Sustainable farming goes back to the future

Parvis Koohafkan Hero Image

Ancient agriculture techniques can play a crucial new role in food security, says sustainable agriculture expert Parviz Koohafkan.

Not so long ago, China’s 2,000-year-old system of cultivating rice and fish together on small family farms was on the verge of becoming obsolete. The introduction of pesticides and fertilizers was killing off the fish, while new hybrid varieties of rice were proving less resistant than their traditional counterparts in the fields.

Parviz Koohafkan
Parviz Koohafkan

But today there’s renewed appreciation in China for the old ways of rice-fish farming. Fish swim among the rice fields, eating the weeds and insects while their excrement fertilizes the rice, in this unique system that has turned out to be more sustainable than some modern agricultural tactics. Chinese government policies now support this “ingenious” system, including investing in infrastructure to rebuild roads and improve water supply, training farmers, and developing a tourism-related sector to provide farmers with extra income. Small rice-fish farmers in the Zhejiang province village of Longxian, for example, have seen prices increase 60 percent for rice and nearly double for fish, and a small tourism industry has developed.

We need to really enhance and protect the smallholders and family farming. If we lose these, industrial farming would not be enough [to feed the world’s growing population].”
—Parviz Koohafkan

China and other Asian countries “are starting to realize these [rice-fish farm] systems were really worthwhile and very valuable, both in terms of the economy, but also in ecological, social and nutritional terms,” says sustainable agriculture expert Parviz Koohafkan, founder of the United Nations’ 12-year-old Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) initiative. “There are many of these ingenious systems that need to be rescued.”

China’s policy shift on rice-fish farming is linked to the work of GIAHS, which helps conserve rare farming systems around the world. Often these agricultural techniques have been passed down through generations, adapted for a specific landscape with a wide variety of plants that makes the farming system more capable of withstanding disease or changes in the environment. GIAHS has 31 designated conservation sites in 13 countries, including 11 alone in China and others in Peru, Tunisia and India.

“We need to really enhance and protect the smallholders and family farming,” Koohafkan says. “If we lose these, industrial farming would not be enough [to feed the world’s growing population].”

Back to the roots

Koohafkan comes by his role as a small-farm warrior naturally. His father was a family farmer in Iran, and Koohafkan studied at the University of Tehran, earning an engineering degree in agronomy and natural resources management. He joined the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1985 as a chief technical advisor for a food security program in Haiti, and retired from FAO two years ago to found the World Agricultural Heritage Foundation, a non-governmental organization that focuses on helping governments and the FAO identify and protect unique farming systems.

Despite all of the efforts to raise the profile of small farmers, however, their future remains precarious around the world, says Koohafkan. Land degradation, the migration of rural residents to big cities, droughts and the expansion of industrial agriculture are among the factors contributing to the disappearance of these small farms. Their loss is a threat to food security in developing nations, where these vulnerable family farms often produce up to 50 percent of the food supply.

“The smallholders do not receive subsidies, they do not receive education, they do not receive price support or access to markets,” Koohafkan says. “We need policies conducive to helping these people do their best as we have done for industrial farming.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean freezing them in time or equipping the farmers with fertilizers or expensive biotechnology, says Koohafkan. Instead, unique solutions and policy changes can enable them to maximize the benefits of their traditional farming techniques, he says, such as multi-cropping systems and efficient water usage. In fact, a 2011 UN report titled “Agroecology and the Right to Food” suggests that small farms could double their food production within a decade by implementing agroecology, an approach that treats farms as ecosystems to improve yields without negatively impacting the environment, such as diversifying the landscape to reduce pests.

Koohafkan points to Brazil as a model of what policy changes can produce. The country’s Zero Hunger Program, launched in 2001, resulted in a 33 percent increase in the income of family farms in a six-year period. One key component was a mechanism requiring schools and other public institutions to buy their food from family farmers, creating a “vibrant family farming sector” in Brazil, according to Koohafkan. The Brazilian government also bolstered these family farms by providing subsidized credit, insurance and training, according to an Oxfam report on the program.

“We say, please . . . comprehensively look at these farms and farm families, and how we can improve them the way the farmers think they should be improved,” Koohafkan says. “Not by introducing a new technology. Not by forcing them to do something they don’t know how to do. Not by destroying their system.”

The benefits of diversity

Compared with industrial agriculture systems where only one crop grows in a field, traditional systems may feature an amazing range of co-existing plants and animals. In Peru, for example, the terraced landscape allows farmers to grow maize at lower altitudes, potatoes at medium altitudes, and high-altitude crops such as quinoa farther up.

And because these traditional agriculture systems tend to have greater biodiversity in terms of crops and animals than commercial farming, the local population can access a wide array of nutritious foods, says Koohafkan. In the valleys close to Cuzco, Peru, farmers grow 177 different types of potatoes using traditional Andean agricultural techniques. In Tunisia, some 50 different kinds of dates, along with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, cereals and plants, are grown in the historic oasis of Gafsa, the site of another GIAHS project.

This diversity also benefits the environment, according to Koohafkan, helping to regulate the microclimate, control pests and improve the soil.

To date, GIAHS has identified more than 200 of these unique farming systems around the world. The race is on to save them, and it’s a much more complex and timely project than safeguarding ancient monuments, says Koohafkan. The challenge is persuading the world that while these farms may be small in size, their future impact on the environment and food supply can be immense.

“I am an optimist and believe in the collective wisdom of humanity to bring about a paradigm shift at this very critical moment in the history of agriculture,” says Koohafkan.

Catherine McLean

Catherine McLean is a freelance writer based in Switzerland. She covers a wide range of topics for both Swiss and international media outlets. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Today’s Parent, and Swissinfo among other publications.

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