Tuesday, August 28, 2012

You’re on top of it: Land Rights in Mozambique

When you read about Mozambique’s agricultural potential it’s hard not to get a sense that the projections are too optimistic. You read about the Beira and the Nancala corridors and their vast swats unused land and wonder why haven’t those corridors become the bread basket of the region already? Why is it that with the growing urban demand, the increasing international commodity prices and the improvements in infrastructure, Mozambique’s agriculture remains stuck on first gear?

It may be the soils – something must be wrong with the soils – you ponder. But then you cross the border into South Africa and the green revolution hits you in the face. (see Google maps for a satellite image). Literally less than a mile away from the border post, the grounds are green with sugar cane crops irrigated with center-pivot systems (those long skeletons that form perfect circles and that are easily confused with the work of a UFO when seen from above). You continue driving and then you see plantains stretching for miles in neatly organized rows. As if this wasn’t enough, suddenly the landscape gets peppered by orange dots on both sides of the highway: citrus season is at its peak and you can buy a whole sack for less than three dollars.

Soils, unlike Colombians, don’t need a visa to cross the border so the bottleneck keeping agriculture below its potential has to be something else. You think about water but then you recall the huge floods this country has faced in the past, so the rivers and their abundant water are definitely there. What about the war, or colonialism, or just culture – aren’t people ‘happy’ just being subsistence farmers? The answer is definitely no, otherwise you wouldn’t hear parent talk about how they want their kids doing something else. And sure, the war and colonialism did affect agriculture quite a bit.

However, you may be standing on top of a more satisfactory answer: the land and specifically its property laws. Well, it turns out that in Mozambique the land belongs to the Mozambicans (aka the government). Instead of buying land, you essentially get a permit to farm it for a fixed amount of years. If land is let fallow, the government has all the right to take it away from you. And even if you are growing bountiful crops, you don’t have legal ownership of the land.

So is that why land in Mozambique remains so underdeveloped? I think it’s definitely a big contributing factor. And it seems that USAID also agrees. Their new version of the Feed the Future Initiative – the so called “Agriculture and Food Security Alliance” is all about partnering with the private sector to give the extra incentive needed to invest here. Mozambique makes part of the second group of countries that will be joining the program. On top of that, the government is finalizing the PNISA, the operationalization document of the agricultural strategy and the action plan for the CADAAP.

Given this willingness to address the bottlenecks related to the disincentives the private sector faces when investing in Mozambique, it seems that the country is heading in the right direction. Although it’s not clear is the actual property law will change, there is definitely a lot of pressure to make it more investor friendly with amendments, tax breaks, and import waivers.

This, of course, has its critics. Chief among them is the Joseph Hanlon, an expert on Mozambique who argued in a recent Guardian article that the private sector approach is incompatible with one that promotes small holder farmers. Although he didn’t call it neocolonialism, he portrayed it as an unwelcome entrenchment of global agro-corporations, scrambling for the last swaps of arable land.

What the author forgets to mention is that an approach in which you incentivized agricultural investments, while supporting small holder farmers is exactly what Brazil did – one of the top five world agricultural producers nowadays and a success story in reducing rural poverty. While Mozambique is far from becoming a global agriculture player, it seems that the country is finally now heading in the right direction.

Friday, August 24, 2012

NYT: Drought & the American Farmer

An excellent short video portraying the difficulties many American farmers are facing right now:

Monday, August 20, 2012

How to Make your Peanuts Unforgettable

Togolese Peanuts
Back in 2007 I had the opportunity to visit Togo - one of those countries in West Africa you don't hear much about. And there is a reason for that: Compared to its neighbors, Togo does not have much to offer.

There is, however, one thing that has stayed with me since that morning when I walked along the streets of Lome: the amazing taste of SAND-ROASTED PEANUTS. These goodies are salty, crunchy and delicious. By roasting them with heated sand, the peanuts are evenly toasted to perfection. Unlikely anything I've ever tried, the flavor of these nuts lingered on my tastebuds for years. In despair, I was always looking for people how could bring me back some from Togo but only once I got that lucky.

And then I came to Mozambique, where women abound selling small bags of the same sand-roasted peanuts!! (The only difference is that here they are sold with the skin on - not big deal). So I decided to learn how to make them and don't rely on remote African countries to satisfy my crave for crispy, crackling peanuts. More importantly, I'm sharing with you my dear readers what up to now has been a culinary secret passed on from generation to generation.

