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“Those non-silver bullet technologies make a big difference”—An interview with food sustainability activist Danielle Nierenberg

Posted on Monday, February 11th, 2013 at 5:31 pm

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Mariya Strauss

Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank, has more street credibility than your average environmental activist. She recently spent two full years on the road, visiting and examining sustainable agricultural practices in 35 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. She became intimately familiar with food systems around the world, and penned op-eds for publications like the New York Times and USA Today as dispatches from the field. She has decided to apply her expertise to helping professionals and policymakers throughout the global food system learn from each other.

MTS: What core beliefs or principles are at the heart of Food Tank?

DN: The major one is that we feel an urgent need to change how we measure what a successful food system looks like. Our main analytics have been focused on things like calories and yield, and we haven’t really focused at all on things like: is this system producing nutritious food of a high quality? Is it protecting water, enhancing soil, helping to improving gender equity?

There is a need for a new ranking system about what successful farming and successful food systems look like. So that’s really our major goal–to bring experts together who can begin to develop those metrics to focus on sustainablity.

And we want to create a forum for folks in their twenties, thirties and forties working at places like the World Bank, or the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, or who are agronomists in the field, or dietitians working in hospitals. Because in agriculture there are a lot of silos: environmentalists not talking to the nutritionists. We are creating a forum where we can break down those barriers and discuss reforming the food system.

I think what’s different about Food Tank is: we’re talking about the nutrition, environment, and social justice issues involved in the food system in a comprehensive way.

MTS: Can you describe how your personal journey led to you adopting these core principles about changing the metrics of the food system and being more inclusive rather than focusing narrowly?

DN: A lot of the beliefs came out of the research tour I did for my previous job. I traveled to more than 35 countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. I had the honor to talk to farmers, and farmers’ groups, and scientists and researchers, policymakers, and government leaders, youth groups, activists. I started seeing what was working on the ground to alleviate hunger and poverty while also protecting the environment.

The surprising thing for me that came out of that–I’ve done on the ground research before, I’ve been to Africa before–but I came away very hopeful. There are all these exciting innovations that are happening on the ground that are working! They’re helping improve incomes, they’re protecting natural resources, they’re improving nutrition. And they are doing all these things, often with very little support from NGOs or government agencies.

What bothered me was that a lot of these innovations that I saw had so much potential to be replicated and scaled up in rural and urban areas all over the world, but they’re not being invested in. Often it’s because they don’t have fancy websites, people don’t know about them.

So I wanted to create this forum where you could highlight what’s working. Highlight stories of hope & success from areas of the world where people don’t expect hope and success.

We think of poor people as dumb, and they can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps blah blah blah. And what we found is there’s so much innovation happening in villages and farms all over the world. Those non-silver bullet technologies, sort of lower technologies that can make a big difference but don’t get the investment that they need.

MTS: How have your travels changed your perspective on how people grow and eat food? How do you plan to use Food Tank to highlight the innovations?

DN: I grew up thinking of Ethiopia just from the television commercials that I saw. Kids with bloated bellies, and famine, and it just seemed like this very desperate and terrible place. All of Africa, to Americans, seems like this very desperate & terrible place.

Spending so much time there, almost 2 years, going to 25 countries on the continent, I came away with a sense of real hope. I don’t mean to be a pollyanna. You do see those kids with bloated bellies, and things that you wish you didn’t see.

–But at the same time– In Ethiopia I met with a farmer who had been working to receive training about how to build treadle pumps from two NGOs in this very dry region.

He had a very small farm, and was growing mostly teff, which is the main grain in Ethiopia. He decided that he would start using this treadle pump technology on his own farm. So he started digging. Because he had to build another well. And he kept digging and he kept digging. His wife was like, ‘you’re never going to find water. Like, I don’t know if youre crazy.’ His neighbors thought he was crazy. His wife left him. She moved into town. And so then he kept digging for water.

