At the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition’s annual conference in Milan, Italy last month, nutrition, food, and agriculture experts from around the world gathered to discuss how to fix the world’s broken food system. Guido Barilla, President of the Barilla pasta company, talked about the need for companies and corporations to take responsibility for the food they produce—products that have the potential to nourish people, but also can cause great harm. In fact, agriculture has been blamed for the world’s worst environmental and social problems—everything from deforestation and land degradation to rising greenhouse gas emissions and obesity.



But today, agriculture is changing—so is its image. Thanks to recent reports by the Barilla Center, the World Bank supported International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, and the UK Foresight Alliance, agriculture is now seen as the solution to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. From sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to Europe and the United States, farmers are using agriculture to not only improve their food security and livelihoods, but they are growing and processing food in ways that contribute to environmental sustainability. Businesses, too, are changing their practices and finding ways to appeal to a customer base that is interested in knowing where its food comes from and how it is produced.


Agricultural innovations are helping farmers and consumers alike prevent the enormous amount of food waste in the world, cities are becoming centers of sustainable food production, and farming is becoming something that youth want to do, rather than something they’re forced to do. These innovations that are working on the ground are changing the image of agriculture from a creator of problems to a provider of solutions.


Feeding the Cities


In 2007, for the first time in human history, more people were living in cities than in rural areas. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that up to 65 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. In Africa, for example, 395 million people lived in cities in 2009, representing approximately 40 percent of the continent’s total population. And at least 14 million people move to African cities each year, a migration that is second only to the massive rural to urban shift happening in China. By 2020, some 35 to 40 million Africans will depend entirely on food grown in cities to meet their daily food requirements. And in 2050 nearly 60 percent of Africa’s population will be living in urban areas.


According to the United Nations’ 2010-2011 State of the World’s Cities report, the belief that urban residents are more food secure than rural dwellers is a myth. In rural areas, access to food is determined by crop yields, while in cities, whether a family eats is determined by its income. Although there’s enough food to feed every man, woman, and child alive today, the simple fact is that many people simply lack the money to buy it.


 



 


Urban agriculture is often the only way for poor urbanites living in the favelas of Rio, the barrios of Mexico City, or the slums of Accra or Hanoi to get access to fresh food. It’s unknown how many city residents are actually growing, selling, and eating food that they’ve harvested themselves, but researchers at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Development Programme estimate that nearly a billion people worldwide are eating food grown in cities. And that number will only grow as food prices continue to rise.


Fortunately, there are no shortages of successful models of productive urban farms and these farms are often found in some unlikely places. Kibera in Kenya, for example, is the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa with roughly one million people. It’s everything you imagine a slum in a developing country to be—it’s extremely crowded, it’s noisy, it doesn’t smell very good, and it’s not a place you would expect crops to flourish. But there are a couple of big pockets of hope there.


The first pocket comes from women farmers who grow food in what are called vertical farms. Several thousand women in Kibera are finding ways to grow food in vertical gardens, or tall sacks filled with soil that allow them to grow a lot of vegetables, like kale or spinach, in a very compact space. They sell their produce to other folks in their neighborhood and also consume part of what they grow. These sacks turned out to be a very important source of food security during the riots that occurred in Nairobi in 2007 and 2008—no food could come in to Kibera, but the families of the women in the self-help groups didn’t go hungry because they were able to grow their own food.


The second source of hope in Kibera comes from farmers who are farming an empty lot adjacent to the slum. The farmers are not only growing food to eat and sell, but, more surprisingly, they are becoming a source of seed for rural farmers. In small double dug beds, the Kibera farmers are growing, seeds of tomatoes, okra, and other vegetables and then selling the seeds to rural farmers. There aren’t many local seed companies in Eastern Africa and rural farmers often have a hard time finding good quality sources of affordable of seed. The seed beds are profitable—one of the farmers I met with in Kibera explained that the seed beds have not only helped her pay for her daughters to go to school, but she’s also saved enough money to buy her own piece of land outside of Nairobi, making her a landowner for the first time. There is potential for these urban agriculture innovations in cities all over sub-Saharan Africa and all over the world, helping dispel the myth that urban agriculture only feeds the poor and hungry in cities. It can also be an important source of inputs for rural farmers.


Making Better Use of Our Abundance


In October 2011, when the UN announced the birth of the 7 billionth person, many news articles focused on how it would be possible to feed the world’s growing population. By 2050, the world population is expected to hit 9 billion.


But an effective way to make sure everyone is fed is by reducing food waste. According to the FAO, roughly one-third of the food produced worldwide for human consumption is lost or wasted, amounting to some 1.3 billion tons per year. In the developing world, over 40 percent of food loss occurs after harvest—while being stored or transported, and during processing and packing. In industrialized countries, more than 40 percent of loss occurs as a result of retailers and consumers discarding unwanted but often perfectly edible food. Food waste tends to be insidious—a little bit is lost in the field; a little bit is lost in storage; a little is lost in transport; and then finally, a few percent is lost at home.


The good news is that preventing food waste can be both simple and inexpensive. Throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, solar powered dehydrators are preserving abundant harvests of fruits and vegetables. In The Gambia and India, for example, drying papayas and mangos helps makes sure that families have access to vitamin A throughout the year. In Bolivia, farmers are using driers to preserve a number of different crops, such as tomatoes and potatoes, throughout the year. And in West Africa, hermetically sealed bags are helping farmers to protect their crops from moisture, insects and fungus. Supported by Purdue University, the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage is helping to preserve harvest that would otherwise have been lost to spoilage.