So lo and behold, here are the instructions of to make your peanuts memorable:

Step 1: Get the ingredients 
Note: understand what's going on instead of worrying about the exact measurements
Raw Peanuts
  • 2lb of Raw Peanuts. Make sure you buy the jumbo size. 
  • 8lb of Sand. Get it from a nearby beach as it will have traces of salt that will enhance the flavor (I'm not kidding). Also, make sure that the sand is not fine but rather coarse. If it's the powdery type, it will get inside the peanuts.
  • 6 cups of water: To boil the peanuts. 
  • 3tbs of Salt: For the water. After adding the salt, make sure the water taste like the pacific: very salty! 
Peanuts being Boiled 
Step 2: Boil Peanuts
Pour the 6 cups of water into a large pot. Add salt, taste it, and make sure is quite salty. The peanuts will absorb a lot of this salt so be generous. Depending on the size of the pot, you may have to split the peanuts in two or three batches. The idea is that there is about two floating layers of peanuts, above 3-4 inches of water. Add the peanuts and bring water to boil. It should take about 15-20 minutes. Once the water is boiling, keep the peanuts for another 10 minutes in the boiling water. To make sure they're ready, take one peanut and look for the following: a wrinkling skin and a yellowish color in the inside. 

Step 3: Put peanuts on a tray and dry 
Guarding Cat
After boiling the peanuts, drain them and put them in a tray so they can dry. It's very important that a cat supervises the drying process, ensuring that no birds get a hold of your soon-to-be-unforgettable peanuts. 
Although I prefer sun-drying, you could also use paper towels and a microwave, but that's lame. 

Step 4: Heat up the SAND!! 
Sand for the Indian Ocean
Start by putting some charcoal on a grill. Get it going until is flaming hot. Let me pause for a second: Laurinda, the woman that taught me how to do this, claims that a stove won't get the sand hot enough...I have my doubts, but if you don't have a grill go ahead and use a stove.
So once the grill is pretty hot, add the a cast-iron pot with the sand. Wait about 20min for the sand to get really hot. You'll see fumes coming out of it and if you touch it, you'll burn your fingers (I think it's important to have scars from legendary recipes, so go ahead and dip your fingers in the sand) . Then add enough peanuts to cover the surface of the pot.
The following step is the trickiest so pay close attention:

Step 5: Shake those Peanuts! (time to put on some good Mozambican music)
Once in the sand, the peanuts will take about 15-20 minutes to roast to perfection. It's really important that every 2-3 minutes you shake, churn, and spin the peanuts. I've added a video to show you how to do this (see below), but essentially, you need to make sure that none of the peanuts stay at the bottom of the pot, otherwise they'll burn quickly and ruin the party. Thanks to Laurinda for teaching me all this!!

The Color of Perfection
Get the Sand Out
Look for the brownish color - it indicates crunchiness and new friends. Once you got the level of crunchiness you like, get the peanuts out of the sand (or they'll keep cooking), spread them on a tray, and let them cool down.
Note that if you let them roast too much, the skin will like break and sand will get inside. It's not a big deal because you almost always take the skin off to eat them, but it's a bit annoying when traces of sand end up in your mouth.

Step 6: Enjoy and Show Off: 
La Negra y los Morenos
Anyway, you're pretty much done. Keep them in a dry, sealed container. Otherwise they lose their crunchiness. You can sell them for $7 a pound or give them as presents to your best friends. You can also impress your guests at a dinner party or simply eat them by yourself watching a good movie and enjoying a cold Laurentina Preta.

Anything can happen with these peanuts.

Bon appetit!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Flood Tolerance Rice: Showcasing the IRRI's Vital Research

Communicating Nutrition: From London to Maputo

One of the things that went unnoticed about the London Olympics was a great event organized by DFID and the British government, showcasing the importance of tacking global chronic malnutrition. This was part of a larger effort coordinated by the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement.

Mozambique's agriculture minister attended the event and we helped draft his remarks arguing for a better integration of agriculture and nutrition. Unfortunately, aside from some coverage by The Guardian, and other media outlets, little was mentioned about the event on the press.

Although it's getting better, this is a difficult problem those working on global nutrition continue to face: creating a sense of urgency about stunting and what to do about it. As opposed to the powerful images of wasting or starvation, stunted children appear 'normal' and their short height for their age is often attributed to cultural factors.  I would often hear that misconception while working in Nicaragua where indigenous children are thought to be shorter 'by nature.' However, I was surprise to hear the same argument it once again here in Mozambique. (The picture on the right compares Guatemalan children with the height of their counterpart raised in the US)

Currently, we're working on developing a communication strategy that addresses the issue of poor nutrition communication. The government strategy to tackle stunting -the PAMRDC- was approved two years ago and there is a sense that we're losing momentum. With the exception of one, none of the provinces have started implementing the plan. That's why it's really important to reengage politicians and policy makers about the importance of addressing chronic malnutrition with a well-defined advocacy and communication strategy.

