The Canadian journalist travelled to southern France, China, India and the province of Quebec in her own country to observe how small farmers apply their practical knowledge of agriculture – defined as either organic, agroecological or sustainable.
“What I found most surprising as a journalist was to see how pervasive the social movement was at the grassroots. So, rather than it being a policy perceived by government, people [in the rural areas] are not waiting for government. Government is not there to solve their problems. [Small farmers] are figuring out better ways themselves.”
At the moment a “very big but brittle” global industrial food system is supplying the world’s supply of food, she explains. Typically, it is reliant on the massive growing of single crops like wheat, corn or rice, which in turn are assisted by commercial agriculture inputs such as hybrid seeds, chemical based pesticides and fossil fuel-based fertilisers, as well as an overuse of water.
Global industrial food is praised for its efficiency and high yields and so small farmers get aboard. But in the process some become too dependent on these expensive commercial agricultural inputs by borrowing money to pay for them and thereby incurring large debts.
The journalist relates in her book how Chandrakalabai, today a resourceful and thriving farmer in the agricultural state of Maharashtra in the western part of India, managed to avoid that economic fate.
Originally, she struggled in terms of growing a range of items – millet, sorghum, vegetables and cotton – while simultaneously investing into the commercial agricultural inputs when she could afford them.
By the early 1990s, she made the switch to organic farming, minus these inputs and with the assistance of an NGO, the Institute for Integrated Rural Development.
“Chandrakalabai’s story shows us that smaller farmers in the developing world can lessen their input costs and grow organically. If they can then embed themselves in a local food system with a minimum of intermediaries between them and the consumer, they can earn more money and secure a better future,” Elton writes in her book.
The other problem with global industrial food is that single crop farming undermines the soil’s fertility and makes these kinds of operations especially vulnerable to storms, floods and drought, associated with climate change, adds Elton.
She cites how 880 small holders based farming plots in Nicaragua with diverse crops and minus the commercial agricultural inputs managed to survive the catastrophic battering of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. On average these agro-ecological operations retained 40 percent more topsoil after the storm and lost 18 percent less arable land in landslides.
The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a stark picture of a hotter future where crop yields decline, demand for food increases and food prices rise.
Farming operations are being urged by scientists to alter their growing practices as a part of a general mitigation strategy for a range of human activity (which also includes reducing the amount of fossil fuels burned for energy) in order to avoid the worst case scenario of world temperatures rising way past two degrees Centigrade.
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“One of the things that the report makes very clear is how farmers respond and how farmers behave will have a huge impact on the effect of climate change,” says Evan Fraser, a University of Guelph geography professor, food security specialist and Canada Research Chair in Global Human Security. He worked on an earlier draft on the food section of the IPCC report.
Fraser says that sophisticated weather forecasting tools are being developed to make it possible for government authorities to react before a catastrophic storm arrives to cause devastation to crops, infrastructure, homes and people. And he also maintains that drought conditions represent a far more serious threat to agriculture single episodic events like storms and floods.
“I think that drought is going to be the bigger problem over the long term, in the 21 century. Certainly drier conditions in the tropics are going to lead to significant challenges for farmers,” he says.
With that in mind, Fraser calls for going in the direction of traditional small farmers by planting diverse crops. Furthermore, he say, one should include drought tolerant crops with a deeper root structures to access water. Furthermore, the food security specialist suggests a ramp up of organic matter, be it recycled manure or what is left of last year’s crop, to serve as a sponge in the soil to trap or restore water.
"We are now aware that the unthinking application of yield-boosting technologies around the world has brought both many good things as well as many bad things. Developing and applying new technologies to boost yields into the future will require a deft handling of both science, agricultural extension, social policy, and a very context-specific understanding of the needs local farmers face,” Fraser told IPS.
But experimentation in agricultural practices is less likely to happen in North America where farming operations, because of their size, are tied up in loans and big contracts to corporations in agribusiness and their unsustainable practices, says food security specialist Danielle Nierenberg, president of the Chicago based Food Tank, a food security think tank.
But small farmers, especially in developing countries, are better able through necessity to innovate and so, “we have a lot to learn from them,” she told IPS.
Many farmers have been encouraged to practice more industrial methods and they are finding in the face of drought and extreme flooding that going back to more traditional and indigenous practices they are able to better combat climate change,” says Nierenberg.
But the president of Food Tank warns against a rigid definition of what constitutes sustainable agriculture. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, where are the soils can be deficient, “an extra boost” of artificial fertiliser may be needed to make the land more productive, she explains.
Meanwhile, some government and international development agencies including the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation are jumping on the “sustainable” bandwagon without completely breaking away from chemical inputs, says Julia Wright, deputy director at the UK-based Centre for Agroecology and Food Security at Coventry.
“Sustainable intensification, for example, can mean a concentrated form of industrial agriculture, and conservation agriculture – one form that the FAO likes to promote,” she told IPS.
One piece of good news, Wright adds, is that there are a number of national governments which have genuine programmes for agroecological or organic smallholder farmers.
“Bhutan is planning to become the world’s first organic country. Bolivia has some supportive policies. Parts of Germany are quite forward thinking in this respect, and of course the Cuban government supports smallholder organic urban agriculture,” Wright said.