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Agriculture: what’s wrong with normal?

By John Chettleborough On 16.06.2020 CoronavirusFood & agricultureBlog

In the first of two articles about the food system, prompted by the pandemic, we focus on agricultural production in developing countries and explore the fundamental problems with the current systems. 

Across the countries that Practical Action works in, we are seeing that coronavirus is having an impact on food systems. Restrictions on movement are hindering transportation of food to markets and perishable food is being thrown away. Disruptions to supply chains are making it difficult for farmers to get access to inputs, such as seed and fertiliser, needed for planting next season’s crop and ensuring future food supply.

A perfect storm seems to be in the making: immediate food supply challenges, higher prices caused by this, lower incomes of consumers as a result of other lockdown measures. Combined with long term reductions in production threatening severe hunger, loss of livelihoods and escalating poverty.

But as the food system bounces back after the pandemic, should we really be building back the same model? We argue that the current food system was failing even before the pandemic and that we now need to transition our food system to one that is more sustainable, that is better for people and better for the planet.

The big problem: A food system that does not work for people or the planet

Since the early 1960s, world food production has increased by 145% and for each person alive, there is now technically 25% more food than there was in 1960[1].

In order to make such gains, agriculture around the world, has become intensified through the use of chemical inputs (e.g. fertilisers, pesticide), heavy tilling of soil, scientifically developed hybrid crop varieties and monocultures rather than mixed cropping.

The adoption of these farming methods has been accompanied by the expansion in the influence of large agri-businesses and the development of global supply chains that enable a farmer in Kenya to provide veg for a dinner table in the UK. It all sounds very impressive.

In reality the balance sheet is not quite so positive. Despite the huge amounts of food being produced 850 million people are still going hungry and often those going hungry are the people producing the food. Small holder production levels in developing countries remain very low and small farmers struggle to make a living wage. Most worrying, the modern agriculture that is being promoted as the solution, is destroying the very resources on which agriculture depends. That piece of Kenyan veg on the dinner table in the UK, cost a lot more than the price on the packet.

There are a multitude of problems with our food system but here we focus on how the food system interacts with small scale farmers in developing countries. We look at four characteristics that help define the current system and that need to change if agriculture is going to be sustainable and represent a route out of poverty for millions of smallholder farmers.

Unsustainable: Degradation of soils – the foundation of all agriculture

Lucia learnt how to use the leaves and stalks from previous crops to make compost, which replenishes soil nutrients

Lucia Zenge, a widow in Zimbabwe farms on the Manuaure irrigation scheme and used to grow horticultural crops which were sold in Mutare. In 2015 the soil started to deteriorate and yields started dropping. This did not stop even when she applied ever increasing amounts of fertiliser. Lucia’s experience is commonplace.

In countries from Zimbabwe to Nepal, efforts have been made to increase traditionally low smallholder yields. These have usually involved the abandoning of traditional methods that maintained the soil such as mixed cropping, the integration of manure and fallow periods in favour of a reliance on chemical fertilisers and mono-cropping. Fertiliser allowed rapid increases in yields and multiple harvests. But this has come at a cost – without the traditional methods that supported replenishment, levels of organic matter in the soil have declined. This is a global problem. Research by Practical Action reveals that in Nepal the level of organic matter is 25-50% of that which is needed for sustainable agriculture[2].

“Market forces are encouraging farmers to plant mono crops which is leading to soil degradation”, Menila Kharel, Practical Action Nepal

The loss of organic matter makes it harder for the soil to hold onto water and nutrients. One of the results of this is that chemical fertiliser becomes increasingly ineffective as experienced by Lucia.

Without organic matter holding it together, soil literally disappears. The UN estimate that 24 billion tonnes of soil are lost every year threatening our ability to continue producing food[3].

A negative cycle that costs farmers more and perpetuates soil damage

Soils, fertilisers and climate change: Who wins?

The madness of our food system is perfectly illustrated by the relationship between soils, fertilisers and climate change.

Chemical fertiliser contributes to climate change in three ways:

Its production results in a major source of carbon emissions.

It contributes to the overworking of soils and their eventual degradation which releases further carbon into the atmosphere – a result of the fact that soil holds three times as much carbon as the atmosphere.

Lastly as a result of soil being degraded, our ability to sequester carbon in the future is significantly reduced.

Meanwhile farmers who may have struggled to pay for the fertiliser in the first place are faced with every declining yields. No one is winning in this situation.




Unstable: Undermining diversity, losing nature’s help

Diversity plays an important part in productive and sustainable food production. There are two parts to this.

