Feeding the world – Thinking about the ways forward

Lead farmers

Originally uploaded by Find Your Feet

I recently came across an article on povertynewsblog that made the following stark statement: “the government of Malawi clams the country grows enough food to feed their people. However, studies show that hunger is increasing in the country…. A recent nutritional survey says approximately 30 percent of Malawi’s rural population consume less than the 2,200 kilocalories per day, needed to stay healthy.

The Malawian agricultural policy of defining ‘food security’ in terms of the availability of hybrid maize does not seem to be working. Despite promises of high yields hybrid maize is not drought tolerant, depends on expensive chemical fertilizers and cannot be saved, meaning farmers are forced to buy new seed every year

Meanwhile certain small-holder farmers are employing agricultural techniques that are enabling them to feed their families throughout the year. A week ago our Malawi office sent us a report on the progress of lead farmers that are being trained in Mzuzu. The simplicity of some of the techniques through which farmers are improving their harvests was striking. In this particular case it was ‘contour ridge marking,’ the practice of growing crops in pits. The ridges retain water, which then seeps into the ground, giving the plants a good drink. See our website to read more.

Little or large…..

This example points us towards a larger issue: Which agricultural model will enable us to grow the food needed to feed a swelling world population and respond to climate change?

Industrial models of agriculture are highly mechanized. They replace labour with capital through the purchase of machinery and are dependent on regular supplies of high yielding seed varieties, fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides.

Organic agricultural models on the other hand utilise no farming inputs which are not ‘natural’. Composting springs to mind as characterising organic farming but the use of mined phosphates, crop rotation, contour-ridge marking and intercropping also form a part of organic production systems.

Clearly the latter model is labour intensive. However, as George Monbiot writes “there is an inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per hectare. The smaller they are, the greater the yield.” This is because, as Monbiot suggests, small-holder farmers “ spend more time terracing and building irrigation systems; they sow again immediately after the harvest; and they might grow several crops in the same field.”

Monbiot concludes the article by warning that “a shift from small to large farms will cause a major decline in global production, just as food supplies become tight.


One Comment

  1. Posted February 12, 2009 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Interesting post. I wonder, have you considered contributing to the debate on big vs small farms, at http://www.future-agricultures.org/EN/e-debates/Big_Farms/farm_debate.html

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