Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: Save Three Lives

I love the gardening shelf at my library.  I've also discovered homesteading books in there and a couple farm memoirs.  But there aren't many, and I figured it was just the fault of my small library.  I tried the catalog for "farming," "homesteading," and "self-sufficiency" and came up with zero results.

Turns out I should have asked my librarian husband.  There was a TON of books on all the topics I wanted -- several shelves over, listed under "agriculture."  I've been missing out for two years!  I brought a big armful home.

The first one I read was Save Three Lives: A Plan for Famine Prevention, by Robert Rodale.  It's an excellent summary of the causes of chronic hunger in the Third World, especially Africa, and a detailed plan for soliving some of these problems.

The main point Rodale opens with is that famine relief sent by Western nations isn't just unhelpful -- it actually makes the problems worse.  We export our own super-productive, hybridized or GMO grains, especially corn, and encourage poor farmers to grow them as cash crops.  The trouble is, these grains are very hungry for soil nutrients; they won't grow well in Africa except with a lot of fertilizer.  It's hard to get fertilizer to all the remote places where it's needed, and often the farmers have to go into debt to buy it.  And then the soil itself becomes impoverished and even more reliant on artificial fertilizer the longer they keep doing it.  These crops are also very thirsty for water, and the impoverished soil, low in organic matter, doesn't hold water very well.  All it takes is a little drought and the crops all fail.  Since the farmers relied completely on the cash crop, not growing any subsistence crops, they lose everything.

We've been sold the idea that technology is going to save us.  But those who have studied different farming methods can tell you that more fertilizer and more pesticides only give improved yields for a short time before wearing out their usefulness.  As soil declines in organic matter, more and more nitrogen is needed.  And as pests become resistant to pesticides -- and their natural predators are killed by the same chemicals -- more chemicals are needed, and with less effect.  The book gives this statistic: "Percentage change, since 1945, in the amount of insecticide used on US crops: Plus 900%.  Percentage change, since 1945, in the portion of US crops lost to insects: Plus 86%."  And yet we are  giving these technologies to Africa, where the soil is much thinner and there are many more pests.  Consider this:

"In temperate growing zones, 15 separate diseases have been reported to attack sweet potato crops.  In the tropics, there are 111.  Rice?  Fifty-four diseases treaten harvests here.  But 500 to 600 have been recorded there.  Tomatoes?  In your backyard, this favored summertime crop may have to resist as many as 32 different diseases.  Move to the tropics, put the same plants in the ground, and now you're up against 278."

Meanwhile the idea of exporting Western-style agriculture, where a monoculture of cash crops brings wealth to everyone, isn't working very well in a place plagued by instability:

"Consider the roads, for instance.  Even if it made ecological sense to import those genetically engineered superplants and the chemicals and diesel-fueled equipment necessary to grow them, it simply can't be done, mostly because the roads just aren't there.  Where there are roads, there are also soldiers, waiting to waylay such shipments (and relief convoys as well), kill the drivers, and steal the trucks and their contents.  The chemicals, seeds, and equipment are then sold on the black market.  Relief food goes to soldiers.  Sometimes it is simply destroyed."

And then, worst of all, once famine does hit, we send big tankers full of American grain.  This is actually US law, to send grain instead of money, so that we can support American agriculture at the same time.  Sadly, the result of this is to undercut local farmers in the area who do have food to sell.  Other countries have had the smarter idea of sending cash and then buying grain just outside the famine area, which gets there faster and helps the impoverished region much more.  Rodale tells the story of a drought in Ethiopia which lasted three years.  By the time Americans had raised the money and sent food, the drought was already over: "Much of the food arrived, ironically, as local farmers were bringing in their first good harvests in years.  Harvests that, unfortunately, were now worthless to those impoverished farmers because the country was flooded with free grain."

Rodale urges that we must find local solutions, "Small solutions.  Too small for powerful people to trifle with.  Too small for an army or a group of soldiers to care about.  Too small to attract a lot of attention in troubled times.  But big enough to feed the family who tends this small solution."

