Let farmers choose

This piece was posted by Betty, Programmes Officer, FYF UK Office

Can we both intensify agriculture and preserve ecosystems?

Yesterday evening I attended a lecture on farming and sustainable environments at the Royal Geographical Society.

It was the first of two lectures organised by the Earthwatch Institute – the second will be on the subject of forests and climate change.

The Institute conducts research around the world to understand environmental challenges and find solutions that will conserve the diversity and integrity of life on earth. They work with volunteers, many of whom are from their corporate sponsors, encouraging them to leave their blackberries aside for a few days while they go outside and get their hands dirty. The idea behind this is to inspire them to take action in the workplace or community to promote sustainability and environmental awareness.

Increase profit at the expense of biodiversity?

The event was chaired by “Countryfile” presenter, Julia Bradbury and featured the research of Professor Ken Norris of the University of Reading and Dr Mark Chandler from Earthwatch. Julia Bradbury quoted David Attenborough, who recently said that there are now three times as many people in the world as there were when he made his first broadcast in 1952.  The billing for the event asked whether it was possible to reconcile the conflict between intensifying agriculture (in the context of the pressures on farmers to produce more food as population increases and climate change forces land use patterns to change) and conserving precious ecosystems.

I was interested to see whether the speakers would unpick the assumption that agriculture must be intensified or whether there are alternative approaches to feeding a growing population.

Short term profit = long-term loss

Will marginalised farmers benefit from payment for ecosystem services?

Will marginalised farmers benefit from payments for ecosystem services?

Professor Norris discussed his cocoa biodiversity project in Ghana, explaining three models of producing cocoa – a forest system which included cocoa bushes, traditional shaded agriculture where a large number of trees were preserved giving shade to the cocoa bushes and more intensive farming with few trees remaining. Whilst the latter stage gives increases yields and profit there is a decrease in biodiversity and the amount of carbon stored. And over the long term intensive cocoa farming reduces the nutrient content of the soil resulting in a decline in yields. As a consequence, land that had formerly been used to produce cocoa had become so unproductive that it had been abandoned.

Professor Norris discussed payments for ecosystem services as an approach that would both help preserve ecosystems and benefit poor farmers.

Whilst the reduction of poverty among the poorest farmers and the preservation of ecosystems are both issues that drive our work at FYF it remains to be seen how such a system would measure the carbon and biodiversity that a farmer is responsible for preserving. It is also unclear how the marginalised, often illiterate and largely women farmers we work with would benefit from schemes such as these.

The effects of fertilizer

Dr Chandler discussed how to produce the much sought after coffee from the Tarrazu region of Costa Rica while maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Farmers here are reporting declining yields and increasing costs leading to falling incomes while soil erosion and landslides are on the increase. As well as decreasing yields in the long term through acidification of the soil, which reduces the nutrients available, excessive application of fertiliser has polluted water sources. Dr Chandler recommends that farmers decrease their use of synthetic fertiliser and replace it with organic fertiliser. His research is finding that this leads to a decrease in acidity of the soil and an increase in productivity.

This is very much in line with FYF’s approach although our farmers have not experienced the problems of excessive fertiliser use that he reported as this is beyond their means.

Dr Chandler was asked how farmers react to this advice and he replied that he convinces them by showing them the results of the soil analysis as evidence of the damage of long-term use of synthetic fertilisers.

Letting farmers choose for themselves

Letting farmers choose for themselves.

This contrasts with the approach used by Lomadef, one of our partners in Malawi.

Project Officer, Henderson, recently told me that Lomadef demonstrate as many different approaches as possible on their organic training farm and let the farmers choose for themselves which ones, if any, they will adopt.

Their Director, Mr Kanjanga said that they don’t try to persuade the farmers they work with to do anything different. But when they see the results obtained by farmers who have adopted methods learned from Lomadef, they persuade themselves to give it a try! 

It was a fascinating evening, and although the focus was on cash crops rather than subsistence crops, which are our main concern, it confirmed that by using compost rather than synthetic fertilisers, our farmers are improving their yields both in the short term and the long term as well as protecting the environment on which they depend for their livelihoods.


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