Tuesday, February 5, 2008

An Organic Wave Worldwide Part 2


In Tanzania, the Jane Goodall Institute has originated the TACARE (Ta(ke) Care) project in thirty-three villages around Gombe National Park. This has hugely improved the lives of more than 150,000 people by introducing fuel- efficient stoves for cooking, tree nurseries, methods of farming most suitable for the very steep rocky slopes bordering Lake Tanganyika, and ways to prevent or deal with soil erosion. All of our methods are, of course, based on organic, sustainable land use.

TACARE has established nine small microcredit banks (based on the Grameen Bank model) so that now small groups of women can start their own environmentally sustainable projects. Bright schoolgirls can apply for scholarships to enable them to go on to secondary school. And TACARE also offers women's reproductive health counseling, including family planning information and HIV-AIDS education. There is an emphasis on educating girls and women partly because, traditionally, their lives have been unacceptably harsh, but especially because it has been shown, all around the world, that as women's education increases, family size drops.

All the TACARE villages can now collect their supply of firewood from their own woodlots where fast growing species have been planted close by. And when they stop hacking at the tree stumps growing on the bare mountain slopes a new tree springs from the seemingly dead wood—within five years it will be twenty to thirty feet high. Now "TACARE forests" have sprung up around many of the villages. We are now taking the first steps to replicate TACARE in other parts of Africa.

Diet Start


More than 90 percent of the world's food comes from the soil. If you take into consideration that the food animals are sustained by plants, then everything we eat originates in the soil. Thus it is disturbing to learn from a recent U.N. report that each year more than 10 million hectares (25 mil- lion acres) of topsoil are swept away from cropland by rain and wind. Three hundred million hectares, an area that could potentially produce enough to feed the whole of Europe, have become so degraded that they cannot be used for agriculture, at least in the foreseeable future. "Farming," as Dr. Ward Chesworth of the University of Guelph said, "has produced an agricultural scar on the planet affecting one third of suitable soils."

This degradation is largely due to the clearing of woodland and forest for growing crops and gathering firewood to feed mushrooming human populations in the developing countries. In Ivory Coast, West Africa, for example, the loss of topsoil before clearing the trees was about .03 tons per hectare per year; after deforestation it was some ninety tons per hectare per year. India is losing some six billion tons of topsoil per year, again mostly due to deforestation. China, about the same size as the United States, and with three times as many people, has only one eighth as much good farmland. And this precious land, in many places, is turning into desert ever more quickly. The process has been going on for hundreds of years, but has intensified in the past fifty years, as population growth has led to the attempted cultivation of increasingly marginal land. There the thin soil soon dries up and blows away. The amount of land available for food production per capita dropped by half between 1950 and 1990, and since then, despite major efforts, the problem has only intensified. It often results in major dust storms: There were twenty-three in the 1990s. And in 2001 a dust cloud blew off China so massive that it briefly darkened the sky over North America.

And now China's farming problems are compounded as new urban and industrial developments radiate out from the cities. Farmers are losing their land, so that the percentage of the country suitable for agriculture is continually decreasing. In view of this, it is clearly desperately important to regenerate as much despoiled farmland as possible, as soon as possible. It is no longer appropriate for people, however rich or poor, to continue to destroy the planet's future. Yet it is easy to understand how this happens. In many places population growth has led to more people living in an area than the land can support, and as they struggle to scratch a livelihood they cut down more and ever more trees, often in places unsuitable for cultivation. This was the situation in the once forested hills outside Gombe National Park. By the early 1980s virtually all the trees outside the park were gone and cultivated fields stretched up toward the hilltops and to the boundaries of the park. During the wet season each heavy rain washed precious topsoil into the valleys and often directly into Lake Tanganyika. Once the trees from the higher slopes had gone, there were often flash floods. I visited one tiny lakeshore village where half the houses had been washed away and fifteen people killed during such a flash flood. The people around Gombe, like so many across Africa, were too poor to buy food from elsewhere. Some moved away, leaving family and friends to try their luck in the less crowded areas to the south. The others continued, desperately, to try to coax food from the increasingly barren land.

One of TACARE's most exciting projects helps people repair overused land, and to reclaim farms that were abandoned after deforestation, overuse, and erosion left them seemingly dead. Two demonstration farms, now lush, green, and with many trees, serve as models, and are popular with local farmers, who arrive in large numbers to learn new techniques. This fantastic ability to regenerate quickly is typical of many kinds of trees in the tropics, and there are methods of building up soil even in the most arid places, provided there is some rain.

As we have seen, the corporate-dominated, global food markets have a tendency to create plantations and industrial farms that degrade and pollute precious resources, such as the topsoil, water, and forests. Community projects such as TACARE can create a vast landscape of worldwide farmers who won't be bought out or compromised by the dangling carrot of immediate cash. Instead, the main incentive will be creating sustainable farms that best serve the farmers and their families, the land, and the consumers who are nourished from them.


Projects like these give us great hope. They restore degraded soil and safely increase crop yields all over the world. But one of the most inspiring outcomes of the growing interest in global, organic agriculture is that it emphasizes the importance of local food economies. Some skeptics might dismiss the local foods movement as a bourgeois food trend, serving those who have the resources and leisure time to eat delicious organic meals. But eating foods from local, sustainable sources is far more than a luxurious choice. It is our global mandate. Currently, 38 percent of the earth's land area is cropland or pasture and that amount is only increasing as the human population continues to grow. Some predict our supply of food will need to at least double and possibly triple over the next several decades to accommodate the planet's population growth. The use of toxic synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, growth hormones, antibiotics in animal feed, food irradiation, and genetically modified organisms to increase food production has been justified, in part, by the rationale that without these products the world will not be able to feed itself. This is not the case—and even if it was, would a plentiful supply of contaminated food be the solution?

... andjoyohoxing