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As the incoming custodians of the land, young farmers tell Farming First about the importance of practising agroecology to benefit today’s generation and those to come.
With agricultural needs and challenges varying greatly around the world, farming has always needed to be adaptive and agile.
And with a changing climate bringing extreme weather and conditions, it’s more important than ever to work with nature and farm in a way that fulfils each ecosystem’s potential to feed an ever growing population.
Young farmers especially are realising the benefits of incorporating ecological processes into their agricultural systems.
“From my personal experience, we know that if we look after our farm, our livestock, the environment, we will produce better crops,” Richard Bower, a cereals farmer from Staffordshire, UK, told Farming First. “The environment is a very big part of what we do on the farm, and we are only looking after the farm for a short period of time for the next generation as well.”
One way Richard is practicing agroecology on his farm is to consider wildlife.
“Crop rotation is very important and allows birds to nest,” he added. “Something else we do on our farm is welcome bird ringers, who are very passionate about the environment and they come and count the birds on the farm. They are also using technology so they will go in the night and count the number of birds on the farm.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, where the effects of global warming hit hardest, producing more extreme temperatures, one result has been the increase of crop-eating pests such as Fall Armyworm.
Innocent Jumbe, 28, who works for a seed company in Malawi, said an agroecological approach can involve the responsible use of crop protection products.
“With climate change, all these pests coming in has been a real problem in Africa in the last year and we have been told by the government that we need to brace for impact,” Innocent said. “It’s not just about how we use chemicals but also about how we dispose of the chemicals.
“The blanket picture is that climate change is the biggest change, but we can see that people are not changing their lifestyles. We need to try to change the way that people look at things.”
Meanwhile, in Argentina, agroecology is a way to successfully support people, livestock and the environment in one ecosystem.
“Agroecology is about knowing how to work in the farm,” said Augustina Diaz Valdez, 22, a sheep farmer who is also training to be a vet. “This means knowing up to what limit you can produce and take advantage, always thinking about the environment and being sustainable.”
Dennis Kabiito, 34, a livestock and crop farmer in Uganda, agreed: “As farmers, we are stewards of the land and of the environment. It’s [about] using the right practices and the right methods at the given time.
“For example with Fall Armyworm and African swine flu – this cannot easily be controlled by organic practices but they can contribute. You need some help from chemicals.”
In South Africa, agroecology is about balancing productivity with sustainability.
“It’s about finding the right balances in terms of practices. For me, it’s about the foundation for establishing these practices,” said Brenda Tlhabane, a 37 year old farmer from South Africa.
“At the end [of the day], we are the consumers of nature so we need to do it in a sustainable manner and make sure that we leave a legacy.
“As a young person, I need to be profitable and make sure that I am preserving the environment and planet as a whole. I would want our policy makers to look at the overall approach and think how do we become sustainable in terms of soil health and making sure that we preserve good quality soils as well?”
On World Refugee Day, Allan Ochieng Odera, Resilience Coordinator for Danish Refugee Council (DRC), tells Farming First about DRC’s farming initiative in Kakuma camp, Kenya.
In north-west Kenya, 48-year-old Mariam from Somalia proudly tends her vegetable plot. Thanks to farming opportunities provided by an initiative at Kakuma refugee camp, she can now provide her family with fresh meals every day, as well as get money from the sales of vegetables to buy other household goods.
Mariam is not alone. On June 20, World Refugee Day will bring awareness around the world to themillions of people fleeing from conflict and suffering. The Kakuma refugee camp is just one of thousands of camps around the world that try and provide refugees with a new start after being uprooted from their homes.
Kakuma will mark its 26th birthday this year, and the beginning of its establishment as an important shelter for the south Sudanese fleeing from civil war. It has since become a base for hundreds from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa, currently hosting at least 185,589 refugees, providing shelter, food, medication and protection.
Before the Danish Refugee Council’s Community Floods Resilience Programme (COFREP) was started in Kakuma, Mariam had to wait for a monthly ration which rarely provided the required amount needed to feed her whole family. The DRC-led initiative, is run in partnership with LOKADO and Norwegian Refugee Council, and has received funding from the Global Resilience Partnership.
Responding to the challenge
Kakuma is situated in Turkana, which as one of Kenya’s largest counties, home to around 855,399 residents over a land mass of 77,000 km2. The entire country ranges in condition from semi-arid to very arid, and due to a combination of recurrent bouts of flooding and droughts, coupled with a weak economy, many living in Turkana live in acute poverty and hunger. In Kakuma, food shortage is a regular worry and funding levels for food distribution have been reduced over the years. The Kenyan government’s attempts at resolving food insecurity through piecemeal food distribution is only successful as a temporary patch to a large-scale challenge.
Given Turkana’s minimal rainfall, techniques to harvest and conserve water for farming are essential, and this has been one of the major focuses of DRC’s work. DRC uses techniques which can be scaled out, such as the use of earth dams, earth works, and other unique designs that can harvest water and nutrients for plant growth, whilst also minimizing excess water absorption.
These technologies mean that flood water can be harvested for micro-irrigation during the dry season to grow high-value crops such as tomatoes and onions, increasing the incomes of refugees and host farmers. Appropriate farming methods are also taught to the farmers and refugees in order to maximise their yields. Drought-tolerant crops are prioritized, such as sorghum, cowpeas, pumpkins and watermelons.
