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Food Honduras USUN

Anti-hunger organizations including the World Food Programme (WFP) are approaching food assistance with a health perspective—a strategy that is long overdue in the field of food aid, according to Martin Bloem, Chief of WFP’s nutrition and HIV unit.

“I’ve worked in this field for 30 years, but it’s only now that policy makers are finally recognizing that nutrition is important,” said Bloem, who is also a trained medical doctor. “Nutrition is related to so many issues—resistance to disease, equity, intellectual development, economic development. I believe that people have a right to nutrients, beyond just the right to food.”

(credit: Flickr/World Bank Photo Collection)

Food aid can save lives during emergencies, but the majority of global food aid does not contain enough protein and micronutrients to prevent childhood stunting, a condition that causes irreversible damage to children’s minds and bodies.

“If you are a child who is stunted, you are deprived from equal opportunities for the rest of your life,” said Bloem. “You not only have an increased risk of mortality from all diseases, but you also have an increased risk of not having the job you want, of having a low IQ—you don’t have the same brain development or physical capacity.”

Stunting can be prevented if children are properly nourished between conception and 2 years of age, and with full-nourishment, they experience health and economic benefits for life. The International Food Policy Research Institute reported that children who were well-nourished before age 2 earned significantly higher wages as adults—a 46% increase on average. Studies have even shown that children who are given the right nutritional start are less likely to become obese or diabetic.

(credit: Flickr/Alex Proimos)

According to Bloem, a substantive percentage of all stunted children are already overweight because they are not eating the right food. This trend is part of a global health crisis of nutrient-related diseases like diabetes and heart disease that are projected to have devastating ramifications for societies and economies.

“Consider the countries in developmental transition like India or Indonesia, which have levels of stunting at 40%,” said Bloem. “You can imagine the health and productivity costs on society that will emerge in the next 20 years. This has enormous implications for poverty reduction.”

To combat childhood stunting, WFP has a multi-pronged approach that includes improving the quality and the diversity of its food products, providing the right mix of fortified food to nourish mothers, and supplementing home diets with micronutrient powders.

There has been tension among development programs about micronutrient supplementation. The FAO strongly advocates food-based approaches, arguing that supplementation, while necessary for high-risk groups, “simply cannot provide the overall long-term economic benefits of economy and sustainability that food-based approaches can deliver.”

For Bloem, the two approaches are not necessarily at odds: “Medium and long-term solutions are essential, and we should optimize the right to food by focusing on agricultural diversity. But with this issue, we should not be ideological. Micronutrient powders have been a cost-effective solution in the areas where we work.”

The WFP’s approach is both an emergency intervention and a long-term investment: “Investing in proper nutrition now, which costs about $200 per child for the first 2 years, will save lives and prevent many of the much more expensive costs later in life,” said Bloem.

(credit: Flickr/Gates Foundation)

An increasing number of non-government organizations share Bloem’s perspective and are campaigning to place nutrition on the global development agenda. A recent report released by UNICEF calls for a scaling up of global efforts to combat childhood stunting. “These programmes are working,” states the report. “But we must still reach millions of mothers and their children, especially those in the hardest to reach areas.”

The 1,000 Dayspartnership, supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is also spotlighting the multiple benefits of early childhood nutrition solutions. According to 1,000 Days, “Evidence shows that the right nutrition during the 1,000 day window can save more than one million lives each year…[and] increase a country’s GDP by at least 2-3 percent annually.”

Other organizations mobilizing action around this issue include Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social entrepreneurs, which has launched Nutrients for All, a movement to encourage leading social entrepreneurs and innovators to design direct nutrient interventions at each stage of the agricultural and food value chains.

“I’m excited that Ashoka is using the word, ‘nutrients,’ to talk about health, hunger, and development,” said Bloem. “We need to deliver a strong message that nutrients are essential for people to lead healthy and productive lives. Nutrients are a human right.”

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com. Top image credit: USUN
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Sorghum growing in the field.

While the world’s food systems have lost 75 percent of their biodiversity in the past 100 years, scientists are now starting to recognize the vast treasure trove of genetic diversity present in traditional and wild plant varieties. Biodiversity can lead to more nutritious diets, and is also a key asset for mitigating the risks presented by climate change, according to the FAO.

