Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Seeds = tomatoes = soup

Campbell's Condensed Soup has been one of the most well-known and respected names in the food world for a long time -- a trusted and traditional brand. By giving away tiny tomato seeds, they're forging concrete connections between the product they're best known for, the real food that goes into it and the farming that makes it all possible.

Andy Warhol's famous images of the canned soup portray the brand as nothing less than a work of art.

My most vivid memory of Campbell'
s soup growing up is a little more low-brow. It is the kitchen drawer full of the red & white labels that my mom (and millions of others around the US) saved to raise money for the school library. Campbell's "Labels for Education" Program has been going on for more than 30 years and provided over US$100 million in educational equipment to schools.

Campbell's current promotion is something completely different. Visitors to the website are able to enter a code off of a can of soup and receive free tomato seeds in the mail that can be grown at home. Seeds are also donated to the Future Farmers of America (FFA). The goal is to give away enough seeds to grow a billion tomatoes!

People who send away for the free seeds will also get two really
concrete messages that are important for Campbell's and everyone else in the food business these days:
  1. there's 'real' food in my canned food (real tomatoes in my soup) and
  2. it actually takes quite a bit of care and attention to grow that food -- to turn a seed into a tomato.

Ideas about what 'Food' is and where it comes from have been getting progressively abstract over the past decades.

People live in cities farther from farms and rural places where they might be able to see agriculture 'happening'. Nutrition guidelines have become more scientific, emphasizing different kinds of fats and vitamins in our food instead of ingredients. Technology's role in developing new varieties of crops an
d producing food more efficiently contributes to the abstraction.

We seem to want to regain some concrete connections to what we eat every day. This program is a great way for a food company to help people just do that. Real seeds make real tomatoes make real soup.

P.S. More about this later, but I stumbled upon this campaign while looking for agriculture and food stories that are 'sticky'. My very favorite communications book is "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, and this is a fantastic example of the principle of 'concreteness'.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

IRRI's Front Yard

In the US, you can tell a lot about a family by looking at what's in their front yard: neatly clipped grass and seasonal flowers, sports equipment or children's toys. In the Midwest, you might see concrete "lawn geese" festively dressed for any upcoming holiday.

What we do with the property around our homes expresses our values, our resources and our personalities. The same is true for all kinds of organizations, including agricultural research institutes!

Last month I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos, Philippines, which is about 90 minutes' drive southeast of Manila.

IRRI is the world's leading research institute devoted to rice, a crop that feeds about half of the people on our planet. It is also the largest non-profit agricultural research center in all of Asia.

So what's in the front yard of their headquarters building? Not high fences to keep people out. Not acres of lushly landscaped tropical plants to impress visitors. Not a big parking lot for hundreds of staff.

Instead, IRRI's front yard (pictured left) is basically one big research farm. It contains plot after plot of new rice varieties that are being developed in pursuit of their mission "to reduce hunger and poverty, improve the health of rice farmers and consumers, and ensure that rice production is environmentally sustainable."

One of these new rice varieties in IRRI's front yard is "Scuba Rice." It's called that because it can withstand two weeks of complete submergence under water and still recover enough to give a good harvest. According to Rice Today, farmers in Bangladesh and India lose up to 4 million tons of rice every year due to flooding -- which is enough to feed 30 million people!

It doesn't all happen here. Much of today's agriculture research starts off in sophisticated laboratories, where genetic information about plants are analyzed and research is planned. And the most important field testing of new varieties happens in the tough real-world growing environments of farms all around Asia.

But for the almost 50 years of IRRI's existence, the windows of their senior staff offices have looked right onto this particular piece of land. I like to think that this keeps IRRI scientists and administrators grounded in their mission, wherever it may take them. They have watched these fields growing right outside their offices -- day after day, season after season and year after year.

IRRI staff have also watched the people who benefit from their research working these fields year after year. The day I visited, teams of workers from the local community around IRRI were beginning to harvest some of the research plots. These are seasonal contractors (mostly women) who come in just a few times a year to help out. Most of the time they are in their own fields, perhaps tending crops that resist disease or produce more because of research done here decades ago.

Growing plants that feed your neighbors. What could be more inspiring than that in your front yard?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ancient Agriculture Images (& free ice cream at the end!)

The weekend crowd at Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum last Saturday was probably bigger than usual, thanks to free admission, a variety of dance and musical events, and give-aways for those who visited a featured exhibition inside.

So my friend and I hurried to join the queue, intending to quickly cruise the gallery and claim our free ice cream at the end. Instead we got stopped in amazement by 300-year-old images of agriculture in China.