 



 


Consumers are also learning how to become better users of the food we buy. In the United Kingdom, activist groups like Love Food, Hate Waste and FareShare, are educating consumers about how to prevent household waste. Love Food, Hate Waste says it has saved consumers more than US $970 million dollars per year and diverted more than 670,000 tons of waste from landfills over the last decade. The organization also offers users tips for food storage and recipes to make use of leftovers or food that is close to its expiration date. Other user-friendly tools include a food waste diary, a portion size calculator, and suggestions for saving money at the grocery store.


Food waste expert Tristram Stuart recently had an event at Trafalgar Square where, with the help of some celebrity chefs such as Arthur Potts Dawson and Thomas Hunt, he provided free meals made from produce that would otherwise have been discarded by supermarkets for not being pretty enough—in other words bananas that aren’t the standard size, ugly apples that have bumps, and carrots that aren’t long enough.


These efforts will go a long way in ensuring that food that is otherwise discarded gets to the people that need it the most, improving global food security while reducing the stress on the environment.


Cultivating Generations of Agricultural Leaders


Involving youth in agriculture can be an important step forward in ensuring food supply for the future, as well as a tool for addressing rising social issues. Population Action International, an international nongovernmental organization, warns of the link between our planet’s rising population and hunger. “While poverty and natural disasters are the most common causes of food insecurity, rapid population growth overburdens already strained financial and natural resources.”


At the same time, the number of youth without jobs is a serious problem in many countries. Globally, youth unemployment increased from 11.8 percent in 2008 to 12.7 percent in 2009, affecting 4.5 million youth and representing the largest annual increase ever recorded.


Programs and projects around the world, however, are working to bring youth into the agricultural sector, creating jobs, improving incomes, and achieving greater food security. In Uganda, where youth unemployment is estimated to be as high as 83 percent, the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation (Project DISC) has been cultivating an interest in—and a taste for—indigenous foods since 2006. DISC is working with the NGO Slow Food International to teach children at nearly 20 day and boarding schools not only how to grow food in school gardens, but how to cook and process indigenous vegetables, fruits, and grains--foods that are not only in demand, but that can also help mitigate climate change because of their resistance to drought and disease.


 



 


Farming was once considered a punishment for children in this area—or something they were forced to do if they couldn’t go to university or move to the city. But Project DISC is helping to change that by showing young people that farming and growing food can be intellectually stimulating and profitable.


Betty Nabukalu, a 16-year-old student at Kisoga Secondary School in Uganda, manages her school’s garden. She explained how the project has taught the students “new” methods of planting vegetables. Before, she says, “we used to just plant seeds,” but now she and the other students know how to fertilize with manure and compost and how to save seeds after harvest. She says they’ve learned not only that they can produce food but that they can also earn money from its sale.


Mary Naku is a 19 year-old student at the Sirapollo Kaggwass Secondary School and is learning farming skills from DISC. In just the one year that her school has worked with the project, Mary has already gained enthusiasm for farming, along with a new sense of leadership and agricultural skills. “As youth we have learned to grow fruits and vegetables,” she says, “to support our lives.”


DISC is also part of Slow Food’s 1,000 Gardens in Africa initiative which is working across the continent to increase the number of gardens growing foods that are indigenous to communities. Over the last year, Slow Food has been actively opening up new gardens. The project saw the creation of its first gardens in Tanzania at a primary school in Dar Es Salaam, as well as Msindo, a tiny village in the southern part of the country. There are 13 gardens in Uganda, 11 gardens in Kenya, two gardens in Tanzania, and one garden in Cote D’Ivoire.


There’s also a growing interest in professionalizing agriculture. The University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, attracts food enthusiasts from around the world. Students learn various farming practices that are helping to increase biodiversity. Students also have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience of cultivating fruits and vegetables through the school garden which is helping them connect to agriculture directly. Since the university was started in 2004, it has taught over 900 students through undergraduate and graduate programs. And in Costa Rica, EARTH University is developing an innovations toolkit that will help farmers thousands of miles away in sub-Saharan Africa learn how to be successful agricultural entrepreneurs. EARTH focuses on building the skills of small-scale farmers and younger farmers to not only protect the environment, but also as the key way of moving families out of poverty.


EARTH University makes sure that its students interact with local farmers, helping to bridge the gap between academia and rural communities. EARTH students are exposed to the challenges faced by these communities, including the lack of inputs, education, and access to markets. Students help train local farmers to use precision agriculture techniques, reduce pesticide use, and better market their products. In 2005, EARTH launched the Open School for Farmers, enabling smallholder farmers to take courses in advanced farming techniques and business practices.


These sorts of innovations make agriculture something that youth want to do, not something they’re forced to do because they don’t have opportunities. Agriculture can provide the economic and intellectual opportunities that have been missing in rural areas of both developing and industrialized countries. By involving youth in ecologically-conscious agriculture, initiatives such as these are making important strides in providing jobs and food in a sustainable manner.


Agriculture as the Solution


Agriculture is emerging, not as a villain, but as a solution to many global problems. Around the world, farming is being used to strengthen communities by providing a means of income and livelihood, nourishing families through improved crop production, and protecting the Earth through more sustainable practices.


 



 


These innovations are exciting because the changes in the food system that prevent waste, or make cities more livable, or help youth become more engaged in agriculture can also boost yields, help increase agricultural diversity, and improve incomes, making them a win-win for communities and the environment.


These solutions aren’t confined to Africa, South Asia, or other parts of the developing world. Nor are they confined to farms. Businesses, governments, universities, and the funding and donor communities are also changing their practices to make agriculture more economically viable and more environmentally sustainable. These strategies couldn’t come at a better time. Nearly one out of seven members of the human family—one billion people—go to bed hungry each night and the impacts of climate change are taking a bigger hold on Africa and all over the world, making it more necessary than ever before to find ways to both nourish people and the planet.