Here in the U.S., a recent report found that traditional plant foods eaten by Native American tribes of the Northern Plains are extraordinarily nutritious. The report suggested that wild superfoods like lambs-quarter’s and chokecherries could vastly improve nutrition and help prevent disease.

The revival of pre-colonial foods is part of a growing food sovereignty movement led by Native American groups likeTraditional Native American Farmers Association and Tewa Women United.  Similarly in Peru, indigenous tribes are also championing heritage foods, particularly a stunning variety of native potato strains.

In Indonesia, Maria Loretha, a social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow, is advocating for a return to growing and eating traditional crops like sorghum, millet, barley, and red and black rice. Loretha works primarily in Eastern Indonesia, where high rates of malnutrition have been called a “hunger paradox” by the UN, since food is readily available in the area. The problem, it turns out, stems from a lack of diversity in the local diet—which for poorer residents consists mostly of rice, a national staple.

Image credit: CGIAR Climate

According to Loretha, the eradication of diverse, more nutritious foods began in the 1970s, during the Suharto’s regime’s national rice program. “[S]ince the late 1970s, the government has been campaigning that people should eat rice,” Loretha said in an interview with Oxfam.

“It’s why people automatically don’t eat corn, sorghum, or millet. When the government campaigned about rice, they gave not only the seeds but also the fertilizer, pesticides. That’s why finally rice could be accepted by all people as the main staple. And that meant other foods were abandoned.”

Local foods like sorghum (called milo in the U.S.), however, are far more nutritious than rice, are better adapted to local land conditions, and exhibit strong resilience to fluctuations in climate. Loretha believes that reviving the diversity of local diets will help island communities rely less on outside inputs (like fertilizers and pesticides) and become resilient against inconsistent food supplies from outside regions.

Maria Loretha, center, discussing traditional seed varieties. 

In her search for heritage seeds, Loretha has traveled from island to island and to remote communities, gathering seeds and speaking with locals about their uses. “Elders in the village who are older than 40 know sorghum, but people below 40 don’t know sorghum exists,” she said. “It is not only ordinary people who don’t know about it: even people in agricultural production don’t know.”

To validate the benefits of growing traditional foods, Loretha created a demonstration site. She cut down the cash crops—cashew and coconut trees—on her land and faced much skepticism from local farmers. But in 2010, when unseasonably wet weather hit the region, all the cashews were lost, while Loretha’s crop yielded a season’s worth of food. Then she began distributing seeds for free and teaching small farmers how to cultivate them.

Loretha, left, planting local seeds alongside local farmers

Loretha is now working with over 1,000 farmers in her farmers’ group Cinta Alam Pertanian (Love for Nature’s Farming) to spread the seeds and knowledge that she has gathered. She is also working with the government to breathe new energy into Indonesia’s Go Local movement, which had petered out due to a lack of grassroots support. According to Loretha, changing national policies that are aligned with transgenic seed companies and chemical manufacturers remains a significant challenge.

With the work of social entrepreneurs like Loretha, there are reasons to be optimistic for the future of traditional foods and the communities they benefit. In the U.S., drought and heat from climate change is also reviving the exploration of heartier “ancient grains” like sorghum. And the urban foraging trend is spotlighting the benefits of wild varietals and introducing more diversity into community diets.

In the words of Maria Loretha, “Opportunities are always out there. You just have to get your hands dirty.”

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Top Image: Sorghum growing in the field. Credit: Daniel Guerrero 

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Endangered orangutans in Sumatra are severely threatened by deforestation.
Endangered orangutans in Sumatra are severely threatened by deforestation.

In Indonesia, where forests are being destroyed at the highest rates in the world, an untapped solution exists for balancing conservation with economic expansion.

Indonesia is the world’s fastest deforester—a dubious distinction that once belonged to Brazil. A recent report revealed that more than 2 million acres of primary forest are cleared each year, mostly due to palm oil plantations. Palm oil is found in half of all packaged products—from cookies to deodorant—and is a highly lucrative commodity, making it difficult for Indonesia to halt its production. But while Indonesia struggles to balance its economic needs with its role in climate change, indigenous communities are already modeling ways that strong economics can coexist with sustainable forest management.

