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Putting land To Good Use: Food Security In Our Backyards

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Small, resilient agricultural solutions that will save the environment and feed generations to come. 

The effective use of land remains one of the foremost solutions to poverty, and the methods used to fully benefit from farming are easily accessible and implementable. 

Thankfully,  there are proven ecologically-sound farming methods that contribute to household food security even in harsh landscapes, and even through droughts, as this group of women in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province have shown

Strong El Niño events worldwide perpetually cause severe crop failures across the agricultural spectrum. Yet, in Igwavuma inKwaZulu-Natal, while her neighbor’s fields lay barren, Rhoda Mvubu was still harvesting cowpeas, sorghum, sesame, peanuts and a variety of beans at the end of the 2016 summer; and sweet potatoes and pumpkins in the winter.

In the dry, rocky hills of Tshaneni, Doris Myeni was still harvesting vegetables and greens from her home garden late into a drought, enabling her to provide adequately for her extended family of 15 throughout the summer holidays. And Corinne Mngomezulu still had a good stock of seed saved from her own crops, stored well to protect them from insects and decay, ensuring that she would be able to plant again when the rains came.

All three women are part of a network of smallholder farmers in the north-eastern province of South Africa who are supported by a non-profit organization, Biowatch South Africa, to develop and implement agroecology practices on their plots. Along with about 250 other farmers, mainly women,they have improved the nutrition levels in their homes and produced enough for sale to neighbors and at markets, while increasing and maintaining the productivity and ecological sustainability of their farms.

“Biowatch is looking at an agriculture that is resilient,and which doesn’t require expensive inputs or a lot of irrigation,” explains Biowatch director, Rose Williams.

“The methods we use of working with the soil and retaining water has meant that there can be produce during the drought – whereas if you were in a situation where you were planting a monocrop which needed irrigation, you would have nothing.”

Mavis Nhleko, a smallholder 
agroecology farmer, at Emagengeni in Pongola. Picture: Biowatch South Africa

With a large proportion of Africa’s food produced by smallholder farmers who operate with marginal resources, crop failure can be devastating. As climate stresses increase, it becomes especially astute to invest in knowledge and methods that ensure smallholder farms continue to be viable.

The 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reveals that undernourishment and severe food insecurity are on the rise in nearly all regions of the world. About one in nine people in the world is considered to be undernourished, with a fifth (21%) of Africa’s population affected.

Although a number of complex factors influence food security, the report shows a correlation between the rise in the prevalence of undernourishment in the last three years and the rise in climate shocks such as droughts, floods, cyclones, and heat waves. It points to the 2015-2016 El Niño event as a key factor.

Countries with high exposure to climate shocks have more than double the number of undernourished people than those without high exposure. Drought is an especially significant factor in increased undernourishment, with stunting shown to have higher prevalence in areas where declining food availability is linked to warmer and drier conditions.

Other factors than climate are also at play. For example,middle-income countries experience less food insecurity than low-income countries that experience the same climate shocks.

Countries that experience both climate shocks and conflict fare considerably worse than those without conflict. However, it’s worth pointing out that most countries experiencing climate-related food insecurity are not experiencing conflict. Predictably, the part of the world where climate shocks and stressors have the biggest impact on food security and malnutrition is Africa.

“With climate change in this sub-region, droughts are more intense and they are longer, flash floods are more common, and one is seeing impacts that are really devastating,” says Williams, “And we are in a province which has very high rates of malnutrition – with elevated levels of stunting and high rates of diabetes.”

Stats SA reports that in 2016, about 22% of South African households had “inadequate or severely inadequate” access to food, and about 12% of households experienced hunger.

Williams says, “In many ways, synthetic fertilisers and irrigation and hybrid crops can seem like a silver bullet – and you may get returns that are high for a few years – but it’s not resilient and it’s not sustainable. Fertilizers impact on soil fertility, and hybrid crops need a lot of water –and water is scarce in this region which means it has to be diverted from somewhere else. So if you’re looking at an earth that needs to be sustainable, this is not an option for the long-term.”


Biowatch director, Rose Williams. Picture: Biowatch South Africa

“Within agroecology, there is a strong support for natural systems, and the ecology, water system, and soils are maintained,” she explains, “It’s something that is supportive of biodiversity, and it also has a low carbon footprint if you tie it with local markets.”

As described in Biowatch’s recent report, Agroecology is best practice, agroecology is about applying a set of principles rather than specific farming methods. Biowatch partner farmers are required to compost,mulch, dig fertility beds, use grey water, and save traditional seed. There can be no use of commercial hybrids or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides,insecticides or herbicides.

Farming methods vary based on terrain and depending on the individual objectives of different farmers. For example, what made Myeni’s farm successful in a moisture-deprived area was a combination of hip-deep trench gardens filled with material such as tin, bones, grass and compost that improved the fertility and water-retention of the soils, along with water-harvesting practices and solicitous use of grey water.

For Mvubu in a higher-rainfall area, it was planting in shallow basins and intense inter-cropping that gave her good yields.In a single field, she interplants maize, beans, cowpeas, peanuts, mung beans, jugo beans, sesame, and sorghum – and in fact, she has three different varieties of traditional sorghum.

Williams emphasizes crop diversity as an important aspect of agroecology  – both for protecting the soil and for proper nutrition. “There’s a difference between having sufficient food and having sufficient nutritious food. You can have enough food to fill your stomach but it’s not going to be enough for the human body. One needs a diversity in diet. Part of our work in agroecology is in providing proper food.”

Partner farmers strengthen agroecology practices with their own tried and tested traditional practices. “There is a strong innovation element to agroecology,” explains Williams, “and that’s where we can really support farmers because we are part of initiatives where we are learning from other countries in southern Africa and what we learn from our partner farmer scan also be shared with others.”

Saving traditional seed varieties for replanting is one of the most important aspects of maintaining agricultural diversity, resilience in crops, and good levels of household nutrition.

Says Williams, “In agroecology, the farmers have control over their seeds. They grow sufficient crops for food and also for planting the next season.” With hybrid seed, the next generation often lacks vigour, and some seeds are patented, which means farmers have to buy new seed for each crop. Williams explains, “This is very different to traditional farmer varieties of seed where the vigour is maintained and the diversity is maintained and it’s a self-sustaining system.”

Some farmers, like Mngomezulu, plant fields that are only for seed saving. As quoted in the recent Biowatch report, Mngomezulu says,“These seeds are very precious to me. I need this field to save them so that they don’t get lost. I inherited these seeds from older generations and I want people to see them and use them – they are for my grandchildren, for coming generations,and for other farmers.”

As governments the world over strive to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, it might be worth taking a page from these smallholder farmers in remote rural areas who are able to feed their families nutritious food throughout the year. 

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