The arsenal to do this already exists. There are robust studies that link stunting to adult labor productivity and income generation - an argument that a finance minister will likely entertain. There is also plenty of evidence about how chronic malnutrition exacerbates child illnesses and increases mortality rates. Officials at the ministry of health will definitely pay attention to that. Similarly, underfunded institution working on water and sanitation and school feeding programs will also love to hear about how their work impacts nutrition.

And then there is also the broader message about keeping a nation well feed, ensuring that everyone has access to the most basic need - adequate food. In a country that experienced food riots when the price of bread went up just two years ago, this particular message resonates well with voters and politicians. With rural poverty on the rise and early signs of a resource curse, Mozambicans are increasingly worried about the price of food and politicians are taking note.

Despite all these rock solid arguments and incentives, getting all the organizations and institutions together and have them agreed on the key messages we want to send across remains a monumental challenge. Food security in this country continues to be about increasing yields and making food more available. But just the fact Nampula - the country's bread basket - has the second highest rate of stunting should put serious question marks on this approach.

The other challenge is to grab politician's short attention span. They are interested in the silver bullets and the buzz of the day. They love to sign lofty plans and strategies but when it comes to allocating the funds to implement, they can't find the pen to sign the check. As I said on my previous post, Mozambique is filled with strategies that do not materialized and are rather the reflection of demanding donors.

So yes, by championing their own approach and coordinating little with others of their kind, donors don't make things easier either. A recent article by Joseph Hanlon explores these issues of conflicting approaches. And while I don't agree with the article's main point - that the country has to focus on small holders at the expense of neglecting international agricultural investment - his point about fleeting donor interest is well taken.

We'll continue working on this communication and advocacy strategy. In the meantime, check out the video below showing Prime Minister Cameron describing the need for focusing on global nutrition - an excellent example of an engaged leader that understand well global nutrition.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

12 Innovations to Combat Drought, Improve Food Security, and Stabilize Food Prices

This post originally appeared on Worldwatch Institute Blog

Worldwatch Institute highlights 12 ways to make the U.S. agriculture system more resilient to drought and, in the long run, more sustainable.

Soaring temperatures and low precipitation could not occur at a worse time for many farmers in the United States. Intensifying drought conditions are affecting corn and soybean crops throughout the Midwest, raising grain prices as well as concerns about future food prices. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports that 88 percent of this year’s corn crop and 77 percent of the soybean crop are now affected by the most severe drought since 1988. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing drought assistance to 1,584 counties across 32 states and warns of increased food prices in 2013 as a result of corn and soybean yield losses.

Corn is currently selling at around $9 a bushel, a 50 percent increase from June, while soybeans are selling at a record high of $17 a bushel as a result of drought-related losses in crop yields. “The increased prices may benefit farmers in the short run,” said Danielle Nierenberg, director of the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet project, “but consumers will experience the aftermath of price increases in the form of more money spent on poultry, beef, pork, and dairy products.”

Nearly half of all domestic corn production is used as livestock feed, a trend that is now encouraging larger livestock producers to import corn from Brazil while smaller farmers must reduce herd sizes by sending more animals to the market. Most immediately, poultry prices are expected to rise 3.5 to 4.5 percent due to the animals’ more rapid growth and therefore more sudden response to higher feed prices. The price of beef is projected to rise the highest—4 to 5 percent by November—but at a slower rate, reflecting the longer growth period and higher feed requirements of beef cattle.

Higher U.S. grain prices could have an even greater impact worldwide. The United States is the world’s largest corn producer as well as a major exporter of crop-derived agricultural products. Declining domestic production could translate into exacerbated food security problems abroad. Countries that import corn and soybean byproducts or animal feed, such as Japan and Mexico, will be affected the most.
Climate change is making it increasingly important to protect local agriculture in the United States and address the issues underlying its vulnerability to natural disasters, such as drought. “Fixing our broken food system is about more than just food prices,” said Nierenberg. “It’s about better management of natural resources, equitable distribution, and the right to healthy and nutritious food.”