While the United States and China are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world, Indonesia is the third largest. The majority of its emissions come from the destruction of forests and carbon-rich peatlands, which take thousands of years to form and store 20 times as much carbon as rainforests. Palm oil producers regularly clear vast tracts of these valuable carbon sinks by draining and setting peatlands on fire.

Indonesia is essentially sitting on a carbon time bomb—about 60 billion metric tons of carbon is stored in its peatlands. If all this carbon were released into the atmosphere, it would be the equivalent of burning 67% of all the oil reserves from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Canada, Russia, and the United States combined.

In addition to accelerating climate change, forest fires present a massive health hazard—this summer’s fires on Sumatra prompted complaints all the way from Singapore about the choking smog, and people in Indonesia often say that the year has been shortened to 9 months, as it’s impossible to do anything during the 3-month fire season. Moreover, the deforestation is rapidly destroying habitats that once sheltered tremendous biological diversity and animals like the endangered orangutan.

Despite pay-for-performance agreements aimed to stop deforestation (such as the $1 billion REDD+ program funded by Norway) and recent pledges by several large companies to eliminate conflict palm oil from their supply chains, developers are still clearing forests at an alarming rate.

The activity is also a human rights concern, as indigenous communities are frequently displaced in the process. One report has estimated that nearly all of Indonesia’s palm oil concessions have been for land that is already inhabited. REDD+ officials have estimated that indigenous groups hold 45 million hectares of forest currently being misused for commercial concessions. But because indigenous communities have no legal land ownership rights, concessions are made by the government without their knowledge. Land tenure conflicts are common and have ended in violent clashes between protestors and hired security.

But excluding indigenous communities from land-use decisions results in a missed opportunity. Respecting indigenous rights isn’t just the right thing to do—it could be a powerful strategy for balancing economics with conservation, and for tapping an effective resource for sustainable land management.

“Indigenous communities, such as the Dayak Iban tribe in Kapuas Hulu of West Kalimantan, have strong land-use planning skills,” says Valentinus Heri, a social entrepreneur whose organization, Riak Bumi, works with indigenous groups to boost local economies and protect forests.

“They know the land well, and determine which areas have conditions that are most suitable for farming, and which forest areas should be protected for traditional hunting. They also define sacred areas, dwelling areas, and tembawang – agroforestry areas for fruits, rubber plants, bamboo, rattan, etc. usually located near the river. The Dayak Iban tribe has a crop rotation system, in which every 5 to 7 years the fields are left to rest and for the forest to grow.”

While indigenous communities have deep knowledge of responsible environmental stewardship, Riak Bumi provides added training, such as firefighting and forest fire prevention. The organization incentivizes conservation by helping indigenous groups develop an ecotourism industry and high-quality products, like sustainably harvested forest honey, high-end weavings, and a wild-crafted soap from a fruit called tengkawang.

“We increase the forest honey’s quality through sustainable harvesting techniques and hygienic processing – thus creating more value, increasing the price, and pushing the community to maintain the forest, the bee’s natural habitat,” said Heri. “No forest, no honey bees, no income – this creates the incentive and motivation.”

By organizing independent collectors into a forest honey association, Riak Bumi has been able to set market prices, ensure consistent quality, and give honey collectors a stronger voice in the ongoing debate about Indonesia’s conservation and land use policies. Riak Bumi projects that in 2015, its forest honey collectors will produce about 18 tons of honey per year. The organization’s entire network of honey collectors, artisans, and eco-tourism entrepreneurs will benefit more than 7,000 indigenous villagers across the country.

While the lack of legal standing for indigenous communities remains one of the biggest barriers to exploring the economic potential of sustainable livelihoods, progress is being made. Several government agencies have declared their support for indigenous rights, and a new bill is being drafted by lawmakers. Many are also hopeful that the newly elected President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will help spur much needed policy changes in order to meet the country’s REDD+ commitments.