About 12 meters down he hit water. He built this treadle pump that was able to lift water out of the ground very efficiently. And now he has been able to build a better house on his farm because he has been able to incorporate other crops, vegetable crops, fruit trees, and has begun to use agroforestry methods to help retain water in the soil. His wife eventually came back because she decided he wasn’t crazy any more. He has built a business around training other farmers how to build and use treadle pumps. He is really an example of success in his community.

I think we forget that farmers are not just farmers. They are business people. I’m obviously an environmentalist, so I am concerned about environmental sustainability. But if the innovations you’re implementing or promoting aren’t making a farmer money, it’s all for naught.

We also forget that farmers are teachers in their communities. This farmer was really educating other people in the community. We forget that farmers are stewards of the land by default. If they are not taking care of the land, it’s not going to work for them ten years down the line. So it’s about recognizing all of these multiple roles that farmers play.

MTS: You cite the words and work of Baldemar Velazquez and other farmworker labor figures on your website. Do you include farmworkers and their working conditions in your definition of sustainable agriculture?

DN: Absolutely. That’s another thing that we all forget–the social justice component of our food system. How little farmworkers are paid, and how little farmers are paid. The working conditions at processing facilities & slaughterhouses, not to mention other countries where we’ve spread our bad example of industrial meat production.

There are so many jobs involved in our global food system. It’s about the people who produce it, who package it, who butcher it and pick it. Making sure that they have fair wages, that they have good occupational health and safety regulations, that they are able to do things like wash their hands or have a sanitary place to go to the bathroom during their day. The food system has created this serfdom of people who are beholden to corporations that are not treating them well and not giving them dignity in the workplace.

MTS: Tell me more about what we talk about when we say “sustainable”. What are some metrics you apply before using this label?

DN: This is a question that I never know how to answer.

I can tell what I’ve seen and heard after being able to do all this on the ground research–what an incredible honor.

Sustainable food systems need to provide not just commodity crops that fill us up, but protein, healthy, safe and fair food. Sustainable food systems enhance natural resources rather than just extracting from them. If you look at monoculture or industrial systems, they don’t put much back into the environment. They take a lot. That system has been very good about producing a lot of food. It’s not very nutritious, but we produce massive amounts of food. You know, we produce more than twice as much as we need right now. We could feed nine billion people right now.

MTS: Your approach to speaking to American audiences emphasizes the role of the eater, the “end user” of agriculture. Have you also found a way to speak to audiences about farmworker justice as a part of that?

DN: It’s something we do by highlighting these food heroes–Baldemar Velazquez and others– we hope to remind readers where their food comes from. Michael Pollan and Frances Moore Lappe have been saying this for years, that every time you eat you have a chance to make a difference, by voting with your fork. The more readers know about the Immokalee workers in Florida, or how Tyson treats animals and workers alike, you know, the more informed they can be.

We also want to really bridge the domestic and the international and show consumers that whether it’s obesity here in the US or malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s really all part of the same problem–we have a food system that’s not working. It’s broken.

MTS: What do you hope to accomplish with Food Tank in the next 2 years?

DN: We want to bring together the young generation of folks who are working in the food system in their 20s 30s and 40s. We want to have events. We’ll have webinars to make them comfortable talking to and learning from one another.

An innovations database! This has been in my head for three years. To really show what is working on the ground. Say you’re a farmer in Bolivia who is practicing agro forestry–you can go on this database log in and see what other farmers all over the world are doing with agro forestry. It’s an opportunity for farmers in the South to share information, especially as climate change becomes more prevalent. To see what is working in other parts of the world with climates similar to their climate.

At first I’d thought of this as a good way for people in the global South to share information. But with the drought that is still going on in the United States, American farmers have so much to learn from farmers in other parts of the world. People in other parts of the world have been dealing with the impacts of climate change, and adapting and mitigating for more than a decade. So now I’m thinking of this database not as just South to South collaboration but also South to North information sharing that will really benefit farmers in the US.

I’d like Food Tank to be this forum where people and organizations can come together around the food system. I don’t want other organizations to feel like we are competing against them. Because we are all so desperate for funding, there is a tendency to dismiss what other organizations are doing. I’d really like us to be this network that brings different organizations together.

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