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What Is the Evergreen Revolution?

President Obama has called for an Evergreen Revolution to improve food security. But the original Green Revolution was hardly a triumph.

In November, President Barack Obama announced the launch of a joint initiative in agriculture, a “new partnership for an Evergreen Revolution that improves food security around the world.”

Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to collaborate on developing, testing, and replicating transformative technologies to extend food security in India, Africa, and around the world. The partnership promises to foster cooperation between Indian and American researchers and scientists in order to investigate and improve technologies in weather and crop forecasting, increase productivity, and work to remove trade barriers.

Fifty years after the first Green Revolution, nearly one billion people (roughly one-sixth of the world’s population) are still hungry or undernourished. India, which embraced the Green Revolution, is among the top 20 nations most affected by hunger, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2010 Global Hunger Index.

Over-use and misuse of chemical inorganic fertilizers have wreaked environmental havoc in Punjab and other parts of India, leaving ground water contaminated, soils unproductive, and many people struggling with cancer. And the imposition of "transformative technologies" that increase production, such as expensive genetically modified seeds like Bt cotton and basmati rice, onto Indian farmers has locked them into a cycle of agribusiness dependency. This reliance is decreasing their incomes, altering their local natural resources, and devaluing their indigenous knowledge. The creators and implementers of an "Evergreen Revolution" need to be careful to avoid the pitfalls of the first Green Revolution.

But there are other options that deserve attention. Coming from the ground in some of the hungriest parts of the world there are stories of hope and success that need to be included in Obama and Singh’s plan. From the fish markets of the Gambia, to the fields of South Africa, to the slums of Nairobi, farmers are finding innovative ways to feed themselves and their families, while simultaneously helping to improve soil quality, conserve water, and mitigate climate change.

The World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, for example, has been working to help farmers respond to the many challenges they face—low use of agricultural inputs, degraded soils, and food insecurity among them. They promote a system in which farmers utilize nitrogen-fixing trees in their cropping systems to improve soil and prevent erosion. Better soil means better yields and without the cost or adverse effects of petrochemicals. And increased forest area sequesters more carbon, helping to mitigate climate change.

In Uganda, organizations like the Slow Food International funded Developing Innovations in School Cultivation Project are coordinating school gardens as a way to improve nutrition, environmental awareness, and food traditions and culture. By teaching kids at an early age about growing, preparing, and eating food, the project is helping to cultivate the next generation of sustainable farmers.

In the Sahel region of Niger, where desertification and drought is spreading the Sahara south into the grasslands, researchers from the Center for International Cooperation in Amsterdam are focused on African Re-greening Initiatives. These programs aim to scale up efforts for “farmer-managed natural regeneration,” scenarios in which farmers nurture patches of trees that use nature’s own selection processes to create resilient plants that retain ground water, reduce erosion, build nutrients in the soil, and help sequester carbon.

And in Bangladesh, the Grameen Bank is helping women in some of the most remote, rural areas benefit from knowledge-sharing with the help of “village phones.” Women can purchase or lease cell phones from the bank to provide telecommunication services to their entire village and earn a profit. By renting out their cell phone services, the women can improve their incomes, while giving local farmers access to weather reports, bank accounts, and market information.

According to the U.N. Population Division, 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas and half of Indians are farmers or work in the agriculture sector. Many of them are already aware of the benefits of conserving natural resources and how it can benefit their diets and their livelihoods.

The support and collaboration offered by Obama and Singh is a good start, but it’s just that—a start. We’ve got a long way to go. But farmers are ready, and there are tools and ideas in place that are already succeeding. The global agricultural funding, policy, and research community just needs to be pointed in the right direction.

Innovations like these are highlighted in the Worldwatch Institute’s latest publication, State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet.

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