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Impact: Organic Revolution


Colombians Work to Reconcile Cattle Farming And Forests

Colombia's biggest project to make livestock farming sustainable is showing that farmers can raise cattle and even boost dairy production without destroying the forest.

BOGOTÁ — An ambitious project to make livestock farming sustainable in Colombia is yielding results almost a decade after its implementation in 83 districts. Its lesson so far is that livestock and trees can coexist, and farmers can make money without cutting down the forest.

Anyone observing the 43 million hectares Oxfam estimates are used as farming land in Colombia will see that the worst of its countryside's endemic problems are in livestock rather than crop farming.

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When Red Is Green, Bordeaux Winemakers Bet On Environment

MARCILLAC — From the edge of the vineyard, one can see a small wooden hosting shed for honeybees and other insects with translucent wings. The vegetation along the ground is dense with phacelia, rumex and crimson clovers to nurture biodiversity. Here in the French department of Gironde, more and more producers in and around the heart of Bordeaux winemaking country are betting green.

Behind this new commitment to reducing climate change and to nurture new environmentally friendly production is theVignerons de Tutiac (Tutiac Winemakers), a cooperative comprising some 500 producers of Bordeaux, Côtes de Bourg and Blaye labels.

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In Morocco, A Village Poor In Land But Rich In Gardens

This article is part of sponsored series from the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

EL BRECHOUA — A small but significant revolution is underway amidst the golden wheat-covered hills of the Moroccan municipality of El Brechoua, 60 kilometers from the capital of Rabat.

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The Desalination Fix: Inside Israel's Water Revolution

TEL AVIV — From the beautiful beach of Palmachim, on the Israeli coast, it's hard to picture what's happening below your feet, where 624,000 cubic meters of sea water are being sucked up every day by two enormous pipes and transported more than two kilometers inland to be transformed into drinkable water.

Welcome to Sorek, the world's largest desalination plant to use a cutting edge process called seawater reverse osmosis. The facility emerged from the sand in 2013 and is located 15 kilometers south of Tel Aviv. It now provides 20% of Israel's running water and supplies 1.5 million people.

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Pierre Lepidi

The Poop On How Rwanda Turned Prison Feces Into Energy

Overrun with prisoners sentenced for their roles in the country's 1994 genocide, Rwanda had to find a way to deal with its massive prison waste and reduce energy costs. It managed both with a biogas system.

RWAMAGANA — They're sitting on the floor in close ranks, facing the door. There's about a hundred of them. In their orange uniforms, most of them barefooted, the convicts are waiting under a scorching sun, waiting to be counted and re-counted before entering Rwamagana's penitentiary, the biggest prison in Rwanda.

Among the 8,597 prisoners crammed inside its high walls, more than half are still being imprisoned for crimes they committed during the genocide that killed more than 800,000 people, most of them Tutsi, between April and July 1994. During the commemorations that will officially end on July 4 but also on billboards and on television, the word kwibua, or "remember," is everywhere.

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Smarter Cities
Isabel Esterman

Urban Gardening Takes Root In Egypt

CAIRO — Interested in planting summer vegetables such as pepper, zucchini or molokhia? Now is just about the right time of year to plant, says Hany El Khodary, head of urban farming company Green Zone Egypt.

Even city dwellers with no outdoor space apart from a small balcony can grow small gardens or recycle some of their own food waste into nutrient-rich soil.

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food / travel
María Paulina Baena Jaramillo

Dutch And Colombians Brew Up Green Coffee Cooperation

The Netherlands, a major consumer of sustainable coffee, is helping to make production in Colombia more environmentally friendly for the benefit of grower and drinker alike.

BOGOTA — Since 2012, the Sustainable Trade Platform (STP) has aimed to make Colombia's production of coffee, flowers, palm oil and bananas more environmentally and economically sustainable. It's an ambitious task to help change long-established farming practices, production methods and consumption habits.

But what makes it particularly interesting is the consciously bilateral nature of the program between players in both the producer and consumer nations: the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Bogota and the local NGO Solidaridad.

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Alphonse Nekwa Makwala and Emmanuel Lukeba

African Women On Climate Change Front Line

Women farmers in Lower Congo have been the first to notice the effects of desertification, and the first to react.

