Conservation agriculture will play a key role in feeding future populations

Conference told that by employing permaculture, cover crops, strategic rotation and reduced tillage, small landowners can generate surpluses and contribute to food security

sarah Jaibes feeding b_opt.jpegSarah Jaibes isn’t a soil scientist, or an international development expert, but she knows a lot about how to make small farms work and what it will take to feed nine billion people by 2050.

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man and woman carrying a bag of rice

The Zimbabwean farmer became involved in conservation agriculture in 2009, after rising inflation made it difficult to live on her husband’s teaching salary. This method of low-input agriculture has the potential to increase food production and change lives, she said at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank’s recent Fighting Hunger conference in Winnipeg.

“Conservation agriculture increases yields in small pieces of land, it improves food security… it enhances human dignity,” said Jaibes.

On a quarter-hectare of land, or just over half an acre, Jaibes grows peanuts, corn and mangoes using cattle manure as fertilizer. In her first year she grew 15 bags of produce, but by her third year she was producing 22 bags of produce, enough to supplement both her family’s income and diet.

“Small-scale farmers can also work to add value to products, and help their communities, the orphans and the vulnerable people,” she said.

And Jaibes is far from alone when it comes to promoting small-scale farming and low-input agriculture as an integral part of increasing food production and distribution.

“We have seen this technology work for smallholder farmers in Latin America, in Brazil particularly,” said Saidi Mkomwa of the African Conservation Tillage Network. “There is strong scientific evidence it works.”

Intensified production won’t be limited to large operations in the global effort to increase food production, and small shareholder farms can employ methods that conserve water and fertilizer, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels, he said.

“My view is we will be able to feed nine billion people, but we need to intensify the way farming is done,” said Mkomwa. “The big change is that we should not depend on external inputs, but rather we need to revert to using less external inputs.”

It takes 1.6 litres of water to make one kilogram of fertilizer, not to mention copious amounts of diesel fuel, the conservation tillage advocate said. But techniques such as permaculture, cover crops, strategic rotation and reduced tillage can increase production without increasing costs for the farmer or jeopardizing the environment, he said.

Increasing the yields of small shareholder farmers will also help alleviate poverty, said John Hoddinott of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

As yields grow, so do incomes, followed by greater commerce and enriched economies, he said.

“Feeding the world is not merely a question of production,” said Hoddinott. “It is as much, if not more so, a question of distribution, ensuring that everyone has the ability to access the food that is produced.”

In many areas food is available, but those who need it cannot afford to buy it, he said.

“Over time we need to shift away from thinking about food aid and production, to food assistance and ensuring people actually have access to food,” Hoddinott said.

Despite rising food costs, and a recent famine in Somalia, Hoddinott and others are cautiously optimistic about the future.

“In the last 20 years, the number of people who receive or consume a minimally adequate diet, at least in terms of calories and protein, has increased by 1.6 billion people,” he said. “Growth in food production has exceeded population growth. Globally, in terms of calories, in terms of protein, we now produce enough food to feed everyone in the world.”

Political action is also needed to ensure food security for a growing population, said Mkomwa.

“Some of the benefit of sustainable food production goes beyond the farm, so I think there is a role for national governments to subsidize by increasing risk management, to kick-start the process and support the process,” he said.

Better food policies are needed, and there is a lot of hard work to be done, said Hoddinott.

“It will require many people to make sacrifices, but it’s not impossible,” he said.

About the author

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Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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