tropical deforestation may be the biggest agricultural impact, but there aren’t many mommy bloggers wondering about how it could affect their kids health. As Steve Savage has explained, neither the ag companies that have improved their products nor the environmental groups that have pushed for improvements have much incentive to publicize the changes, so they go unheralded.
The other reason that it has great salience for the general public is because it is the main political football in the culture war between organic and so-called conventional agriculture. Pesticide use, while not absent from organic farming, is the most visible and highly touted difference that sets organic apart. On issues like carbon, methane, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, organic doesn’t have much to brag about. When it comes to the yield gap, it’s organic that has some splainin’ to do. Thus, a big to-do is made about synthetic pesticides, despite their relatively minor environmental impacts.
There is more to look at in this paper, but the absence of pesticides as a major environmental impact was the first thing that popped out at me.