MATADI — Women in the rural areas of Lower Congo, southwest of Kinshasa, are in the direct path of climate change's devastating effects. Made aware of the vulnerability of local crops to desertification, a group of women are actively working to reforest the area, and encouraging others to do the same.

“We are suffering. No one is taking care of us. How are we going to send our children to school, to feed them, dress them?” asks Alphonsine Lukebana, a farmer from Kimpese. "Now we have to travel long distances to grow anything, because the earth doesn’t give us good harvests anymore."

Another rural woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who has come to the regional capital of Matadi to sell her products, says she must deal with the destruction of the forests, and the costs of traveling to sell what crops she is finally able to reap. "It’s an enormous effort just to survive,” she says. “How much profit can we make with the increasing price of transportation?”

Reduction in harvests, water sources drying up, less and less arable land, disappearance of animal and plant species: These are effects of desertification, one of the most visible consequences of climate change. “These changes plunge women, especially those who live in rural areas, into unprecedented poverty,” explained Annie Mbadu, the secretary of the Network for Women and Development (Refed).

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María Luna Mendoza

Recreating Rural, Growing Organic For Medellin's Displaced

The Colombian city hosts the most citizens displaced from rural areas by the country's ongoing civil conflict. A special program allows these domestic refugees to farm in the city.

MEDELLIN — In 2002, Aura Mosquera's life changed forever. Civil unrest forced her from her home in a rural area of Antioquia, in northeastern Colombia. She arrived with her five children in Pinares de Oriente, a settlement in Medellin’s Comuna 8 neighborhood that was founded to host victims of forced displacement.

Like 650 others, Mosquera has been benefiting from a unique project spearheaded by the Architecture School of the Medellin branch of the Colombian National University. The project aims to use new urban agriculture techniques to partially reconstruct the rural social and cultural fabric for Medellin’s growing community of refugees from the countryside.

The new system of urban agriculture, which focuses on agricultural ecology and organic processes, has been the most important tool in the process of creating a collective “cultural memory” for more than 180 families of peasants who have been forcibly displaced from various parts of the country and settled in Medellin.

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Kerstin Viering

Happy Cow? The Murky Science Of Measuring Bovine Happiness

HAMBURG — It’s good to have a clear conscience about breakfast, so when the yogurt container or milk bottle pictures happy animals, it’s reassuring. Consumers frequently imagine happy cows in lush pastures and roomy stalls where everything is good. But that’s only part of the truth.

To meet organic and animal rights standards, farmers are required to have experts verify that they meet certain standards, but they don’t include a measure of the animal’s happiness. “The examiners only look at the stalls, not the stall residents,” explains Jan Brinkmann, from the Thünen Institute for Organic Agriculture.

And that’s precisely what Brinkmann and his colleagues would like to change. They are working with consumer economic researchers at the Thünen Institute to create new animal welfare criteria for milk production. “The organic associations in Germany have a major interest in it,” says Angela Bergschmidt, one of these experts. But the knowledge should fit in with guidelines for several monetary awards from the EU that are meant to encourage good conditions for the animals.

Some German regions, such as Nordrhein-Westfalen and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, offer monetary awards for farmers whose cows are allowed into pasture every day between June 1 and Oct. 1. Constructing “particularly humane” stalls can also lead to additional subsidies. These “extra humane” stalls must provide each cow with at least five square meters of room, and include an area for the cow to lie down and a place for eating. “These are not particularly strict requirements,” Bergschmidt says.

Researching milk cow illnesses

Organic cows already enjoy more comfort than average, but even the best guidelines for stall size and pasture access don’t guarantee a happy herd. Even the most comfortable cows can suffer from mastitis or other illnesses. And then happy cow time is over.

These health problems are by no means unusual. In Germany, between 30% and 50% of all cows suffer from mastitis at least once a year. Around the same number become crippled. And around 30% get ketosis, a metabolic disorder that causes energy loss. “Affected animals feel something like we do when we have a hangover,” says Brinkmann. Organic cows have these problems about as often as conventional cows, although they need less medication to become healthy again.

