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Farming that restores life

By Practical Action On 07.09.2023 FarmingFood & agricultureBlog

Practical Action is turning farmers around the world onto the benefits of regenerative agriculture. We talk to Chris Henderson, our Head of Agriculture, about this revolutionary way of producing food, and the benefits for people and planet.

What challenges are smallholder farmers facing?

Around the world, farmers are struggling to grow crops in soils that have become degraded. Why? Well, there are multiple reasons.

One of the biggest is that farmers have come to rely on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. This is because the chemicals can help ensure a successful harvest. But there is a cost. The more these chemicals are used, the poorer the soil becomes, and so the more the chemicals need to be used. It’s a vicious circle. As Schumacher would say, “It means solving one problem by shifting it to another sphere – there to create an infinitely bigger problem.”

But there are other factors at play, especially for the communities that we work with. The climate crisis is biting especially hard for farmers around the world. In Zimbabwe and Kenya, I’ve seen for myself how the long-term droughts and flash floods are making it even harder for farmers to grow crops.

Deforestation is another big problem. In Sudan, shade-giving trees have been removed for fuel, and now the desert is encroaching on farm land.

If farmers can’t grow crops, they experience extreme hardship. It threatens their very survival. But through our work with rural farmers in all these places and more, we’ve discovered that even in the most extreme drought conditions, farmers can use regenerative agriculture to restore health to the soil and grow food.

How does regenerative agriculture benefit the communities we work with?

I could take you to Bulilima district, in one of the driest areas of Zimbabwe, and introduce you to farmers who are living through the most devastating drought, and yet managing to grow crops. By introducing organic compost to the soil, they are increasing the soil’s ability to retain water. When they add solar-powered irrigation pumps to the mix, they create a powerful solution with a big impact. It means an end to hunger for families and improved health. It means they can thrive, despite the challenge of the climate crisis.

What kinds of regenerative agriculture techniques are we working with communities to introduce?

There are many different techniques, each tailored to the community and their individual situation. Often these techniques work together in a circular system, where the output of one process or part of the farm is the input for another. That’s when regenerative agriculture becomes really powerful. So, for example, we’ve been working with young farmers in Kenya to create circular farming systems. They use manure from livestock to fertilise the crops. They combine manure with waste from the crop and breed worms in it. These worms in turn produce a nutritious natural crop fertiliser. Some of the farmers we’ve worked with are now running successful circular farms involving cattle, poultry, rabbits, fly larvae and vegetables where nothing goes to waste and everything feeds life into the system.

Can regenerative agriculture be applied in other types of environment?

Yes, absolutely! The principles can be applied in every kind of farming environment. We’re working with rural farmers in Nepal, which traditionally has very fertile areas like rice paddies for growing crops. But intensive farming in these countries is reducing soil organic matter.

There we’ve introduced the novel solution of releasing ducks into the paddy fields. These “rice ducks” swim among the growing rice plants, eating all the harmful insects and weeds. It means the farmer doesn’t need to use any chemical pesticides. The ducks’ poo fertilises the crops, so the farmer doesn’t need to use chemical fertilisers either.

Farmers we’ve worked with are finding that rice ducks are boosting their crop yields by 20%. In addition, because no chemicals are used, the crops are organic, so they can be sold for a higher price at market. Again, regenerative agriculture is a win-win for people and planet.

Can you explain more about the benefit of regenerative agriculture for the planet?

Agriculture has become one of the most damaging and polluting things humans do. So if we’re going to stop the climate crisis, we have to change the way we farm.

Chemical fertilisers and pesticides take a lot of energy to produce, and that energy comes from fossil fuels, producing a lot of CO2 . These chemical inputs are toxic to nature, damaging the ecosystem and biodiversity. It makes the natural world poorer with every crop. Regenerative agriculture on the other hand works with nature, instead of trying to control it.

This year, Practical Action is celebrating the 50th anniversary of our founder E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful. How do his principles line up with this new regenerative farming approach?

I’m impressed by the constant relevance of Schumacher’s wisdom. He knew the important role that smallholder farmers play in the food and farming system. He knew that to make a better system, we’ve got to make agriculture accessible to the majority of people who live in rural areas.

It’s because we follow his principles that our work with communities does not stop at introducing communities to regenerative agriculture. This is just the beginning in fact.

What really makes Practical Action different is that we think beyond the individual farmer. We know that by working together, farmers can create reciprocal benefits for each other. We help to connect smallholder farmers with each other and with local markets. By working together like this, they create thriving rural economies, providing healthy, local food for people in nearby towns and villages. Everyone wins. And regenerative agriculture is at the heart of it all.