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Keep current on gender and international agriculture

20 Oct

https://www.flickr.com/photos/icrisat/5814411222/in/faves-croptrust/ Sorghum at its peak.

Agriculture is the largest employer of rural women in much of the developing world (FAO 2011). Yet women farmers often face gender-based productive constraints, largely in the form of unequal access to resources. The world’s female farmers own less land, manage less livestock, and use less purchased fertilizer than men; they are less likely to obtain formal education, credit, insurance, membership in groups or collectives, and improved seed and livestock breeds (FAO 2011). In many agricultural communities, female-headed households are less resilient to economic and environmental stressors and more food insecure than their male-headed counterparts (for evidence from Africa, see a recent working paper from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). As should be the case, multilateral agencies and research institutions are increasingly committed to redressing gender inequality through agricultural and rural development.

harvesting wheat (2)
An Ahir tribal woman in Nadapa village, east of Bhuj harvesting wheat.

Through my research on and off campus, I have amassed a collection of favorite agriculture-related blogs. Below are some of the sites that I use to keep current on gender issues on the international ag front. Enjoy.

1. Gender-Nutrition Idea Exchange of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health
2. Year of Gender news page of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics
3. International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI): Gender
4. Gender, Agriculture, & Assets Project of IFPRI and the International Livestock Research Institute
5. Gender & Food Policy News from IFPRI
6. Climate Change, Collective Action, & Women’s Assets from IFPRI
7. On Gender and Restoration: A case study series by the International Union for Conservation of Nature
8. Agroforestry World posts on gender from the World Agroforestry Center

– Jacqueline Maasch ’16J

Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. Her interests include agroecology, human nutrition, (agro)biodiversity conservation, and climate.

Agriculture and transboundary infectious diseases – the Ebola crisis

14 Oct

20141010-BABY-slide-MFC3-videoSixteenByNine1050_NYTPhoto: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times

International Food Policy Research Institute Director General Shenggen Fan has authored an opinion piece on the implications of the Ebola crisis for food systems in West Africa. The article, Preventing an Ebola-Related Food Crisis, was posted to IFPRI’s DG Corner blog on October 9th.

Agricultural production, food importation, labor availability, and local trade have been significantly upset in many regions struck with the virus. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 40 percent of farmers in Kailahun, Sierra Leone, have abandoned their farms since the outbreak, while cultivation has ceased on 90 percent of agricultural land. Harvests have been disrupted due to labor shortages as people fall ill, are quarantined, or are prevented from traveling freely. Consequences include decreased food availability and rapid increases in food prices: the cost of rice has increased by up to 30% in Ebola-stricken regions (World Bank 2014), while cassava has jumped in price by up to 150% in Liberia (FAO 2014). See the original World Bank and FAO reports for more information.

Fan offers his own recommendations for moderating what could become a large-scale food crisis. I assume this blog’s readership includes those who share my interest in evidence-based agricultural growth that is responsive to the needs of people – perhaps you also have thoughts on the implications of zoonotic epidemics for agricultural livelihoods, and what can and should be done in times of crisis.

I have more questions than answers.

– Jacqueline Maasch ’16J

Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. Her interests include agroecology, human health & nutrition, (agro)biodiversity conservation, and climate.

Treating genes as a resource, conserving plant biodiversity

27 Jan

Image: http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/08/08/seed.bank.paulsmith/     Image: http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/08/08/seed.bank.paulsmith/

The erosion of plant genetic diversity represents an irreversible loss with potentially catastrophic consequences. For this reason, plant genetic diversity is treated today as a resource, and one that requires thoughtful management. This is where genebanks come in:

genebank –
a repository for genetic material (plant or animal), which may be collected, stored, cataloged, and redistributed; increasingly, these repositories are becoming sites of genetics research
sometimes referred to as: gene banks, germplasm repositories, seed banks (though not all genetic material is collected in the form of seed)

Internationally, thousands of genebanks are working to conserve wild and cultivated plant genetic resources – and, by extension, the world’s ecological and agricultural biodiversity. These resources are acquired and preserved as germplasm; the form this germplasm takes is species-dependent.

germplasm –
a set of tissues, organs, or plant parts that can regenerate into whole plants (i.e. seeds, cuttings, budwood) and that carry desired genetic resources (i.e. genes, gene frequencies, genetic combinations)

Factors such as climate change and human population growth represent mounting threats to the natural environment, the global economy, and global food security. In the face of these threats, genetic resource conservation will ensure our ability both to protect the environment and to cultivate plants that meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. As repositories of the world’s biodiversity, plant genebanks safeguard endangered species and provide the germs of life with which to restore devastated ecosystems. As storehouses of intraspecific variation, genebanks provide the genetic wellsprings from which breeders can select for improved yields, nutritive values, stress tolerance, and disease and pest resistance.

