Category Archives: Farmers view

Conservation and Agriculture in the Age of Climate Change

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When I first started learning and writing about food issues, it was the food landscape that was in my mind: the growing of food, its journey to markets and stores and, finally, to our homes and the table. As climate change moves into the center of our lives and we realize its enormous impact  on our environment, I am starting to look at the landscape in a different way, one where the need for conservation and food production exist in the same landscape. The challenge, I am learning, is to balance the need for food with the need for conservation at a time of climate uncertainty.

We depend on the land and water sources for food but no farm land has important benefits too. Woodlands, grassy areas, slow down the movement of pathogens and pesticides into the rivers and lakes, are providing a sort of natural filter for our water supply. Preserving natural habitat on farms provides a living area for pests that serve as predators for primary pests that attack crops and thus reduce the need for pesticide to control agricultural pests. There is a perception that  food production and biodiversity conservation are opposed goals, the solution actually lies in achieving the best balance we can between these ends.

What is crucial is recognition that there are competing uses of land and we have to find the optimum strategy to achieve biodiversity conservation, agriculture, urban development and carbon storage. I wanted to share in this post some examples of  an approach that looks at the entire landscape and handles several variables at once:  improving soil health, conserving habitats, lowering emissions, and ensuring food and livelihood security.

So what tools can we use, what are the strategies to follow? There are examples from different countries which have all looked at this issue.In essence, the idea centers around a more considered and thoughtful use of the landscape and its resources. Different policies give varying results and solutions that arise in response to local circumstances are likelier to succeed. In an example from Argentina , market led agricultural expansion resulted in the  deforestation of 8,000 hectares in one area but also led to a fall in grazing intensity. This meant a better recovery of wildlife habitat in the remaining area which is not being cultivated. In another part of the same region, government support for farms to provide incomes and increase food production has negatively impacted the local fauna and resulted in forest degradation because more people have moved in but the food production continues to be low.

In Kenya’s Kikuyu escarpment area, old forest growth, tea plantation, rare bird habitat, subsistence agriculture and dairy farming all coexist. Recognizing the negative impact of increasing population growth in the area on these activities, resources, habitat etc, a landscape approach was adopted which took into account food security, reliance on the environment for food, fuel and fodder and rural poverty. Having recognized these needs, the people of the community integrated agriculture, fish farming, confined livestock management, agroforestry into their farming practices. This helped them to work toward their goals of confining farming sprawl, maintaining soil quality and nurturing bird and wildlife habitat in the farmed areas.  To achieve the goal of livelihood security, this program is taking advantage of “landscape labeling” where products are able to command a price premium not only because of their quality but because they also meet green criteria such as maintaining wildlife habitats, clean water, carbon sequestration etc.

In California, urban expansion and drought have significantly reduced the wetlands where migrating birds would collect before moving further south. A conservation project initiated here involved a reverse auction, which paid farmers to flood their rice farms and create a wetland refuge for the migrating birds. The existing practice of flooding rice fields post harvest was used to engineer a “pop up habitat” for the birds and integrated conservation goals into a farming landscape.

And, in a really wonderful “when life gives you lemons” story, farmers in Bangladesh decided to grow pumpkins on the sandbars left by receding flood waters which destroyed their fields. After the floods, holes were dug in the bare islands of sand and silt and pumpkin seeds were planted. Farmers had a rich harvest and could store some of it to supplement income later in the year as well. In the dry winter season, the greenery that had sprung up as a result of sandbar cropping supported birds, insects and other fauna.

It is encouraging to know that innovative solutions exist, bringing them into practice is  a matter of working together on a bigger picture, we need to zoom out!

(Image courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday22: Farmers Tackling Climate Change

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As we hear and read about the climate march this weekend, as pressure grows on world leaders to take concrete action, as some people continue in head-in-sand mode (see clips from a hearing on climate change in Congress!); far away from the noise of it all, farmers find themselves dealing with the very real challenge of climate change.  This is a fascinating piece on the impact of ocean acidification on oysters. While the changes could mean the disappearance of oysters, farmers are working with conservation programs to revive and establish vanishing species of oysters.

An earlier piece on oysters and climate change is here.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 22: Want To Be A Farmer?

