Friday, November 19, 2010

The Girl Effect in Agriculture

In a blog post last year about the importance of women in agriculture, I recommended the original Girl Effect video, which blew me away with what it said about the role of girls in ending poverty and hunger -- and by how it said it.

This year it's the new video above that's got me going, and the Girl Effect blogging campaign, timed to coincide with International Children's Day on November 20, presents a perfect opportunity to catch up.

After all, women in agriculture were once girls in agriculture. What do we see when we run the clock back?

The statistics tell us that women grow 80 percent of the food eaten by poor families in developing countries. The Girl Effect tells us that many of these women are really just girls. Instead of going to school, they spend up to 16 hours a day working to grow food on their farms and fetching fuelwood and water. At every age, women struggle to get the seeds, fertilizer, training, and credit that might help them grow more and earn more -- extra resources that would in turn help keep girls in school.

There's another way that agriculture supports the Girl Effect if we turn the clock back even further to pregnancy and the first 2 years in the life of a girl or boy.

A child who receives the right nutrition during her first 1,000 days is less likely to die or be harmed by disease for the rest of her life! Sadly, the opposite is also true: a child that doesn't get enough of the right kinds of foods during this period faces irreversible health problems. To find out more, check out the 1,000 Days campaign, another great cause with another great video.

Although many of the poorest families in the world live on farms, they suffer from the 'hidden hunger' of under-nutrition. These families can usually grow enough to keep everyone alive, but their cheap and reliable staple crops aren't nutritious enough to supply all the vitamins and minerals that growing young bodies need in order to thrive.

Promoting home gardens to grow healthy fruits and vegetables helps -- as does providing vitamin supplements and processed foods that are fortified -- but there are still about 200 million children under the age of 5 who suffer from from chronic under-nutrition. More can and should be done.

Last week I was at the first Global Conference on Biofortification, with agriculture researchers and nutritionists who are working together to breed crops that are just as easy to grow but are a lot more nutritious. I'll write more about that soon, but to steal a line from the original Girl Effect video, do you see what's going on here?

Better crops > more nutritious food > healthier babies > healthier girls > the whole world is better off!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Genetically modified advertising

An eagle-eyed client was surprised to see the words "Genetically Modified" featured prominently in this automobile ad in Singapore last week!

We're more used to seeing marketing based on the absence of genetic modification (GM), with the words "non-GM" or "GMO-free" featured on packages of organic food. It's presented as something to be avoided, even if the labels don't explain why.

In contrast, this ad promotes the genetic modification of its product! Like the negative labels, it also neglects to explain why you should want to buy a car 'armed with completely modified DNA'. Perhaps it is somehow connected to a 'commitment to progression' that the customer shares with KIA.

Along with many others working in agriculture technology, I've always preferred the term 'biotechnology' because it sounds less frightening and mechanical than genetic modification. But I find myself using the term GM more and more often now. Perhaps the fact that the term shows up in car ad is a sign that others are finding it less frightening-sounding as well.

Which would indeed be a progression!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Globalization of Food

There’s a lot written in the popular press these days about the ‘globalization of food’. Often these are pretty simple, yet interesting, accounts of what’s right or (more often) wrong with the way food is produced, processed, transported and consumed around the world. While I admire the way these stories catch my attention, and give me a new way of looking at things, I wonder what complexities are being left out of the headlines.

I picked up the book “The Globalization of Food” at my local library hoping to get a deeper sense of what’s going on underneath the surface. It is a decidedly intellectual collection of writing by sociologists and anthropologists from universities around the world looking at the globalization of food from different angles.

In fact, although I like to think that I have a pretty deep knowledge of food and agriculture, it took some time and effort to work through new terms from this field, and understand what they were getting at. I’m more at ease with the language of economists and political scientists, who tend to focus on food production and distribution mechanisms, while sociologists and anthropologists usually study food consumption.

What I learned from this book is that there are many different food ‘globalizations’. There is not one ‘global food system’ and there is no single definition of ‘local food’. If we learn to recognize and appreciate the diversity contained within terms like these then, in the words of the editors, “analysts of food of all hues will truly become refined connoisseurs of the most pungent, but also the most delicate, of all tastes that the many food globalizations of the future will have to offer.” Sign me up!

Here are some of the topics of chapters I enjoyed most, and a few of the ideas I took away from them:
  • Slow Food – a fascinating history of the origins of the Slow Food concept in Italy, which celebrates and seeks to preserve traditional foods and production practices that are grounded in local communities. Yet it evolved into an international movement seeking the ‘virtuous globalization’ of the economics of food.
  • The “Local Trap” – a discussion of the assumption that a local-scale food system will be inherently better than a national-scale or global-scale food system. There is nothing inherently good or bad about any scale of food systems – the outcomes of those systems depend on many things, including the agendas of the people running them. It’s better to focus on a desired outcome (sustainability, justice etc) and consider the strategies, including scale, which can be used to achieve them. (A recent NYT op-ed makes the same argument very succinctly.)
  • Fairtrade food – particularly how Cafedirect, a UK Fairtrade coffee initiative, seeks to connect consumers and coffee farmers. One very visible connection comes in the form of images and short stories in marketing materials and product packaging that feature the producers’ lives, including the benefits that Fairtrade brings. Making our relationship with coffee into a relationship also with the people who produced it may be a step in the right direction. But do the lives of the farmers also become things to be consumed as images and labels on packages? (Lots more here about Marx and commodity fetishization if you’re interested in that sort of thing!)

I didn’t understand everything I read in this book, but it did open my eyes to different ways of thinking about food production and consumption. I made new linkages between things I thought were unrelated, and found new complexities in ideas I thought I understood thoroughly. Hopefully I’m well on my way to becoming one of those “refined connoisseurs” of the many globalizations of food!

The Globalization of Food, edited by David Inglis and Debra Gimlin. 2009. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Seed Stories

I started blogging as A Woman Who Goes Places over a year ago in order to share with colleagues, friends and family some of the more fascinating, thought-provoking, and even inspiring things about agriculture that I’ve learned as I work as a communications consultant in this field. I wanted to help people see, understand, and care just a little bit more about this crucial part of our lives.

Over the past year, I’ve rechristened my business “Seed Stories”, based on the idea that simple stories about plants and people can become the seeds of greater curiosity, understanding and support for agriculture – no matter how complicated the science or policy issues might become.

My work with clients and my own personal travels continue to reinforce this belief while teaching me different ways of seeing the world around me. And so I intend to keep sharing these stories through this new Seed Stories blog, as well as on a new website for Seed Stories that will be launched soon.

Please follow me here if you’d like to hear about my work to help agriculture organizations communicate and build support for the important work they do. My earlier posts are imported below to help you catch up!

P.S. I still plan to be a “Woman Who Goes Places” – but I’m not sure what direction I’ll take. Check in every now and then to find out!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"A Farm is not just a clever crop"

There is a very short but interesting opinion piece, "Attack of the Really Quite Likable Tomatoes" in the Economist, reflecting on the latest statistics about biotech/GM crop adoption. In 2009, 14 million farmers planted 134 million hectares (the size of Peru!?) of ag biotech / GM crops in 25 countries. 90% of them were small and resource-poor farmers from developing countries.

But what I really like about this piece in the Economist is last paragraph, making the point that, in addition to biotech, there is a lot of other agricultural research that still needs doing. "A farm is not a just a clever crop: it is an ecosystem managed with intelligence. GM crops have a great role to play in that development, but they are only a part of the whole..."

Couldn't have said it better myself.