Agroecological approach for sustenance

Agroecological approach for sustenance

Agroecological approach for sustenance

Small-scale farmers in the developing world, using low-tech sustainable agricultural techniques, may just hold the key to ensuring global food security, writes Andrea Stone

The challenge is huge but the solution may be small, very small. Faced with global warming and a population that will swell to 9 billion by 2050, a growing number of experts say that the way to feed the masses as climate change makes growing our food more difficult is to focus on family farmers, who often can barely feed themselves.

When policymakers in the developed world talk about feeding billions of extra mouths in the decades to come, it’s multinational agribusinesses which operate industrial-size farms that usually get most of the attention.

But in the long run, it’s small-scale farmers in the developing world, using low-tech but sustainable agricultural techniques, who may be best poised to lead the way in adapting to a warmer world and ensuring the security of the global food supply.

There are more than 500 million family farmers who produce at least 56 percent of the world’s food. Most are subsistence farmers, scratching out barely enough to feed their own families, with little or nothing left over to take to market.

A report on family farms released in March by the sustainable agriculture group Food Tank credits these small-scale farmers with contributing to global food security – that is, having sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis through the use of more sustainable agricultural practices. 

For instance, while agribusinesses use fertilisers and pesticides to yield bumper crops of single grains like corn and wheat, smallholder farmers are growing indigenous plants that help protect increasingly stressed natural resources (like water) and that improve the density of nutrients in crops.

The United Nations, for its part, has designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming to raise the profile of these unsung agricultural workers and spotlight the roles they could play in the face of challenges like climate change, malnutrition, and poverty.

Vulnerability and resilience

A sobering report released last month by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of cataclysmic consequences of global warming that are already being felt, including drought, extreme heat, and flash floods.

Those changes have an outsize impact on farmers. For years, civil wars, corrupt governments, poor infrastructure, and other political conditions were the major impediments to food production and distribution.

But Jerry Glover, a US Agency for International Development agroecologist, says, “there’s been a significant shift. In many regions, an emerging cause of food insecurity is the lack of ability of those farm fields to support yields that are necessary because of land degradation and the effects of climate change.”

New approaches

In its recent report, Food Tank cited the many low-tech “agroecological approaches” like agroforestry, which integrates trees and shrubs into crop and livestock fields; solar-powered drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to plant roots; intercropping, which involves planting two or more crops near each other to maximise the use of light, water, and nutrients; and the use of green manures.

Former US Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman recently returned from Guatemala, where farmers are adding vegetables and biodiversity to traditional corn and bean fields, rotating coffee with other crops to fight a deadly leaf fungus, and using drip irrigation techniques to grow mangos and plantains.

Genetically modified crops are the work of big agriculture, which has generally been more focused on increasing yields on some of the world’s most productive lands. Indeed, large-scale monoculture farming, with its heavy use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds, has contributed to the disappearance of about 75 percent of plant genetic diversity over the last century, according to the FAO.

Even as they demonstrate ways to help feed a more crowded, warmer world, small-scale farmers are among the most threatened by climate change and the surging population.According to a UN Millennium Project Task Force report cited by Food Tank, about half of the world’s hungry live on smallholder family farms. 

Investing in these “stewards of the land,” as Nierenberg calls them, so that they can grow more nutritious food will not only help raise them out of poverty but also help a warming planet.