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Worldwatch Report Highlights How Lopsided Discussion is About Africa, Food, and Biotechnology

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Last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Zambia for a project for Worldwatch. The massive report "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet," released Wednesday, focuses on many projects that were highly effective in both feeding people and raising incomes in Africa. Much of this work was chronicled on Nourishing the Planet blog, as researcher Danielle Nierenberg logged thousands of miles criss-crossing the continent meeting with farmers, researchers, NGOs, and government officials. 

It was a refreshing perspective because so much of the discussion about agriculture in Africa focuses on production. Plant more. Increase yield. Improve seed technology. But there is really no silver bullet when it comes to food production and access, and the relentless focus on technology ends up being lopsided and incomplete -- as I saw in Zambia.

The nation produces more than enough food, much of it by small-scale farmers without tractors, irrigation, or any form of transportation. But this excess food ends up rotting in warehouses and causes price crashes when it hits the market -- good for buyers but dismal for small-scale farmers who depend on these sales for their meagre income.

Even so, some areas of the country still suffer from malnutrition and shortages. Why? There are many reasons, inadequate roads and supply networks among them, since it isn't always easy to get the food from areas where it is surplus to areas where it is in short supply. In this reality, high-tech seeds are the least of the nation's problems. And yet, on op-ed pages, that often seems to be the focus of discussion.

How come we hardly see op-eds on what paved roads, improved sanitation, more efficient distribution networks, soil conservation, and a reduction in food waste might do for world hunger? Fifteen percent of the grain harvest is wasted in poorer countries, according to a researcher quoted in this report. Even cutting that in half would amount to an enormous yield gain. The Worldwatch report attempts to jump-start this discussion by addressing these issues.

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