Trees have also been planted to improve the nitrogen balance of the crops and provide shade. This has also helped to control soil erosion through breaking wind and keeping the soil firm. Farmers are also trained to manage pests through applying an integrated approach to their farming; growing different crops together to create interdependence, trapping and repelling pests that cause harm to the crops.
Measuring the impact
The life-changing COFREP initiative involves 400 farmers, 120 refugees, and 280 hosts, who are trained through a combination of on-site demonstrations and trial-by-error, learning from our mistakes and streamlining the project for the future. COFREP uses farmer-to-farmer training in groups of 30, and the skills learned through these training sessions can prove to be vital for creating longer-term job prospects for the farmers.
Aside from the professional aspects, the project has also helped diversify nutrition sources for the refugees and the farmers. In addition to the staple diet of meat, all the participants now have greater access to vegetables.
DRC has learned that there is huge potential for the refugees and the host community to be self-reliant in food if appropriate technologies of water harvesting and improved farming techniques are adapted and taught as everyday skills. The farming activities are also of an invaluable social benefit, creating peaceful co-existence between the host and the refugees. Not only does this improve their livelihoods, it will help them overturn the challenge of devastating drought and flash floods that cause disasters in to a food production opportunity, and build resilience to future uncertainty.
Learn more about DRC’s project in Kenya by visiting their website.
Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars, writes on Farming First about how orphan crops can benefit African farmers and the wider world.
Africa has thus far missed out on having its own ‘green revolution’. One reason for this is that it has no large, homogenous ecosystem, such as India’s Deccan Plateau. Any approach to boost productivity and food security must fit Africa’s myriad, small and distinct ecosystems.
The term agroecology refers to using ecological processes in agriculture, and maintaining balanced and healthy ecosystems. Pursuing an agricultural revolution that makes use of African crops that are already adapted, already grown and eaten by local farmers, would therefore be a good place to start.
At the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) our goal is to improve these varieties – “orphan” in that they have received very little scientific attention – so that they are more nutritious, higher yielding and hardier in the face of weeds, pests and the changing climate that is already altering Africa’s smallholder cropping systems. We do this by working to sequence the genomes of 101 of these important African orphan food crops and making the data publicly available, and training African scientists to make rapid improvements to them, benefitting smallholder farmers and consumers across the continent.
This plan was hatched back in 2011 by myself at Mars, Incorporated, Ibrahim Mayaki at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). It quickly won the backing of the African Heads of State meeting at the African Union Assembly. Today the consortium contains 15 government organisations, scientific and agricultural bodies, universities, companies, regional organisations and NGOs, along with a network of 20 agricultural and horticultural organisations.
The AOCC’s African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA), based at ICRAF in Nairobi, will have trained 84 of its target 250 African plant scientists to work on the genome ‘maps’ by the end of 2018.
This approach could benefit the 600 million who constitute Africa’s rural population, most of whom grow much of their own food.
How does this relate to agroecology?
First, more than a quarter of the chosen species are trees, such as the baobab, the leaves of which contain twice as much calcium as spinach, three times the vitamin C of oranges and four times more potassium than a banana. Many of these tree crops are native to their ecosystems and provide other benefits, such as shade, water management and food for wildlife. Our work serves to preserve and improve these species, so they can continue to perform these important natural functions.
Second, many of the crops being sequenced have been in their given regions for a few centuries, are non-invasive and do not harm the local ecosystems. A cornerstone of agroecology is to maintain balance in ecosystems. Protecting and improving native crops will lead to increased diversity on farms, which will contribute to this goal.
Finally, using genetic interventions to make these crops more resilient and adaptable to a changing environment often means farmers need to apply fewer additional inputs to them in order to harvest a bumper crop.
Africa seems unable to get enough of the orphan crops approach. Two members of the 2017 class have started a continuing education program for MS-level scientists in their home country of Ethiopia. Four graduates from West Africa are collaborating to raise funding for training more than 70 graduate students on breeding of orphan crops. Members of the 2017 class are establishing an African Plant Breeders Association to cover the whole continent.
The benefits of orphan crops
The AfPBA and its lab have some of the best sequencing equipment in the world, certainly the best in Africa. Students – and these students are already among the best plant scientists in their countries – can use the equipment, but graduates also continue to have access to it.
One great benefit of this approach to education is that it is either done locally by AfPBA graduates or in Nairobi. The plant scientists are not taken to Europe or the United States, only to stay and contribute to Africa’s brain drain.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) decided recently to join the consortium. This has led to an ambitious letter of intent between the two organizations. It calls upon the two to work together to assist FAO member countries to develop and implement appropriate policies, regulations and laws that facilitate the genetic improvement of orphan crops; to strengthen institutional and human capacities of FAO member countries activities for research and development, especially in molecular genetics, plant breeding and seed delivery systems, and to advocate for enhanced crop diversification, crop rotations, associations and crop sequencing in a way that orphan crops are integrated and can become part and parcel of sustainable cropping systems.
We believe this could help spread the benefits of orphan crops throughout the planet. Already there has been talk of a Chinese Orphan Crop Consortium and an Indian Orphan Crop Consortium.
As The Economist’s science editor commented after a visit to our facility last year:
“Bananas, mangoes, pineapples and pawpaws are all tropical fruit that have gone global. If some of Africa’s orphan crops, suitably improved by genetic knowledge, were to follow suit, the benefits to African farmers would be huge.”
This future is within grasp, and can be done by harnessing the power of what nature already has to offer.