Amy Smith’s Tedtalk was really stimulating, especially the wrap up -- if we were in Zambia, 300 of you would be farmers ... and 100 of you would have AIDS. But there’s something a little disturbing about her thesis.

Rewind. Amy Smith, a professor of engineering at MIT, invents stuff to help poor people in developing countries. Most of her talk was devoted to new ways of making charcoal that preserve trees and improve the health of the women and children who spend their lives around smoky cooking fires. So far so good. By the time Smith produced charcoaled corncobs, from Ghana, and passed them around to the audience they were ready to eat from her hand.

But wait: if poor farmers convert their corncobs, or sugar cane bagasse, or rice and wheat straw, or cassava, to charcoal briquets, what do they use to return organic matter to the soil? What do they feed their animals, or bed them down on?

I don’t believe these are trivial questions. Soil fertility is a real issue for most poor farmers, precisely because they have to take as much as they can off the land. It would have been wonderful to have heard just a sentence to indicate that she was at least aware that another precious natural resource was going up in smoke. And even better to hear that she had teamed up with someone else to promote the idea of growing trees or other plants specifically as a source of biomass for charcoal. Maybe she has. I hope so.

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