Coping with Climate Change: New Open-Source Tool Launched

CGIAR just launched a new tool that is aimed at helping farmers adapt to the challenges of climate change by providing predictions on the future stresses faced:  For the research paper “Finding Tomorrow’s Agriculture Today”, see here.

While I was struggling to run a model (it just was released today and the server might be overloaded) and the usability interface could be improved, their approach is very laudable, especially as extension officers can take advantages in for example African countries of this ‘climate analogues’ tool. Based on a prediction of agro-climatic changes for an area over multiple years, the basic idea is to offer similar sites across the globe to show how farmers have coped in that climate. Granted that there are limitations in transferring methods and technologies from divergent geographic regions, it nevertheless allows a powerful, open-source tool in the hands of both national policy makers and local extension officers. If applied properly, a true achievement.



GIS for Boosting Agricultural Productivity in Africa?

UPDATE (11/12): A much better article from the Christian Science monitor on the smart application of mobile phone technology: iCow App! Developed in Kenya for Kenyan farmers. And using technology that already exists.

Via the Association of American Geographers, I’ve received a link towards an article in the Business Daily from Kenya on “Experts root for mapping technology to boost food production”. According to the article, the technology could be used to map soil patterns (or weather); at the moment youth are trained to learn GIS mapping technologies.

While evidence of its successful application exists in urban areas – for example participatory mapping – it seems doubtful to me that the technology would be applicable for Kenyan farmers. As the article points out, most farmers on average only hold 0.2 – 3 hectares of land. Mapping the farm and categorizing its soil consequently would seem a rather redundant exercise given the already existing sound local knowledge of the farm by the household . That said, my own applications of GIS in the field with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to measure plots revealed that their estimates of the land size is often much smaller than the real estimate. This trend was confirmed on several plots across three farms.

As a result – and to the astonishments of the farmers – GIS could be most applicable not to increase productivity, but rather to ensure that farmers are aware of the size of their land holdings, including establishing a formal document/map to represent those in transactions. That to me, as opposed to engaging in high-tech agriculture, would seem its strongest benefit.

Motivations for Going Organic in the US

Great video that I stumbled across on the Tanzanian Cotton Board website ( out of all places. It shows a discussion of a first year organic cotton grower and his motivations. Having worked in Tanzania with organic farmers for a long time now, it is delightful to see the dramatically different geographical and socio-economic contexts, yet similar expressed motivations that are fueling its growth (and such problems – as weeding for example – which threaten to stifle it). That said, it of course would be fascinating to try to dig deeper to understand how this farmer’s ability to really live up to the organic mantra differs to an organic smallholder in Africa.

Let's be Franc about the Swiss

Great podcast by NPR: Planet Money on Switzerland being “Too Strong for Its Own Good”. Good insights on what’s happening in regards to currency trading. One small add-on is that the importers are not just afraid of making potential future losses if they would adjust their import prices paid by Swiss retailers. Rather they hold a monopoly as the only supplier of specific brand goods, something that current legislation is trying to address.

The Spectre of Malthus

Update 9/4: See here for Al Jazeera’s Inside Story clip on the famine, which includes Bill Moseley.


Bill Moseley, featured earlier in an op-ed to the Washington Post discussed here, has again produced an insightful commentary on the crisis at the Horn of Africa. In a new op-ed out on Al Jazeera, he tackles in a very well-informed matter the simplistic and false assumption that overpopulations are the causes for the current famines. Granted, increased population pressures have a large impact on the availability of farm- and grazing-land per capita. Also, given the regions dependence on agriculture and livestock, it might have been best to revise the calculations using just arable or fertile land as a measure for the densities. Nevertheless, at its basic fact, his comparison with Oklahoma hits home and provides a much needed, readily available comparison for people who are just too eager to join the overpopulation chorus.

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Short- to Long-Run Response to Famine

In regards to the earlier post on The Crisis at the Horn of Africa, the Director General of IFPRI has come out with short-, medium- and long-term recommendations for the region. I’ve posted his quote of long-term responses below to reiterate my earlier point regarding the need to include drought-tolerant (GM or not) varieties in the mix of potential technologies to consider:

Build the resilience of smallholder farmers and pastoralist communities by ensuring their access to risk-management tools (including insurance and credit), drought-resistant seeds, high-quality fertilizer, irrigation techniques, livestock-related assistance, and the technology and support to put the above to best use.

On the Crisis at the Horn of Africa

Very interesting op-ed written by a friend of mine and former mentor, Bill Moseley, on the famine at the Horn of Africa.

Since I agree with his general assessment that in this particular case, the political economy and local geography is key in order to understand why we are seeing this tragedy take place, I’d like to offer an additional point of view regarding the agricultural technologies:

First, the traditional technologies he references should not be confused with limiting oneself to methods that only existed prior to the arrival of Europeans amongst that specific ethnic group and locale. Rather, it often contains so-termed traditional method that were tested and ‘imported’ from the outside, including Europe (especially in the case of organic or low-input ag). Although these often times can work, the adoption of them is often times anything but automatic and take a long period of time if they are to provide a relief from the occurrences of famines.

Second, and closely related, the development of another ‘outside-technology’ – drought tolerant varieties – could actually have had a positive impact on yields in these exact situations. As Bill said in a personal communication, the question regarding the positive impact remain in terms of ‘for whom?’ and ‘at what cost?’. I agree that these are key questions to ask, but would stress that the exclusion a priori of technology due to its genetically modified basis is unfortunate and should be reevaluated.

An Organic Dilemma

We’ve covered already several aspects of the rise of organic agriculture and its potential limits. According to recent news coming out of Burkina Faso combined with a conference I attended in Seattle recently, we are seeing signs that organic ag might be reaching some important crossroads. Without going into too much detail, what has been [...]

Signs of continued Consumption

Given the importance of consumers in sustaining the organic boom, the latest sale figures from the Organic Trade Association (OTA) should be encouraging to many working in the sector:

Organic sales as a whole increased by 7.7 percent (to nearly 29 bio US$) in 2010, whereas organic clothing sales increased by 16 percent, outpacing increases by [...]