  • Biodiversity (e.g. micro-fauna, insects) contributes to soil fertility, provides protection from pests (e.g. through the presence of more natural predators) and supports pollination.
  • Diversity of crops and livestock on a farm contributes to food diversity and the availability of good nutrition.

Both are being lost.

Farm expansion is leading to the destruction of forest land. Pesticides and other chemicals are having a devastating impact on insects and other micro fauna. Hybrid seeds are heavily promoted at the expense of local seed varieties despite the fact that they are expensive to buy and have to be replaced each year to maintain productivity. The result is that many traditional varieties, often better suited to increasingly erratic climate conditions that farmers face, are now in danger of extinction. They are also usually planted in extensive/large monocultures, reducing the diversity of food available to local diets.

In the last harvest, hybrid crops in Gwandda and Matobo all failed but farmers who planted local seeds have managed a good harvest”  Melody Makumbe Practical Action Zimbabwe

In Zimbabwe, Lucia noticed that when she planted monocultures of potatoes in order to meet market demands, pest attacks increased. Menila Kharel in Nepal notes that the “overuse and a lack of safe handling of pesticides has led to human health problems and the loss of pollinating insects needed for pollination”.

The broader impacts of biodiversity loss and habitat destruction, including the increased emergence of zoonotic viruses such as coronavirus, are well documented elsewhere.

Unfair: A huge number of small scale farmers still being left behind

Smallholder farmers, many of them women, are losing out at every step in the current system. At one end, they experience low productivity or soil degradation. At the other, they struggle to integrate into commercial value chains because they cannot produce the quality and quantity of produce required to secure a good income. As Governments roll back investment into traditional agricultural extension services, this problem only gets worse. In between, a lack of access to finance, technical advice and appropriate technology, hinders the development of enterprises that would allow off farm employment and value addition. The lack of opportunities and the perceived drudgery of farming are leading to an exodus of young people from rural areas. Across Africa, agriculture is becoming the occupation of old people and there are real concerns that there will be no one to grow the food needed in the future.





“A lack of organisation and the low production levels achieved by many farmers makes it difficult for them to develop relationships with buyers and when they do they are often exploited”

Henry T Muchedzi, Practical Action, Zimbabwe


Unchallenged:  Neglecting local knowledge and other alternative approaches

The situation is compounded by a de-prioritisation of smallholder agriculture in national policy and a neglect of local knowledge.

Local knowledge, of plants, cropping techniques and the weather, which will be critical to support adaptation to climate change, is considered inferior to knowledge that is developed by researchers. This is reflected in education, research and investment which continue to focus on unsustainable commercially driven intensification. This de-prioritization is reflected in national policy, with many countries focussing agricultural investment on crops that can be exported and that are of interest to large private sector companies. Small scale agriculture, local markets and national food security are being neglected. The results are:

  • Overconsumption and food waste in some parts of the world, versus food insecurity in others.
  • Over-dependence on long supply chains that can break down easily in a crisis such as the pandemic.
  • An over-reliance on food imports – all African countries are now net importers of food, despite their huge productivity potential, something that is leaving them exposed in the pandemic.

Alternative systems, that fairly reward those who farm, and nurture the land and natural resources, are considered marginal.


Can we build a new food system?

Practical Action believe that the world needs a food system that is resilient at all levels, that protects environmental resources, provides small scale farmers with decent livelihoods and secures food supplies in all countries. Such a system needs to be built on

  • A combination of traditional knowledge and new innovation
  • Regenerative practices that rebuild and maintain natural resources
  • Farming that sustainably manages our environment, respecting the role of different landscapes, watersheds and ecosystems. And the other people who use them.
  • The fair inclusion of many more smallholder farmers, including woman and young people, in commercial markets
  • Vibrant and circular rural economies that create opportunities for all

We’re already working with small scale farmers around the world, to help build a new system that is anything but ‘normal’. We are not alone in doing this. Progressive national and global private sector companies are exploring new ways of organising supply chains. Other international organisations are taking action, and interest in regenerative agriculture is increasing.

In the next article we will look at what some of this work looks like in practice.

John Chettleborough is the Agriculture and Markets Lead for Practical Action Consulting. His work focuses on developing market systems and private sector models that support low input regenerative agriculture and the integration of renewable energy into the agricultural sector.

[1] Pretty, J. 2008. Agricultural sustainability: concepts, principles and evidence. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 363: 447-465.

[2] Nepal Government Strategy ADS, 2015-35 provides a guideline of 4% soil organic matter as being necessary for sustainable production. Research shows organic matter is actually at 1% – 2 %. See also Collaborative action on soil fertility in Bangladesh and Nepal, IIED and Practical Action, Working Paper, Dec 2016

[3] UN Global Land Outlook, 2017