In the following TED talks, two experts offer their own passionate arguments in favor of plant genetic resource conservation:


Jonathan Drori explains the significance of plant life and the work of , the world’s largest ex situ plant conservation project.


Cary Fowler, Senior Advisor to the , explains the importance of agricultural biodiversity and the work of the (sometimes referred to endearingly as the “doomsday vault”).

– Jacqueline Maasch, ’15

Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. She hopes to work at a genebank at some point in the future. This post is based on research done in Horticulture (BIO 122) in spring 2013.

Marine plastic pollution: ENV 100 students are asked, “How bad is it?”

23 Dec

In his ENV 100 presentation “Plastic in Our Oceans: How Bad Is It,” microbial ecologist Erik Zettler outlined the realities of marine plastic pollution. Zettler first set out to debunk three pervasive myths regarding plastic and the world’s growing marine “garbage patches”:

MYTH 1: Earth’s oceans are filled with enormous, swirling islands of plastic debris. These garbage patches are visible from space.
REALITY: Marine garbage patches mostly look like pristine ocean – until you drag a net through them. Even then, the majority of the plastic fragments captured are less than 1 cm in size.

MYTH 2: Plastic is everywhere in the ocean.
REALITY: Plastic debris moves with ocean currents and converges in gyres – large systems of rotating currents. These gyres become the locations of garbage patches, such as those found in the Pacific, North Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

MYTH 3: Plastic does not biodegrade.
REALITY: Plastics do break down eventually – though once they have entered the environment, they often persist much longer than we would hope for them to.

Zettler’s objective was not to minimize the severity of the marine plastic pollution problem. Nor was it to imply that action is not urgently needed. It was simply to provide a more scientific and less sensationalized perspective on the issue.

Nevertheless, I was moved by his initial question: “How bad is it?” In trying to answer this question, I was reminded that it was not my studies in environmental science that first brought the problem of plastic to my attention – it was my interest in archaeology.

Archaeologists examine the facts of our material reality – the picture that is painted by the physical record we leave behind. These material remains are often what we leave behind intentionally: our refuse, detritus, trash, garbage. The objects we discard speak volumes about the individual lives we lead. And when our garbage is examined on a community or cultural scale, larger patterns of human behavior and belief become visible.

At the urging of my archaeology professor, I attended a presentation last year on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the birds of Midway Atoll. This experience prompted me to ask myself: what picture is my own society painting? What do we see when we look at our own trash? And what would someone from the distant future, the distant past, or another planet entirely think of our modern civilization if they were to examine our refuse?

What sense would they make of this, if they were to uncover such a thing buried under thousands of years worth of strata:

Photographer Chris Jordan's series <em>Midway: Message from the Gyre</em> documents the albatross population of Midway Atoll, whose 'nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean.' (http://www.chrisjordan.com)Photographer Chris Jordan’s series “Midway: Message from the Gyre” documents the albatross population of Midway Atoll, whose ‘nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean.’ (http://www.chrisjordan.com)

How bad is it? There might not be giant, solid masses of plastic debris choking our oceans. This plastic might not be immortal, and it might not be everywhere. Nevertheless: I would say, definitively, it is not a pretty picture that we are painting. Our current patterns of behavior – and the belief systems that underlie them – urgently need to be reevaluated.

– Jacqueline Maasch, ’15

Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. This spring she will be studying in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies.

Reflecting on transboundary environmental issues

19 Dec

A response to Clive Lipchin’s ENV 100 presentation, “Transboundary Decentralized Waste Water Management in the Middle East”

Nature knows no borders, according to Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. This dictum was the basis of Clive Lipchin’s lecture on waste water management in the Middle East, as presented to ENV 100 students this fall. Lipchin framed the region’s transboundary water issues as complex environmental, social, economic, and political problems, the solutions to which necessarily involve both science and diplomacy. As director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management, he explained the ecological factors at play, the overarching political context, and the efforts being made (and not being made) by various stakeholders. In addition to stressing the need for intergovernmental cooperation in water resources management, Lipchin presented promising approaches to solving waste water issues in Palestine and Israel.

