The world’s rapidly growing population cannot be fed by ramping up the industrialization of the food industry. Instead, we need to unleash the power and potential of small-scale family farmers, who have the capacity to feed themselves and our entire planet in a healthy and sustainable way.
There are some incongruous facts about global hunger that can lead us to inaction or false solutions. Over 800 million people suffer from it around the world today. Tragically, the vast majority of them are small-scale family farmers in the developing world – food producers themselves. These family farmers produce nearly 70% of the food we eat on only 25% of the world’s arable land. Industrial agriculture, on the other hand, generates only about 30% of the planet’s food while using far more resources, with an emphasis on producing grain for livestock feed and for biofuels. So how do we help family farmers lift themselves out of poverty and sustainably feed themselves and much of the world?
Damata is a female farmer who lives in one of the poorest regions of the world – eastern Burkina Faso in West Africa. There, as in the rest of the world, women are responsible for most farming labor today. Damata struggles to feed her family by farming her barren, hardpan soil. With climate change, the rains are increasingly unpredictable; when they do come, the water runs off of the cement-like soil or carves away deep gullies. The bush and trees surrounding Damata’s village are receding, and in recent years her family has become more vulnerable as they have had to sell off animals and other assets to survive.
While life in this area has always been challenging, traditional methods of farming afforded Damata’s community a more stable life a few decades ago. Farmers would clear trees and burn off land to prepare for planting. When soil fertility became too low after many years of cultivation, they would move on to clear new land. The previous plot would be allowed to lie fallow for 10-20 years to restore soil fertility so that it could be farmed again. But farmers cannot let land lie fallow anymore. With the increased pressure from both human and animal populations, there is not enough land. As farmers continue to cultivate the same land, organic matter is depleted until there is not enough to feed the soil, plants, animals, and humans. With the collapse of soil fertility across Africa’s Sahel region, tens of millions of people are facing a hunger crisis.
But in the last few years, Damata and her village’s women’s group have started to bring their soil back to life and turn the situation around. Damata has increased her food production by over 100%, joined a savings group, and been able to earn enough money to send her children to school and rebuild her house. How did she and other farmers in her village accomplish this? Groundswell International and our local NGO partner in Burkina Faso have supported them to carry out experiments on their farms – to test practices that allow them to work more effectively with nature by combining their traditional knowledge with appropriate innovations in local farming practices. Damata and her women’s group have created rock soil conservation barriers and have dug hundreds of ‘zai holes’ into the soil. Zai holes are small catchment basins (about a meter wide and 30-cm deep) into which farmers place some compost and plant just the right amount of seeds. When the rains come, zai holes hold over four times the amount of water in the soil. Damata’s crops grow better and survive longer during dry spells. Now we are supporting her community so they can learn how, instead of burning off land, they can allow strategically-selected tree stumps to regenerate on their farms in order to provide organic matter and to restore soil fertility, while providing needed animal fodder and wood fuel. They are becoming part of a blossoming movement that is making progress to ‘re-green’ the Sahel.
The Powerful Force
Is this an isolated story, or does it hold wider lessons? There are different narratives about how to achieve the goal of ending world hunger. With 500 million family farms in the world supporting 2.5 billion people, it is our experience – through working with farmers like Damata – that they can improve their production, natural environments and overall wellbeing, through sustainable or ‘agro-ecological’ farming. In summary, this means farming with nature instead of against it.
Can it work at scale? An increasing body of evidence says yes. In 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, summarized the available evidence in a report, concluding that small-scale farmers can double food production within 10 years in critical regions by using ecological methods. To feed 9 billion people in 2050, we urgently need to adopt the most efficient farming techniques available. Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agro-ecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavorable environments. This amounts to family farmers being given a greater role in innovating and creating the farming and food systems of today and tomorrow.
The other narrative is that there are hungry people in the world because they have not yet been reached by the right technologies: hybrid and genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. With the global population projected to grow from its current level of 7 billion to over 9 billion by 2050, the dominant refrain is that we need to crank up the global machine of industrialized and new green revolution agriculture to produce significantly more food if we ever hope to solve the hunger problem. But this ignores the reality that the world already produces enough food to feed over 10 billion people, and the poor can’t get access to the available food supplies. To escape from hunger, people need to grow more food themselves and/or generate more income to purchase it and meet other basic needs.
There are some incongruous facts about global hunger that can lead us to inaction or false solutions. Over 800 million people suffer from it around the world today. Tragically, the vast majority of them are small-scale family farmers in the developing world – food producers themselves
This industrialized and high external input scenario also assumes that the majority of smallholder farmers will need to migrate out of farming as fewer, larger farms adopt these costly inputs, increase mechanization, and move from diversified farms to monocropping. Where will these hundreds of millions of people go? The industrialized food system also generates other problems. Currently more than 1 billion people are obese from eating unhealthy processed foods, and suffer from related illnesses. In addition, agriculture generates 15-30% of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, which in turn makes family farmers and all of us more vulnerable. Thus, expanding this approach will expand these problems as well.
This is why many experts now recognize that our farming and food system is broken, and we need to transition to one that is healthier for people and our planet. We believe the way to do so is to invest in the innate capacity and creativity of farmers like Damata to work productively with nature. Farming is by definition innovating with nature. Multiply Damata’s capacity by 2.5 billion and you have an incredibly powerful and hopeful force. We can help to unleash that force by supporting family farmers to experiment on their own farms to conserve and improve their soil, strengthen local seed systems, harvest and use water effectively, and continuously innovate more biodiverse, productive farming systems. We can multiply their successes by giving them the support to teach others, farmer-to-farmer. We can strengthen community-based organizations to set up local seed banks and grain reserves, establish savings and credit cooperatives, process and market produce to feed local populations, interact effectively with scientists and support agencies, and engage as citizens to create enabling policies.
If we make the right investments in people, family farmers can feed the world using agro-ecology as a way to farm, as a methodology for innovating the agriculture of the future, and as a movement contributing to the creation of more democratic and just societies.