“We know much more about these so-called production illnesses than we did a couple years ago,” Brinkmann says. And many producers have improved both herd management and the stalls.

Improvements don’t seem to make healthier cows

It’s obvious, for example, that the lie boxes need to be soft. Otherwise, settling down, standing up and even the act of lying in the stall are torturous for the animals. Cows’ joints support 650 to 700 kilos, and if the cows don’t have a proper place to rest, their joints can swell to the size of a soccer ball and then become severely damaged. The animals often refuse to lie down on an uncomfortable spot.

But neither is too much standing good for the cows, because it is equally hard on their joints and hooves. Many conventional farms have plastic mattresses in the lie boxes that the cows can comfortably lie on. Organic farms are supposed to have straw padding for the same reasons.

“Despite all of these improvements in the animals’ conditions, the herds have not been getting healthier,” says Brinkmann. He explains that because modern cow breeds have been bred for ever-increasing production, they are that much more demanding. As soon as the smallest condition is imperfect, health problems arise.

Brinkmann compares the ideal life of a high-production cow to a Sunday brunch: Everyone spends most of the time comfortably sitting down, feeling good and full. But since everything tastes so good, they get up from time to time to get some more food. “It’s relatively challenging to organize a perfect cow-brunch every day,” Brinkmann says. “Something is bound to go wrong.”

Measuring well-being

Even more interesting are the indicators that can tell the farmers their weak spots in their animal care. Perhaps herd health could be markedly improved through different food or better hygiene, improved hoof care or other management techniques. “We can also give farmers awards when the indicators show particularly happy and healthy animals,” Bergschmidt says.

The question is, what should be measured? Scientists have established a massive catalog of indicators for animal well-being and health. As part of the enormous EU project “Welfare Quality,” that knowledge has been transferred into handbooks for keeping cows, pigs and poultry. The criteria established in those handbooks is considered the gold standard in humane animal husbandry.

“By the time you’ve checked all the indicators, you have easily spent eight hours on the farm,” says Angela Bergschmidt. No organic association can afford to spend that kind of time, and it’s also too much for any government-sponsored incentive program. Bergschmidt and her colleagues are now trying to create a smaller, condensed catalog of criteria, which will be more practical for both farmers and inspectors.

A practical catalog of cow happiness

The new system of measuring bovine happiness will involve collecting information that is already recorded on farms, such as monthly milk output. This will allow farmers to assess and control each one of their cows. In addition to the amount, the quality of the milk will also be assessed.

Some of these indicators say quite a lot about animal well-being. For example, if the milk is found to have a high number of cells from the udder, that is a a sign of undiagnosed mastitis.

In addition to milk-quality data, researchers have established other criteria for happy animals. They include the percentage of the herd that suffers from joint problems or have to be treated for mastitis. They are currently testing the new criteria and guidelines on 150 farms.

Whether the inspectors will be able to take all of their measurements in less than four hours, and how the farmers will handle these assessments are questions that will be answered over the course of the winter.

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food / travel
Gabriele Martini

Where Italian Tradition Meets Gluten-Free Success

VILLANOVA MONDOVI — Aldo Bongiovanni, a 30-year-old beanpole, laughs timidly. Where others in a crisis-stricken Italy see no hope, he sees opportunity — in a mill in the countryside of the Cuneo province, in northwest Italy, near where he played as a child.

“In Italy, complaining is in fashion,” he says. “I can’t stand it anymore. There is work. Look at me! You just need to see it.”

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Camille Labro

Tradition vs. Hygiene? A French Case For Preserving Old Cheese

PARIS — For the last few years, cheese has been at the center of a debate that is as gastronomic as it is economic and sociocultural. Facing increasingly strict regulations, many producers are concerned about the future of cheese made with ancestral methods, and the anxiety is particularly high in France and Italy, which each boast 400 varieties.

At issue specifically is the so-called European “hygiene package,” a set of six sanitary regulations involving food and animals that was adopted in 2006. “Nowadays, legislation isn’t always fitting with the product’s needs,” says Laurent Mons, owner of the eponymous French cheese producer. “Hygiene rules end up standardizing cheeses, their taste and production.”

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