Over recent months much attention has been focused on encouraging the governments of the G8 nations to ‘make poverty history’ by ensuring fairer trade, increasing aid and cancelling debt. While the aims are clearly laudable, insufficient attention is being given to what form the aid should take and what model of economic and agricultural development countries in Africa should pursue. Fairer and more equal distributions of resources will not be enough if we do not fundamentally rethink the way we farm, in rich and poor countries alike.
Since the start of the agricultural revolution, every century has seen changes. But the rate of change is accelerating, and we are at great risk of bringing in new, more extreme changes before we have appreciated the impact of the changes that have already been made. Yet the environment that sustains us – that provides life and food – cannot adapt to our rapidly changing demands. It is unfortunate that we are doing so much that is wrong; we are like little children playing with very dangerous toys.
Living for tomorrow?
The culture that has given us industrial agriculture is changing the global climate and destabilising even the little that remains of the biosphere’s natural ecosystems. If this trend is not checked, the likelihood of reducing poverty, let alone the re-emergence of sustainable agriculture that can continually feed the world, will be limited. The Kyoto Protocol is a timid attempt to reduce the impact of climate change. But the United States of America, the country that produces a quarter of the emissions responsible for climate change, has rejected even that timid attempt. Without immediate action, what chance have we got to continue our lives as we now know them? I believe, very little.
Assuming that we could curb climate change, we can only achieve sustainable food production by adopting agricultural practices that both provide for our needs and strengthen the agricultural ecosystem. Could organic farming do this for us? I believe the answer is yes, but only if we take it seriously. We need to research management systems which support rather than disrupt natural cycles, thereby improving the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole, including those parts of it that are not cultivated.
Can this be done? Why not? Previous farming communities have been doing it for thousands of years. With our increased knowledge, we should be able to do it better. For example, the Environmental Protection Authority has started working with farming communities in Tigray, northern Ethiopia to rehabilitate exhausted land, and we have obtained reassuring results. These communities carried out physical soil erosion control activities (terraces, check dams across gullies and trench bunds). They restricted free-range grazing to small areas and cut and carried grass and other leaves to feed their animals. Trees and grass cover was returned to the land. (full text).