Revitalizing traditional agricultural practice

Dongria Kondh, Orissa. Photo: Survival International, 2008

An article by Manipadma Jena at the Inter-Press Service news agency describes how Kondh tribal farmers in the Indian state of Orissa have been returning to traditional cultivation practices in order to cope with “climate change, erosion, dryness, soil acidity and falling ground water levels.”

The article reads:

“For Harish Saraka and other subsistence farmers in 70 Niyamgiri villages in Rayagada, adapting to changing conditions meant reverting to traditional farming methods such as mixed cropping, the use of organic fertilisers and trusted seed varieties. 
So, while farming has been failing elsewhere in Odisha, Harish Saraka has been cultivating not three but 14 crops on his half-hectare land since the last two years – enough to see his family through the lean August-December season. 
“I now harvest 300 kg of food grains, a 200 percent increase from the earlier single-crop high-yield paddy farming,” says Saraka. 
In Kerandiguda village, Loknath Nauri, 58, is the first to try mixed farming on a portion of his one-hectare hilly stream-fed land that he got under a government programme for the landless rural poor. 
“Seeing my good harvest, ten other households here have decided to try their luck this year,” says Nauri, who is ready to share his seeds with them. 
“The Kondhs’ once self-sufficient and local resource-based agriculture system was affected by the introduction of commercial high-yielding paddy,” says Debjeet Sarangi who heads ‘Living Farms’, a non-government organisation (NGO) that works with marginal farmers. 
Bhima Saraka told IPS that a few years back, Munda villagers were lured into planting high-yielding paddy seeds given free by the government along with chemical fertilisers. “The seeds were old and many did not sprout, while the fertilisers demanded water, and we have no source except the rains,” he says. 
“None got much out of this ‘free gift’ except an important lesson, that their local seeds – acclimatised to their dryland soil and more able to withstand monsoon’s unpredictability – were indeed their lifeline,” says Sunamajhi Pidika, Living Farms’s local field organiser. Sarangi said tribal communities, “who neither cultivated nor ate rice traditionally, are now trying to re-establish their food sovereignty.” 

‘Ailing Agricultural Productivity in Economically Fragile Region of India’ – a recent study published by the Bhopal-based Indian Institute of Soil Sciences found that the cultivation area for small millets in Odisha had declined by 500 percent over the last 40 years. 

The popular perception is that the government policy is pushing in cash crops to the detriment of subsistence millet-farming practiced by communities like Bhima Saraka’s. 
“The government is not coercing the tribal people, just putting intelligent choices before them,” said Nitin Bhanudas Jawale, administrative head of Rayagada district. 
However, in April, it was decided to procure millet and make it available at fair price outlets, so that the tribal people could go back to their traditional food, Jawale said. “The U.N. World Food Programme is collaborating with us.” 
“In discussions with village elders we came to know there are varieties of millets and pulses which can tolerate heat and water stress,” says Sarangi. 
“I have heard my grandfather talk of the 11 varieties of millet that his father cultivated,” recounts 24-year-old Prasant Wadraka from Gandili village while waiting at the government’s tribal development office to collect free tin sheet roofing. 
According to Wadraka, near-extinct millet varieties include one called ‘kodo’ which has medicinal properties to control diabetes. Millet is packed with protein, B-complex vitamins and minerals, nutritionists say. 
“The movement in India to return to traditional seeds is growing stronger and at country inter-NGO level too we exchange seeds to supplement local communities’ seed needs,” says Sarangi. 
In 2008, Living Farms began a programme of giving poor families seeds on condition that after harvest the same quantity would be returned plus 10 percent ‘interest’ to be put into grain banks.
Simple woven bamboo baskets sealed with thick clay-and cow dung daub, the grain banks are managed by Kondh women and opened only in times of need. 
Just before the monsoons all the seed varieties are sown on the same field. These are a combination of niger (an oilseed), sorghum, millet varieties like finger, foxtail, pearl, pigeon pea and horse gram along with creeper beans. 
Some of these will ripen in 90 days while others will take 120 days before harvest. 
According to leading Indian agro-scientist M.S. Swaminathan, mixed cropping – that involves several cereals, pulses, oilseeds, vegetable and fodder crops – retards buildup of insect pests. 
It is significant that tribal communities never use chemical inputs or even diesel irrigation pumps, and sell their produce in the local market. 
“Their products have minimum carbon footprints,” Sarangi said. “In the imminent global climate crisis, we have much to learn from indigenous communities.” 

Local food and well-being

Photo: Jules Pretty

Under cherry-trees

Soup, the salad, fish and all

Seasoned with petals.

– Basho.

We recently advertised 2 PhD positions at the University of Essex, looking for researchers to explore whether relocalised food systems could contribute to individual and community wellbeing. Our starting premise was that, “Food produced with a light ecological footprint, as a collective community effort, and distributed through short food chains could contribute to achieving sustainability, resilience and improved wellbeing.”

‘Local food’ often conjures images of happy, healthy people, green landscapes and beautiful-looking crops (see the collection of images here, for instance). Thrown into the mix is also a promise of ‘resilience’. Unsurprisingly, the movement to ‘relocalise’ food systems is gaining ground. Carol Trewin (2003) describes the spread of local food initiatives in the UK. At the end of her report, cites a claim from Food for Britain, that “significant and measurable financial benefits (are) coming from the revival of interest in local food”.

What about ‘wellbeing’? How do individuals and communities benefit? There is more research and writing on what is lost in globalised agricultural systems than there is on what is gained through more local systems. In an early review of the local food movement in the USA, Gail Feenstra cites some of the early writing on the link between local food and happier, healthier, more democratic communities: Hightower (1973, 1976), who talked about the corporate control of agriculture, and Wendell Berry’s work (1977), describing the loss of community and culture that ensues from the rise of mechanised, corporatised, intensive agriculture. And there is also the supply-side to consider: what does localisation imply for the producers who grow crops that are sold globally? Does the movement towards relocalisation also place adequate emphasis on fair and ethical trade and sourcing?

Our research will examine what’s already known and use community studies in the East of England to demonstrate what individuals gain, how communities change, and whether environment and society reconnect as a result of local production and consumption.

We’ll post updates as we go along, and introduce our new PhD students once their selection process is through.

Alternative Agri-Food Networks in the Colchester area

Biodiverse meadows used to graze cattle for local markets near Maldon, Essex

Alternative Agri-Food Networks in the Colchester area and their contribution to  resilient communities

Ambra Sedlmayr [ambracsedl [at] gmail [dot] com] 

Background: Local and sustainable food sourcing initiatives in the Colchester area were surveyed to gain an understanding of the main opportunities and challenges to the development of alternative food sourcing strategies to build local resilience. A diversity of initiatives were identified and key informants were interviewed for each type of initiative. It was found that Alternative Agri-Food Network (AAFN) organisers perceive that lack of time and financial resources are the main factors limiting the promotion of AAFNs. They also believe that insufficient consumer awareness is a constraint to the spreading and deepening of AAFNs. Nevertheless, the recent development of a number of initiatives and the growing interest in local and sustainable food is promising for the future development of alternative food sourcing in the area, which is essential for developing more sustainable and resilient communities.

Ambra Sedlmayr

About the author: 

Ambra studied Biology at the University of Coimbra (Portugal). From there she moved on to conduct her postgraduate studies at the University of Essex (UK). At Essex she first completed the Masters degree in Environment, Science and Society, followed by a doctorate in Environmental Studies, focussing on the subject of agricultural marginalisation in Portugal.

Ambra’s research interests focus on the political, economic, social and psychological frontiers of conflict and tension, emerging between different ways of conceptualizing and realizing development. Her main research interest is on the maintenance and development of sustainable forms of agriculture and sustainable agricultural livelihoods in the context of  long standing and continuing pressures that drive agricultural industrialisation. Her research is intrinsically transdisciplinary and solution-orientated. Ambra is currently working for an international charity in the promotion of sustainable agriculture. She is still connected with the Centre of Functional Ecology at the University of Coimbra and the Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex.

Further publications: 

  • Sedlmayr, A. (2011). Agricultural marginalisation in Portugal: Threats and opportunities for sustainable livelihoods. Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex, Colchester. PhD Thesis.
  • Sedlmayr, A. (2009). How does agricultural marginalisation come about? Presentation of a research paper at the Essex & Writtle “Sustainability and the Environment” Conference, Colchester.
  • Sedlmayr. A. (2008). The flooding of the foodshed. How cheap imports undermine local food systems in rural Portugal. Proceedings of the VII Iberic Conference of Rural Studies, Coimbra.
  • Sedlmayr, A. (2005). Factors affecting the Ecological and Economic viability of organic farming in central Portugal. Implications for the development of sustainable agriculture. Interdisciplinary Centre for Environment and Society, University of Essex, Colchester. Master’s Dissertation.

The roles and values of wild foods in agricultural systems

Abstract: Almost every ecosystem has been amended so that plants and animals can be used as food, fibre, fodder, medicines, traps and weapons. Historically, wild plants and animals were sole dietary components for hunter–gatherer and forager cultures. Today, they remain key to many agricultural communities. The mean use of wild foods by agricultural and forager communities in 22 countries of Asia and Africa (36 studies) is 90–100 species per location. Aggregate country estimates can reach 300–800 species (e.g. India, Ethiopia, Kenya). The mean use of wild species is 120 per community for indigenous communities in both industrialized and developing countries. Many of these wild foods are actively managed, suggesting there is a false dichotomy around ideas of the agricultural and the wild: hunter–gatherers and foragers farm and manage their environments, and cultivators use many wild plants and animals. Yet, provision of and access to these sources of food may be declining as natural habitats come under increasing pressure from development, conservation-exclusions and agricultural expansion. Despite their value, wild foods are excluded from official statistics on economic values of natural resources. It is clear that wild plants and animals continue to form a significant proportion of the global food basket, and while a variety of social and ecological drivers are acting to reduce wild food use, their importance may be set to grow as pressures on agricultural productivity increase.

Citation: Bharucha, Z. and Pretty, J. 2010. The roles and values of wild foods in agricultural systems. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (B). 365(1554): 2913-2926

View text here

Breaking monoculture: The path towards sustainable agriculture in Cuba

Studying the effects of polycropping on productivity. Photo: Fernando Funes-Monzote

Background: From its beginnings in 1990, the Cuban organic agriculture movement has been of particular interest for the international community looking for sustainable approaches in agriculture. Both, due to its transition towards sustainable agriculture at national scale, and its special characteristics based on wide popular participation and innovative ways of organization, the Cuban model attracted attention. During 20 years there were achieved remarkable successes in terms of massive application of organic agriculture and agroecology principles and practices.

Several agriculture programs pursued soil fertility organic management alternatives, agroecological pest control, the rational use of locally available resources, participatory plant breeding, local innovation, farmer to farmer and farmer to researcher knowledge dissemination and methodologies application, among others. Urban agriculture has been an outstanding way to promote organic farming and today the program continue growing towards sub-urban areas. There is much to discuss on successes and failures around these examples but, above all, it would be interesting at this point to discuss what we have learned so far from the Cuban experience after 20 years. Our study case intends to show some of what we have leaned so far in this transition process.

Fernando Funes-Monzote

About the Author: Fernando Funes-Monzote is researcher at the Experimental Station “Indio Hatuey” of the University of Matanzas, Cuba. He earned a PhD in Production Ecology and Resource Conservation from Wageningen University in 2008 and has an MSc. in Agroecology and Rrural Development from the International University of Andalucia (1998) and a degree in Agronomy from the Agrarian University of Havanna (1995).

Dr. Funes-Monzote is founder-member of the Cuban Organic Agriculture Movement (ACAO) that deserved the Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Price (1999). He has participated during the last 20 years in different agroecological projects in Cuba and is author or coauthor of several books and journal articles. He is member of the executive committee of the Sociedad Científica Latinoamericana de Agroecología (SOCLA) and professor on its doctoral course on agroecology. He has also been invited to lecture at several universities in Cuba and internationally.

Urban agriculture in Havana. Photo: Fernando Funes-Monzote

Further Publications: 

  • Funes-Monzote, F.R., 2008. Farming like we’re here to stay: The mixed farming alternative for Cuba. PhD thesis. Wageningen University, The Netherlands.
  • Funes-Monzote, F.R., López-Ridaura, S., Tittonell, P., 2009. Diversity and efficiency: The elements of ecologically intensive agriculture. LEISA Magazine 25 (1), 9-10.
  • Funes-Monzote, F.R., Monzote, M., Lantinga, E.A., Ter Braak, C.J.F., Sánchez, J.E., Van Keulen, H., 2009. Agro-Ecological Indicators (AEIs) for dairy and mixed farming systems classification: Identifying alternatives for the Cuban livestock sector. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 33 (4), 435-460. DOI: 10.1080/10440040902835118
  • Funes-Monzote, F.R., Monzote, M., Lantinga, E.A. Van Keulen, H. 2009. Conversion of specialised Dairy Farming Systems into sustainable Mixed Farming Systems in Cuba. Environment, Development and Sustainability 11, 765-783. DOI: 10.1007/s10668-008-9142-7
  • Funes-Monzote, F.R., 2009. Divergencia de enfoques entre agroecología y transgénicos. En: Funes-Monzote, F.R., Freyre-Roach, E.F. (eds.). Transgénicos: ¿Qué se gana? ¿Qué se pierde? Textos para un debate en Cuba. Ediciones Acuario, La Habana, pp. 99-121.  ISBN: 978-959-7071-64-8.
  • Funes-Monzote, F.R., 2010. The conversion towards sustainable agriculture in Cuba: A national scale experiment, En: Gliessman, S.R., M. Rosemeyer (eds.) Conversion to sustainable agriculture: principles, processes, and practices. CRC Press: Boca Raton, Florida, pp. 205-237. ISBN: 978-0-8493-1917-4.