Back to nature: Combatting poverty through indigenous farming methods

As we approach the end of 2015, the year by which the UN had pledged to end poverty, it is deeply concerning to know that there are still 805 million people in the world who have inadequate food supplies, and more than 1.3 billion living in extreme poverty. With the global population set to rise by 2 billion people by 2050, world hunger is an increasingly pressing concern and the search for a solution must be a global priority. While there is no simple answer to the problem of feeding an ever-growing population, there is a great deal we can learn from studying indigenous farming methods in developing countries. Indigenous techniques may hold the key to ensuring food security and, as supporting small holder farms has been recognised as one of the quickest ways to lift over 1 billion over the poverty line, the seemingly basic techniques employed on small-scale farms warrant serious attention.

Indigenous farming methods are those that are unique to a particular community, founded on local knowledge which has been passed down through the years. They are typically associated with small holder farms and contrasted with large-scale, industrial agriculture. As indigenous techniques develop with local customs, and the success of different methods depends on the particular qualities of the land being farmed, there is a broad range of practices which could be considered under this umbrella term. However, a common thread that unites different small holder techniques is a cultural attitude of respect for nature, and working with, rather than against the natural resources of the land, for example by avoiding the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. In China, some farmers place the nests of predacious ants into fruit trees as a means of reducing insect damage. Harnessing natural resources in this way is not only cheaper (and therefore more accessible to those in poorer communities) than using chemical pesticides, it is also avoids chemicals being leached into the soil and so is better for the environment and long-term fertility of the land.

Many indigenous techniques are more environmentally friendly than conventional, industrial alternatives and biodiversity is the central tenet of many small holder farming practices. In areas where the community survive on locally produced food rather than imported crops, farmers have engaged in the practice of ‘mixed cropping’. More than one type of crop is planted on the same plot of land, which can be contrasted with industrial plantations where a single crop is cultivated intensively. Mixed cropping is essential to small holders as it provides protection against damage from pests, disease or fluctuating weather conditions. Having a range of different plants in a harvest is a vital part of ensuring food security which in turn reduces dependence on outside food markets, and the dangers of fluctuating food prices. In this way, mixed cropping is of particular importance to farmers who rely on their own produce as their main food supply.

However indigenous methods are by no means limited to subsistence farming, indeed small holder farms are currently responsible for the production of around 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Mixed cropping is just one example of a technique which can be used to drive down hunger on a global scale, particularly given its potential to increase food productivity per square metre of land. In Java indigenous systems of “forest-gardening” have developed where locals grow a diverse range of plants on a single plot of land. By planting crops with different plant heights and root depths, Javanese villagers are able to harness the full potential of the land, using more of the available light and water than could be used by a single-crop plantation. Utilising the land’s resources to the fullest in this way will be essential in feeding a growing population in the face of a shrinking arable land base which forces us to make better use of the finite resources we have available.

Promoting the use of indigenous methods is not only beneficial to those who depend on small holder farms for their food supply; natural farming practices are better for the environment, making them globally significant. Shifting cultivation is a common technique used in small holder farms whereby farmers rotate their crops, burning down what remains after a harvest and letting this be absorbed into the recently cultivated land. Essentially, the land is given a break, and the burnt crops decompose, replenishing the nutrients in the soil. On a local scale, this improves the fertility of the land and makes its use sustainable. On a global scale, such methods increase the organic carbon levels of soil which has been shown to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The ecological benefits of indigenous farming are apparent, but additionally, the social benefits that small holder farms bring to the communities in which they operate should not be underestimated. Female workers account for 43% of the global agricultural labour force and, in countries like Sierra Leone and Indonesia, the accessibility of indigenous farming has played an important role in empowering women. More broadly, as indigenous farming relies more on manual labour rather than the use of machinery, the employment opportunities that arise from small holder farms, particularly in communities where many people are without formal education, are vital in lifting people out of poverty and allowing them to make a living.

2015 has sadly not delivered the eradication of poverty that it promised. Hunger and poverty still plague the world and the challenge of feeding the population is set to become increasingly more difficult. What is clear is that we must look for new ways of solving these global issues and the small holder model has the potential to make a big impact.