The Nourishing the Planet (www.NourishingthePlanet.org) project highlights 12 agricultural innovations that can help make U.S. and global agriculture more drought resilient, as well as sustainable.  

1.   Agroforestry: Planting trees in and around farms reduces soil erosion by providing a natural barrier against strong winds and rainfall. Tree roots also stabilize and nourish soils. The 1990 Farm Bill established the USDA National Agroforestry Center with the expressed aim of encouraging farmers to grow trees as windbreaks or as part of combined forage and livestock production, among other uses.

2.   Soil management:Alternating crop species allows soil periods of rest, restores nutrients, and also controls pests. Soil amendments, such as biochar, help soils retain moisture near the surface by providing a direct source of water and nutrients to plant roots, even in times of drought.

3.   Increasing crop diversity: Mono-cropping often exposes crops to pests and diseases associated with overcrowding, and can increase market dependence on a few varieties: in the United States, almost 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties have vanished in favor of mono-cultured staples such as Pink Lady apples and Yukon Gold potatoes. Encouraging diversity through agricultural subsidies and informed consumption choices can help reverse this trend and the threat it poses to domestic food security.

4.   Improving food production from existing livestock: Improved animal husbandry practices can increase milk and meat quantities without the need to increase herd sizes or associated environmental degradation. In India, farmers are improving the quality of their feed by using grass, sorghum, stover, and brans to produce more milk from fewer animals. This also reduces pressure on global corn supplies.

5.   Diversifying livestock breeds: Most commercial farming operations rely on a narrow range of commercial breeds selected for their high productivity and low input needs. Selective breeding, however, has also made these breeds vulnerable to diseases and changing environments. Lesser-known livestock such as North American Bison are often hardier and produce richer milk.

6.   “Meatless Mondays”:Choosing not to eat meat at least one day a week will reduce the environmental impacts associated with livestock as well as increase food availability in domestic and global markets. Current production methods require 7 kilograms of grain and 100,000 liters of water for every 1 kilogram of meat. Livestock production accounts for an estimated 18 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and roughly 23 percent of agricultural water use worldwide.

7.   Smarter irrigation systems:The Ogallala High Plains Aquifer, which supplies essential groundwater to many Midwestern states, is experiencing record rates of depletion due to extraction for irrigation purposes. Almost 50 percent of commercial and residential irrigation water, however, is wasted due to evaporation, wind, improper design, and overwatering. Installing water sensors or micro-irrigation technology and planning water-efficient gardens or farms using specific crops and locations can significantly reduce water scarcity problems.

8.   Integrated farming systems: Farming systems, such as permaculture, improve soil fertility and agricultural productivity by using natural resources as sustainably and efficiently as possible. Research and implementation of permaculture techniques, such as recycling wastewater or planting groups of plants that utilize the same resources in related ways, are expanding rapidly across the United States.

9.   Agroecological and organic farming:Organic and agroecological farming methods are designed to build soil quality and promote plant and animal health in harmony with local ecosystems. Research shows that they can increase sustainable yield goals by 50 percent or more with relatively few external inputs. In contrast, genetic engineering occasionally increases output by 10 percent, often with unanticipated impacts on crop physiology and resistance.

10.   Supporting small-scale farmers:Existing agricultural subsidies in the United States cater disproportionately to large-scale agribusinesses, 80 percent of which produce corn for animal feed and ethanol. This means that small-scale producers are affected more acutely by natural disasters and fluctuating commodity prices, even though they are more likely to be involved in food production. Government extension and support services should be adjusted to alleviate this deficit.

11.   Re-evaluating ethanol subsidies:Although ethanol’s share of U.S. gasoline is still relatively small (projected at 15–17 percent by 2030), in 2009 the Congressional Budget Office reported that increased demand for corn ethanol has, at times, contributed to 10–15 percent of the rise in food prices. Encouraging clean energy alternatives to crop-based biofuels will increase the amount of food available for consumption, both at home and abroad

12.   Agricultural Research and Development (R&D):The share of agricultural R&D undertaken by the U.S. public sector fell from 54 percent in 1986 to 28 percent in 2009, and private research has filled the gap. Private companies, however, are often legally bound to maximize economic returns for investors, raising concerns over scientific independence and integrity. Increased government funding and support for agricultural research, development, and training programs can help address issues such as hunger, malnutrition, and poverty without being compromised by corporate objectives.  

Although food prices will certainly continue to rise as the current drought runs its course, it is clear that the United States has the knowledge and the know-how to make its agricultural system more sustainable and food secure. It’s now a question of putting these innovations to work.