Arava Institute students monitoring the Be'er Sheva stream, which carries sewage and industrial pollution from Palestine into Israel. For legal reasons, Israel can only partially treat this contaminated water before returning it to the stream. (http://arava.org/)Arava Institute students monitoring the Be’er Sheva stream, which carries sewage and industrial pollution from Palestine into Israel. For legal reasons, Israel can only partially treat this contaminated water before returning it to the stream. (http://arava.org/)

In Environmental Science & Policy Integration I, we often discuss the transboundary nature of environmental issues. Transboundary externalities are present when activities that occur within the jurisdiction of one politically-defined region (such as a state or nation) produce results that affect the environment or people in other regions. Many of the world’s greatest environmental and human health disasters have been transboundary in nature, such as the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the former Soviet Union, which spread nuclear pollution over much of Europe and western Asia. Acid rain in the northeastern United States is a close-to-home example of a transboundary externality, as the chemical pollutants that cause it are largely produced by industrial activities that take place outside the region.

While we are all familiar with a handful of high-profile transboundary issues, it is important to note that a great many environmental issues produce transboundary externalities. Why is this the case? Because nature does indeed know no borders. The boundary lines imposed by human activities are artificial and inconsequential to the complex ecosystems we inhabit. These are ecosystems governed by geophysical and biological processes, not by politics. The water carrying industrial pollution and human waste across state lines is not cognizant of these borders in its journey through the hydrologic cycle. Only we are.

Yet political boundaries are of great consequence in the human world. We fight wars over them. We carry special documents that communicate which borders we can cross and which we have no business crossing. We spend enormous sums to barricade our borders from illegal entry. Meanwhile, the population contained within the political boundaries of a region – a nation for instance – might adhere to culturally-specific beliefs, values, and laws; their governments and economies might be wealthy and established, or in debt and unstable; and their natural resources might be abundant and well stewarded, or over-burdened and depleted. At the same time, a neighboring region may live under the exact opposite conditions. This is to say that while neighboring ecosystems might be interdependent, and things might flow through them naturally and harmoniously, quite the opposite can be true of neighboring human populations. They might clash, be at odds, have conflicting needs or goals, have disparate capacities to meet environmental challenges, or struggle to come to agreements.

This reality in large part defines Israeli-Palestinian water resources management. Palestine has a very limited capacity for dealing with waste water – though like any nation, it is continually producing it. As a result, the vast majority of Palestinian waste water is either stored in improperly constructed septic tanks or flows directly into the environment. Due to the configuration of the landscape, much of the waste that enters surface water in Palestine flows into Israel. An affluent nation, Israel (which enjoys the highest standard of living in the Middle East) maintains a more extensive infrastructure than does Palestine, and so is able to treat some of this waste water once it enters its borders. Though Israel taxes Palestine for the treatment of this waste water, Palestine does not receive any benefits from the treatment process, such as the ability to reuse treated water (which is crucial in a chronically water scarce region). In other words, Palestine’s lack of infrastructure and the transboundary nature of this issue leads Israel to take unilateral actions, leaving Palestine taxed and without benefits. Underlying this situation are incredibly complex and contentious issues of national recognition, sovereignty, and land rights – issues which often preclude rational planning for improved infrastructure.

While Lipchin acknowledges that political tensions often stalemate progress in improving the Israeli-Palestinian water situation, he does name one promising approach. Given that the current political reality does not allow for the improvement of centralized infrastructure, some researchers have advocated a decentralized approach to waste water treatment. One decentralized treatment method being explored is the use of greywater filtration systems in private homes. These mimic marsh environments – nature’s great water filtration systems – and produce water that can be reused by the household, namely for irrigation. I have seen a system somewhat like this at the UMass extension turf station, which I visited with my horticulture class last year. I believe they were testing the effectiveness of the system, and possibly which grass species lent themselves best to water filtration. At the time I was struck by how brilliant nature is. I was also impressed by the idea that by approximating what nature does so well, we might solve massive development issues.

Greywater lies on a spectrum between potable water and blackwater (sewage). Though often discarded, it can be effectively recycled and reused by households for various purposes, including irrigation. (http://greenletter.org)Greywater lies on a spectrum between potable water and blackwater (sewage). Though often discarded, it can be effectively recycled and reused by households for various purposes, including irrigation. (http://greenletter.org)

However, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian water issue, bringing the genius of nature into everyone’s backyard (e.g. in the form of a greywater treatment system) is unfortunately not the cure-all. Solutions like this still cost money that many people do not have. Overcoming the obstacles that divide stakeholders (whether they be political tensions or something else) will still be pivotal in resolving the transboundary water issues specific to the Middle East.

– Jacqueline Maasch, ’15

Jacqueline is an anthropology major, environmental science & policy minor, and sustainable food concentrator. This spring she will be studying in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies.