Low input agriculture as a tool for poverty alleviation

In many places around the world farmers are discovering that lower input (of fertilizers and pesticides) agriculture can be more profitable, and lower risk, than conventional high input alternatives.

Ethan Apri on NextBillion.net points to an  Asia Times article Turkey’s born-again farmer about Nazmi Ilicali, a farmer in Eastern Turkey who promotes organic agriculture to reduce rural poverty. The region grows organic wheat, rye, barley, white beans, green lentils, chickpeas and bulgur wheat and promotes itself and organizes sales via www.daphan.org. In the article Ilicali explains why and how he promotes organic agriculture:

He explains why, ironically, the poverty of this area makes it perfect for starting organic farming projects: “The earth in this area is especially suitable, because the local population is so poor that for years they have been unable to afford chemical fertilizers. The climate is good for organic agriculture, too. The frost and cold here even kill the eggs laid in the earth by insects, and because of that there is no need for pesticides – we have a totally chemical-free soil.”

Soon after joining the Daphan project, Nazmi took a further step. “After doing extensive research, I decided that organic agriculture was the only investment with good potential in the east of Turkey. But I also knew that any efforts would have to be made in an organized way. When I first became involved three years ago, I brought 633 farmers together, and the European Community gave me the financial support to set up the Eastern Anatolian Farmers and Livestock Keepers Union. Now we have 3,000 members, and are still gathering members like an avalanche gathers snow.”

Nazmi explains that when they first started, the biggest problem they had was the packaging and processing of their organic products. Rather than allowing this to stall their progress, they built a small factory and made every member of the association a shareholder. The factory began to grind their own cereals into flour and package it. Their brand identity, sales and profit margins have all improved since.

This experience is placed in a broader context by Bill McKibben. In April 2005 he had a good rich article The Cuba Diet, about Cuba’s semi-successful, involuntary transition to low-input organic agriculture in Harper’s magazine . To put Cuba’s unusual agricultural system (McKibben calls it something like high fedualism) in context he talks to Jules Pretty about other alternative agriculture systems around the world:

… strict organic agriculture isn’t what the Cubans practice (remember those pesticides for the potato bugs). “If you’re going to grow irrigated rice, you’ll almost always need some fertilizer,” said Jules Pretty, a professor at the University of Essex’s Department of Biological Sciences, who has looked at sustainable agriculture in fields around the world. “The problem is being judicious and careful.” It’s very clear, he added, “that Cuba is not an anomaly. All around the world small-scale successes are being scaled up to regional level.” Farmers in northeast Thailand, for instance, suffered when their rice markets disappeared in the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. “They’d borrowed money to invest in ‘modern agriculture,’ but they couldn’t get the price they needed. A movement emerged, farmers saying, ‘Maybe we should just concentrate on local markets, and not grow for Bangkok, not for other countries.’ They’ve started using a wide range of sustainability approaches—polyculture, tree crops and agroforestry, fish ponds. One hundred and fifty thousand farmers have made the shift in the last three years.”

Almost certainly, he said, such schemes are as productive as the monocultures they replaced. “Rice production goes down, but the production of all sorts of other things, like leafy vegetables, goes up.” And simply cutting way down on the costs of pesticides turns many bankrupt peasants solvent. “The farmer field schools began in Indonesia, with rice growers showing one another how to manage their paddies to look after beneficial insects,” just the kinds of predators the Cubans were growing in their low-tech labs. “There’s been a huge decrease in costs and not much of a change in yields.”

See also Elena Bennet’s Resilience Science post on Ecological synergisms in agriculture.

2 thoughts on “Low input agriculture as a tool for poverty alleviation”

  1. hi,
    i found your paper interesting. i’d like to do a similar study in my country. Could i please have a copy of your research so as to see how you went out doing it.
    Thank you

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