The exhibition is "The Kangxi Emperor: Treasures from the Forbidden City." I had never heard of him, but Kangxi ruled China from 1662-1722, a 61-year reign that is still one of the longest in history. The exhibit opens with massive brightly colored portraits of Kangxi's ancestors and the Emperor himself. Rich ceremonial garments, ornate household items, and even the emperor's own calligraphy tools are displayed.

But what really fascinated and inspired me was a scrolled painting, over 60 feet long, depicting the Emperor on the second of six inspection tours he made to the southern part of China during his rule. According to the exhibit's Gallery Guide, the Emperor Kangxi was concerned about the living conditions of his people and particularly with agricultural production. He undertook these long journeys in order to inspect new actions that were being take to manage China's vast river system.

So the scrolls are like his photo album from the trip. They depict his entrance in to key towns along the way, but also the life of the villages and surrounding countryside. In great detail, you can see people at work in all kinds of places. The village scenes buzz with thousands of tiny figures, each with hair and expressive faces, going about daily life in dumpling shops, temples, tea houses, canals, and markets. Outside of the village areas you see fruit orchards of all kinds, livestock being tended (including a runaway cow!), and various crops being seeded, tended and harvested.

No wonder it took a team of artists six years to complete all 12 scrolls commemorating this journey! This picture from another one of those scrolls shows its color and vivid detail.
The scroll got me thinking about all that we can learn about how communities really work -- and where agriculture and food production fits in -- that if we just take the time to look closely.

Today, the life captured in Kangxi's scrolls can be found in pictures like this gorgeous image from the Philippines, among others on IRRI's terrific Flickr collection.

Maybe its because I grew up in an urban area, but I find these landscapes absolutely fascinating. True, they're separated by 300 years and a thousand miles or so, but the details in images like these teach me about places and the geography, climate, and cultivation practices. They also give me feelings about the place, including the atmosphere, energy, humor, industry. I'm filled with curiosity. I want know who these people are, if it rained, what they had for breakfast, and what they will do tomorrow.

Unfortunately too many images of modern agriculture are "red barn" pictures like this : no features, no people, nothing seems to be happening. No wonder it's hard to gain support for new agricultural technologies and policies -- it all seems so peaceful just the way it is!

Our own travel photo albums most likely do not capture the richness and detail of Kangxi's scrolls, and we probably don't spend much time looking at agriculture in the places we visit.

Farming can be brutally hard work, but it is often done in beautiful places by people of dignity and strength. The next time you are in a rural area, or see an image of 'agriculture', take time to really look. Discover what you can learn from the details.

Then go have some ice cream -- we took so long looking at Kangxi's 300 year old photo album that they ran out by the time we left!

International Women's Day: Women in Agriculture

In case you missed it, March 8 is International Women's Day, observed in different ways around the world. For me it's always a reminder to update myself on the special challenges faced by women less fortunate than I -- particularly those working in agriculture to provide food and income for their families. And then I always get inspired to share what I've found with friends and colleagues, for the sole purpose of spreading the word on a topic that should get more attention than it does.

This year, I found a short video "Why Women Matter" from the World Bank. You'll see women around the world doing back-breaking work to feed their families, and learn a thing or two about why they're doing that work. In a nutshell:

  • Women grow around 80% of the food eaten by poor families.
  • On average, they spend 16 hours a day working on their farms and fetching fuelwood and water.
  • Most women farmers can't get the seeds, fertilizer, training, and credit that could help them grow more.
  • Women receive only about 10 cents of every dollar spent on agricultural assistance.

Then watch the brilliant Girl Effect video, which I've been sending people to all year, to make the connection between what happens to a girl and what happens in the world.

It's one thing to know the statistics, and another thing to know the real women behind them.

In December, I was so privileged to meet several women farmers in Indonesia and China while collecting agricultural stories and pictures for a client. In the first photo is Maria, a 50 year old widow with five children in North Sumatera, Indonesia. She grows tangerines, carrots and chilies to support her family.

In this next photo is Shuhua, who's 40 and grows cabbage, rapeseed and pigs in the Sichuan province of China. Her husband lives and works away from home in a city, as many do in China, and so she alone is responsible for the crops that support her family.

These are some of the strongest women I've met in my life, and I'll bet on them every time to survive and prosper. But technology and training are central to gains both Maria and Shuhua have recently made in earning better incomes while growing safe and healthy food for their families and communities.

Their stories have inspired me to share this message with you today. Women are important. Agriculture is important. Women in agriculture are amazingly heroic, and they need support. Tell a story and pass it on!