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Simple Solutions To The Food Challenge

Last month a milestone was marked in the history of world agriculture when the bovine disease rinderpest was officially declared eradicated. Though unknown in North America, rinderpest or “cattle plague” has been a devastating killer of cattle and wildlife for millennia in Europe, Africa and Asia. After smallpox, it’s only the second disease in history to be officially declared eradicated.

Great credit goes to the veterinarians, immunologists and officials who accomplished this, sometimes at great personal risk through taking vaccines farm by farm to remote and often war-torn regions.

Unfortunately, there are many remaining diseases which threaten agriculture and have yet to be wiped out, and at least one affects farmers, rather than livestock. That’stillage recreationalis, the desire to plow or cultivate for no good reason other than to let the neighbours know you’re not lazy, and to make your fields look nice and “clean” – that is, with the maximum amount of “dirt” showing.

The disease has been pretty much eliminated on the Canadian Prairies but it seems to be endemic elsewhere. On a visit to Belgium in April last year, I was astonished to see fields in a hilly region plowed to a fare-thee-well, an appropriate expression given that they were plowed up and down rather than on the contour and a lot of soil was obviously saying farewell to the fields and running off when it rained. A soil conservation technician conducting the tour said that an average of five tonnes per hectare of soil were being lost on 20 per cent of the farmland in Belgium. The government was encouraging farmers to try and slow this by planting grass strips around field edges. Despite offering payments by the square metre, there was little uptake. Old habits die hard, as we in Western Canada learned when the practice of black summerfallow led to the dust bowl of the 1930s.

Old – and bad – habits live on in other countries. While on a Canadian Foodgrains Bank tour of Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1996, it was even more disturbing to see the massive soil loss caused by relentless tillage of the steep slopes in much of those countries. Unlike the recreational tillage that can be conducted from the comparative ease and comfort of a tractor cab, this was bone-jarring hard work on the part of oxen and the farmers behind them, wrestling a primitive plow that was no more than a steel blade attached to a stick.

Leonard Rance, father ofCo-operatoreditor Laura Rance and former president of the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero-Tillage Association, was also on the tour. He observed how much better things could be if the farmers simply rotated the blade 90 degrees and used it only once a year to open a slot in which to place the seed. That might have to be done manually, as would the weeding, but while that may sound like a lot of work, each farmer had only two or three acres and at least five kids, who could take care of placing the seed and weeding with hoes. It would certainly be a lot less work than making black summerfallow with oxen several times per year.

Back here in agricultural North America, it’s tough to go a day without reading or hearing a reference to the need to double world food production to meet a population of nine billion by 2050. The next sentence usually refers to the advanced technology needed to achieve the goal, usually referring to varieties or machinery. All of this may be well and good, but high-yielding varieties mean nothing if the soil in which they are to be planted is disappearing at the rate of several billion tonnes per year. If the new technology requires large machinery and large acreages, it means evicting the smallholder farmers and their children to an uncertain future in the city, where they may have to beg for food rather than growing it themselves.

Instead, the goal should be producing more food and keeping as many farmers on the land as possible. Hence the objective of a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) initiative launched last month. The Save and Grow program is designed to bring the theory and practice of conservation agriculture to the 2.5 billion people on small farms in low-income countries. The themes include minimum tillage, cover crops, introducing legumes into the rotation, precision placement of fertilizer and integrated pest-management techniques.

The FAO’s Save and Grow program and the eradication of rinderpest are reminders that the biggest challenge is not necessarily the development of new technology, but the adoption of existing technology by farmers who don’t have access to the resources that we in North America take for granted. For millions of farmers, what may be needed is a few tools, a bit of fertilizer or the knowledge of what crops work best in a rotation. Improved varieties will also be necessary, especially for meeting the threat from the Ug99 rust strain. But for meeting the food-production challenge, the simple solutions will make the biggest difference. [email protected]

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