Worldwatch Institute Launches Initiative to Assess Agricultural Methods’ Impacts on Sustainability, Productivity

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Washington, D.C.-The Worldwatch Institute is launching a two-year project to point the world toward innovations in agriculture that can nourish people as well as the planet, supported by a $1.3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The project will focus specifically on sub-Saharan Africa.

Currently, 1 billion people worldwide go to bed hungry each night. In the first study of its kind, the Worldwatch Institute will assess the impacts of a range of farming techniques on the environment and agricultural productivity. The project will provide stakeholders, including policymakers, farmer and community networks, and international donors, with research on practical solutions for creating sustainable food security.

Among the many innovations and approaches that Worldwatch plans to examine are:

  • Adding nitrogen-fixing plants into crop rotations as a low-cost solution for enriching soils and breaking weed and pest cycles;
  • Overcoming freshwater shortages with rain harvesting, efficient irrigation, micro dams, and cover cropping;
  • Strengthening local breeding capacity, including the use of farmer-run seed banks and genetic markers of important crop traits;
  • Tapping international carbon-credit markets to reward farmers for enriching their soils and planting carbon-sequestering tree crops;
  • Involving women farmers in decision-making at all levels.

"Agricultural development is at a crossroads," said Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin. "The current crisis offers a window of opportunity for refocusing the world's attention on food, agriculture, and rural areas, and for reestablishing food security as a global priority. We look forward to bringing Worldwatch's signature multidisciplinary approach to this groundbreaking project."

The day-to-day management of the project will be overseen by Worldwatch Senior Researcher Brian Halweil. "We're thrilled to be working with the Foundation and partners to take a serious look at sustainability as well as agricultural productivity," said Halweil. "We hope to harness the global environmental community as an ally in eliminating hunger in the 21st century, as well as the growing ranks of people in wealthy nations who see food as the way to affect the world around them."

The project will culminate in the release of State of the World 2011: Nourishing the Planet. This 27th edition of the Institute's widely read annual report, which tackles the most critical trends in sustainability each year, will be accompanied by an online, behind-the-scenes look at the ongoing research, which will enable farmers, scientists, government officials, and others around the world to share their perspectives regarding agricultural solutions for alleviating hunger.

"Environmental sustainability is critical to ensure the greatest, longest-lasting impact on the lives of small farmers in the developing world," said Prabhu Pingali, Deputy Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "By understanding how a range of approaches affects the environment and farmer productivity, this project will help all of us create sound solutions to help farmers lift themselves out of hunger and poverty in the long term."

The Worldwatch Institute will enlist key partner organizations to provide on-the-ground research in locations around the world, access to farmer-to-farmer networks, and knowledge of specific agricultural interventions, from irrigation and soil improvement to market development. This robust network includes World Neighbors, Ecoagriculture Partners, Heifer International, Rodale Institute, Slow Food International, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the Global Water Policy Project.

Comments Sara J. Scherr, President of Ecoagriculture Partners: "This project offers a unique opportunity for the environmental community and the agricultural development community to jointly explore new strategies and technologies to achieve universal food security while also sustaining habitats for wildlife, protecting critical watersheds, ensuring healthy soils, and helping to mitigate-rather than exacerbate-climate change."