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Are you planning your life ahead and thinking you might want to try farming?  Is this going to be a viable and fulfilling option, you wonder? The answer, it seems , can vary widely. In the US, a recent article with the somewhat dismal title “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers” has been gaining  a lot of attention. The discussion throws up concerns over scale of farming, credit etc. In contrast, young farmers in Kenya are presented with farming as a great opportunity to contribute to their country’s development, earn a good living and even, be “cool”! What is your opinion?

#Farming Friday 16: The Reason for Big Farms

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How often have we heard the lament that smaller farms are being swallowed by bigger ones and family farmers are being pushed out? It sounds really familiar, right? But the reality is that 98% of US farms are owned by families, says this farmer. And the reality also is that farming is hard work, and increasing the size of operations brings much needed benefits to the farmer. Does the farmer ever get to go on a vacation, for example? It is difficult : “Cows, chickens and pigs aren’t like a house cat, you can’t just fill up their food bowl and tell them you’ll see them tomorrow.” But bigger operations which would enable farmers to hire help might give them a much needed break. The idea of a small, idyllic farm with adorable little chickens  and piglets running around is lovely but the real world may require other solutions.

#Farming Friday 17: Wishlist From An Indian Farmer

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Ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the words “Indian Farmer” and the reply, in most cases, sadly is “suicides”. A while back they might have said “Green Revolution”,  but the myth of the Indian farmer planting a GMO crop and then taking a desperate measure when it fails, has taken firm hold of the Internet. (It has been debunked, for example, here ). Confronted by this, I try to  explain the facts on chronic indebtedness which follows farmers through generations, this information  is mostly ignored. But, here is a piece that one cannot ignore:  an Indian farmer writes about his hopes from the new government. He says, of farmers growing Bt Cotton, “No one forced them to do it. They chose to adopt GM cotton because it makes sense.”  The food system needs to make sense to people at both ends of it. Most often, however,consumers’ voices, specially of those consumers who are unfamiliar with hunger or chronic malnutrition in their own experiences are the loudest.It is time to listen equally to those who actually grow our food.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 15: Land Grabs in Laos

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This post in the Farming Friday series is delayed but the issue it highlights is crucial today as farmers are being displaced in many parts of the world as they lose their land to outside forces, sometimes government projects or corporate interests or urban expansion. This is the experience of specially of farmers from minority ethnic groups in Laos who are being deprived of their lands. While the framework to protect their rights does exist, it is not being put to use.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

#Farming Friday 12: “Farmers Helping Fish”

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The current drought in  California poses a problem for salmon in their breeding season. Here is a wonderful story of how farmers helped the fish in need!

Technology On the Farm

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Often we tend to think of technology as being too expensive/difficult to employ except on  a large scale. But one project in Ethiopia found that loading e-readers for extension workers made a big difference as they had access to a lot of material but none of the hassle of carrying around a load of stuff.

In Sudan, a simple SMS can alert farmers to rainfall forecasts enabling better preparedness for floods or, letting them know how much water would be optimal for their crops at a given time. Small steps with big results.

#Farming Friday 11: Farming in a War Zone

 

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Farming in truly hostile conditions, with polluted water and with access to markets blocked, images from the lives of Palestinian farmers.

The Conservation Question

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Going through all the postings/ articles shared on the occasion of Earth Day, it is encouraging to note the concern for preserving the environment. But, along with  that, comes the realization that preservation/conservation really means different things to different people. As one writer notes, the idea of pristine nature, left to itself; without humans going in and wrecking it is somewhat of an artificial construct.  Delinking people and their surroundings is a distortion. Over centuries, people have lived in harmony with their surroundings but this relationship has become fractured in recent times. The need is to restore it, rather than banish people from these spaces.

In rural areas, the poorest sections of the population often depend on their surrounding environment for food, fuel, fodder,even medicine and shutting them out to “preserve” nature makes the rural poor more vulnerable to economic hardship. Even the practice of eco-tourism as a means of balancing conservation and economic priorities can actually have a negative impact on those who depend on the land for survival.This would become worse as climate change poses a challenge to the food system and way of life of many communities causing them to become food insecure and  displaced from their homelands.

There is a need to emphasize that tackling climate change is not solely a matter of desertification, rising oceans or vanishing habitats for plants and animals. Climate change is impacting the livelihoods of people, specially the rural poor. So any plan of action should, ideally, take the whole picture into account: how can people and the environment coexist in a time of climate change? The answer  can be found partly in the technology that is available to us today and also in the knowledge that indigenous communities possess that enabled them to prosper in their environment in the past.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)