Research News

New Seminar Video: Planting Seeds of Change in the Millennium Villages


Scientists from the Earth Institute at Columbia University recently highlighted a critical global issue that is highly susceptible to world market fluctuations and afflicts millions of people: chronic hunger.

The Earth Institute’s Seminars on Sustainable Development address the Institute’s nine cross-cutting research themes. Climate and society, water, energy, and ecosystems health and monitoring were addressed in the Fall 2008 series, while urbanization, hazards and risk, global health, poverty, and food, ecology and nutrition are all being addressed this semester.

The event featured three prominent Earth Institute scientists from the Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program: Pedro Sanchez, the program’s director; Cheryl Palm, senior research scientist; and Generose Nziguheba, associate research scientist. They addressed global issues in food production, malnutrition and starvation in the context of the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages project in 10 African countries, which Sanchez and Palm direct.

“There is plenty of food in the world but it is access to that food that is the problem,” said Sanchez, who is the director of the Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages project and co-chair of the Millennium Project’s Hunger Task Force. He noted that 15 percent of the world’s population is suffering from hunger despite record high global food production. He noted that the American political elite’s consensus of the past several decades that the market can take care of itself has proven to be false—even in the richest nations in the world.

Although there are many institutions that attempt to address this problem, Sanchez scolded the “lords of hunger”—the bureaucratic elite in government, academic institutions and NGOs—for not taking enough action in addressing the hunger issue. Luckily, he said, people like the Earth Institute’s director, Jeffrey Sachs, are helping to “transform the mentalities of the world” by lifting the debate on agriculture back to the top of the development agenda and working to channel funding to tackle agronomy issues.

Looking at the root of the problem, Sanchez said that more data is available about the soil of Mars than about the soils of Africa—something that he and his colleagues at the Earth Institute, the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) are addressing through the Africa Soil Information Service (AfSIS) and projects like the Global Soil Map.

Palm, who is the science director for the Millennium Villages project, made a clear link between development in agriculture and improved health, labor productivity and economic development. Speaking about malnutrition, Palm showed that millions of children who are not at immediate risk of starvation are at a much higher risk of death by other diseases like malaria because their immune systems are weakened. In addition, they suffer their entire lives from problems associated with stunted physical development. Stunting is a major health problem among children in the Millennium Villages where about 20 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from under-nutrition.

Both Palm and Sanchez addressed the affect that the availability of fuel and water to cook foods and bring out the maximum nutrients—something that their Earth Institute colleagues like Professor Vijay Modi, the MVP infrastructure coordinator, are addressing—have on the level of nutrition in these villages, noting that often families appear to have enough food, but the distribution of nutrients is skewed. “It’s not just enough food, it’s the right kind of food—nutritional food,” Palm said, citing Uganda as a good example of a region that has good agro-diversity on paper, but, as Palm and her colleagues like Jessica Fanzo, the MVP nutrition coordinator, have shown, this diversity really only includes a large variety of very similar species, providing limited nutritional value.

In addition, she noted that due to social customs, the youngest children and women are often the last to eat or only receive the least nutritious portions of animals such as the necks or feet of chickens, rather than the breasts or thighs. She said that this leads to the generational transfer of health and developmental problems and that this “downward spiral” could be reversed with basic inputs like fertilizers and education about diet and complimentary crops (like the “three sisters”—corn, beans and squash).

Nziguheba, an associate research scientist at the Tropical Agriculture and the Rural Environment Program at the Earth Institute, gave an in-depth presentation about the Millennium Villages project’s initiatives in the fight against hunger in the villages and surrounding regions.

Using the examples of Mwandama, Malawi, and Mbola, Tanzania, Nziguheba highlighted the difference the MVP has made in improving agricultural output in these villages by teaching new practices and promoting the use of fertilizers and higher-quality seeds.

Diversification of farming systems enabled production in the off-season and helped augment income, while improved storage management techniques prevented crop damage from pests that posed a threat to human health and hurt crop prices in international markets. Mwandama more than doubled its maize production, while the MVP intervention in Mbola helped raise maize production almost six times, Nziguheba showed.

Nziguheba also highlighted other areas in which the MVP had played a role in these villages like education and female empowerment. Sanchez agreed with her highlight of female education, saying: “If there is one intervention that I would do after people have food is to have girls’ education… this is the answer to population growth.” Having too many children is a major cause of food shortages in many families.

Addressing a question from the audience about the effect that agriculture is having on the ecological environments in the Millennium Villages, Palm stated: “The environments in these places are very degraded. It would be very difficult to make these environments any worse. What we’re doing through education and agricultural policies is actually helping.”

In closing, Sachez responded to concerns about the use of mineral fertilizers and genetically modified seeds (GMOs). He said that mineral fertilizers are necessary in any agricultural system because so many nutrients are removed from the system through harvesting. Without fertilization, he said, the world could only support one to two inhabitants. Regarding GMOs, he said that they are not currently being used in the villages simply because “there is nothing in them that the farmers would prefer.” He said, “We are using the kind of seeds that people want. These are hybrid seeds and the majority are created in-country.”

To view a video of the entire event, please click here.

A video of the Earth Institute’s second seminar in the Spring 2009 Sustainable Development Series: “Greening the Urban Economy” will be available soon. The seminar was moderated by Elliott Sclar and Patricia Culligan of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development and included leading academics, practitioners and social entrepreneurs in the field of urbanization and “green” economics.

The final two seminars of the year will cover the cross-cutting themes of hazards and risk (April 2nd 4-6 p.m. in Davis Auditorium) and global health (April 16th 5-7 p.m. in Davis Auditorium). For more information and to RSVP for all seminars, please email Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri.

Please also join our mailing list to receive Earth Institute updates and news on upcoming events by emailing Amanda Christie. Also visit the Earth Institute Web site's Upcoming Events page, which is updated daily.