“By acknowledging their rights, indigenous groups can serve as strategic partners in the protection of forests,” said Heru Prasetyo, chairman of Indonesia’s REDD+ Management Agency. “[The] full participation of indigenous people will support Indonesia’s commitment in reducing greenhouse gas emissions — 26 percent by its own and 41 percent with international help by 2020.”

With new legal protections and initiatives like Riak Bumi helping to increase the economic value of protected ecosystems, indigenous communities could have a huge role to play in halting deforestation and climate change. Clearer skies may be on the horizon after all.

By Kristie Wang

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Image via: Patrick Barry

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A cashmob hits a bookstore in Spain.

“How do we find a way to reconnect communities with local businesses, local resources, but more importantly, with each other?” This question, posed byKen Banks at Pop!Tech, is being echoed by an innovative generation of problem-solvers who are looking to strengthen local economies while simultaneously tackling community issues.

Banks is perhaps most well known as the founder of Frontline SMS , a text-message-based communications platform that is driving solutions ranging from health to microfinance in over 150 countries today. His current initiative, Means of Exchange, is exploring ways that technology can unlock the potential of local economic systems, especially through strengthening sharing economies.

For example, during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Means of Exchange used social media to deploy its first “cash mob,” a group of people who agree to each spend a small amount of money at a local business on a given day.

In less than two hours, a bookshop in Hackney, London sold 100 books—whereas in that last two days, it had sold only two. “The buzz created by social media drove people to attend, partly out of excitement, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to see something positive happen on their main shopping street,“ Banks wrote on the Means of Exchange blog.

Image credit: Ken Banks

Cash mobs have a multiplier effect. By tapping into people’s desire to commune socially and participate in a larger movement, tools like cash mobs boost local businesses, connect people to local resources, create a culture of cooperation, and strengthen the community fabric.

Like Banks, more social entrepreneurs around the world are creating hybrid solutions that turn around struggling local economies while taking aim at social issues. Solutions that help communities generate more income can be leveraged for addressing deeply entrenched social problems.

For example, a social entrepreneur named Masnu’ah, working in Indonesia, is increasing economic opportunities in fishing communities while tackling gender issues like domestic violence. Fishing is one of Indonesia’s largest industries, with 95% of the activities performed by artisanal fisherfolk, who often struggle to earn a living. Women perform a significant portion of the duties involved in fishing, but their contributions often remain unrecognized, due to patriarchal gender beliefs. With few resources, women often experience domestic violence and are unable to seek help.

In an effort to both empower fisherwomen and engage men as part of the solution, Masnu’ah launched Puspita Bahari, a cooperative that teaches men and women to generate additional family income through fish processing. Men are allowed to manage a donated fishing boat only if they agree to attend gender equality workshops and let their wives join the cooperative. And as women fisherfolk increase their earning power, they also become more socially empowered and able to speak out for their own rights.

As many experts have noted, economic empowerment and social empowerment are intertwined. Other social entrepreneurs like Majid El Jarroudi are tapping into this principle by helping marginalized communities build economic connections to mainstream markets, thus laying the foundation for more inclusive and accepting societies.

For El Jarroudi, the 2005 French riots underscored the multifaceted discrimination experienced by low-income, diverse communities. The son of a Moroccan immigrant who became one of France’s first professional boxers, El Jarroudi helps local entrepreneurs from marginalized communities in France access mainstream business opportunities and is working to make large companies more welcoming of diversity.

El Jarroudi created an online platform, Agency for Diversity in Entrepreneurship, that transforms the purchasing practices of large companies so that they do business with suppliers in underserved neighborhoods. The platform identifies and vets promising local entrepreneurs and helps them build the capacity to meet the needs of mainstream companies. At the same time, companies often save money by working with local businesses and a larger cultural shift towards inclusiveness is created.

As these initiatives are demonstrating, energizing community economies can also open doors to solving serious social problems. Similarly, giving communities the tools to nurture strong cultures of cooperation and support can make all the difference for local businesses to thrive.

A key next step for social entrepreneurs like Ken Banks, Masnu’ah, and Majid El Jourroudi will be to grow local solutions into movements and to accelerate change at the level of decision makers and policy makers.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com. Top Image Credit: Miquel C