His first solution is to plant drought-resistant "famine plants" instead of corn. Sure, according to American agronomists, the yields are lower.  But they're more reliable - they will keep producing their modest yields even in a dry year.  And many of them are more nutritious than corn -- like amaranth, for instance, which has twice as much protein as corn and many trace nutrients corn lacks.  You can also eat amaranth greens.  And since they won't die in a drought year, you don't have bare fields eroding in the wind.

Next, he talks about the problem of firewood.  The people of Africa use wood for their cooking fires, which also keep away mosquitoes and provide light.  Attempts to convert them to using fuel-efficient stoves has been unsuccessful; they can't afford the stoves and, since they just cook food and nothing else, the Africans don't want them.  But their search for firewood has been destructive: the hillsides are becoming bare of trees.  That means more erosion on the hillsides, less water brought to the surface by deep roots, and less rain altogether -- since evaporation from trees helps increase cloud formation.  And it means more of a burden on women, whose job it is to gather firewood as well as do all the farming, cooking, and water carrying, because they have further to go to get wood.

Rodale talks about the success the alley-cropping technique has had.  This is the method where trees are grown in alleys between crop fields.  This way the wood is right there, no long walks needed, and the farmers care for the trees personally because they own them.  Instead of cutting down the whole tree, they cut back the branches every year or two and use the prunings for wood.  The leaves make animal fodder and also help add organic matter to the soil.  The rows of trees stop erosion, especially in flood-time.  Rodale describes some amazing native trees that are able to live on barely any water, fix their own nitrogen, and grow in harsh conditions.

Next he talks about how to deal with pests without expensive pesticides that also pollute fresh water.  Most of his ideas are familiar to anyone who has gardened organically -- encouraging beneficial insects and birds, planting deterrent plants, and avoiding monoculture.  You see, when an entire continent plants the same variety of corn, pests leap from field to field like they're following a superhighway.  When each farmer has a field of this and a field of that, it's much harder for pests, whether weeds, bugs, or disease, to spread.

Organic techniques can also help increase organic matter in the soil so it will hold water and nutrients better.  He mentions a few native green manure plants that can do a lot of good.

Importantly, he talks about addressing any teaching to women, since they are the farmers in most regions.  Western farming experts have made the mistake in the past of addressing everything to the men, who nod sagely while the women keep on doing exactly the way they always have.  Increased education and rights for women fight poverty more than anything else.

Last he talks about water -- how to harvest it, preserve it, purify it, and make the best use of it.  He has page after page of small-scale ideas for different circumstances -- no giant dams required.  Among these are diverting small streams, terracing hillsides, and even raising fish in brackish ponds that are no good for drinking.  Turns out tilapia don't mind those conditions, and it means nutritious food with very little outlay.

By the end of the book I was angry about famine relief that doesn't work and so eager to change things, I was wanting to join the Peace Corps.  So I was hoping he would tell me what charity I could give to that was doing all this stuff.  Instead, he discussed how to lobby charities to start using smarter tactics.  You should write to them, detail the sort of projects you'd like to donate to, and tell them you have $100 you'd like to donate if they can guarantee it will go to that kind of project.  Pretty clever.  Better yet, he says, get your friends together and offer a larger donation.  His own charity is called the Famine Prevention Project, but I can't find any mention of it online, so my guess is that it's defunct now.  Probably because the author, as the forward tells me, was killed in a car accident in Russia in 1990.

I would recommend this book to anyone, especially if you've ever dealt with the argument (as I have) that we need GMO's [or pesticides, or whatever] if we want to feed starving people in Africa.  What we need is to teach them how to feed themselves, with native plants and ecologically sound techniques.

And if anyone knows a charity that actually does any of the projects listed above ... I'd like to hear about it.


Enbrethiliel said...


This book reminds me of another which I read earlier this month: Doctor to the Barrios. Its author explains that before anyone can dream of making a difference in poor rural communities, he must first have lived there. The main reason a lot of proposed solutions fail is that they did not survive the "transplanting" into what is essentially another culture. And he would agree that the best solutions are the small, simple ones--because only those that the locals can implement and sustain, with as little outside help as possible, have a chance at taking root.

Sheila said...

Absolutely. That book is in your giveaway, right? If I win, I think that's the one I'd pick!

But they all sound so good ... what a tough call.

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