SEATTLE — Colombia is well known for its agricultural exports, both legitimate and extralegal. Coffee and coca are the two best-known products for any foreigner asked to identify the South American nation’s leading crops. Despite this reputation as a provider of bulk commodities and controlled substances, Colombia’s agricultural sector is developing innovative methods to address modern challenges. Below are examples of three current projects that are leading sustainable agriculture in Colombia into the 21st century.
Promoting Organic Products for Colombian Farmers
In 2011, the Colombian government announced an initiative to promote organic agriculture in the country. This program, dubbed the “Organic Agriculture Production Chain”, consists of a number of parallel efforts aimed at increasing the use of organic and sustainable practices.
In recent years, a private organization partnered with this government effort to promote sustainable agriculture in Colombia. The Federacíon Orgánicos de Colombia is a private cooperative of producers, exporters, logistics providers, and certification specialists whose goal is to promote the growth of organic farming and agricultural production. Among the many achievements of this partnership between government and private industry is the replacement of formerly illicit crops with profitable organic yields. In particular, Colombian farmers have planted the Amazonian Cayenne pepper for sale in place of illegal crops. Farmers in Colombia met 40 percent of the organization’s replacement goal by the summer of 2016.
Using High-Tech Sensors to Increase Sustainable Yields of Bananas
Bananas and plantains are a major crop in Colombia and comprise 10 percent of the nation’s total agricultural exports. These crops are sensitive to many environmental variables, including flooding, oxygen levels in the soil, humidity, temperature range and the amount of sunlight. The Colombian National Service for Learning announced a program in 2016 to develop a smart farming system that will be used with the country’s banana crops.
This program incorporates internet-connected sensors to accurately monitor conditions in the fields and provides this information in a user-friendly manner to farmers. The information allows farmers to react more efficiently to the needs of these crops. Among other effects, the new information can reduce farmers’ use of artificial fertilizers.
Information from the sensor network also helps agriculture experts develop and monitor new banana varieties. Genetic diversity derived from this process promotes disease resistance, increases sustainable yields and will add considerable value to the future of sustainable agriculture in Colombia.
“Agroforestry” Technique Increases Sustainable Production of Herds and Fields
Colombia is in the middle of a five-year, $42 million project to introduce a novel form of sustainable agriculture to the country. An initiative by the Nature Conservancy, the United Nations and two Colombian organizations, the project is promoting agroforestry to landowners in Colombia.
Agroforestry is the practice of cultivating trees with food crops or livestock while making use of the trees’ benefits to the immediate environment. What makes the current project in Colombia different is its focus on cattle ranching along with the cultivation of multiple species of trees and food crops on the same land.
This system has multiple benefits for all of the products involved. Milk production can as much as double using the new technique. Not only can it increase the amount of food produced per acre, but agroforestry also adds resilience to the effects of a warming environment and reduces vulnerability to weather extremes.
One visible effect of the agroforestry initiative is reducing the amount of exclusively pastoral land in Colombia. Colombia has historically used up to 80 percent of its agricultural land for grazing cattle, and this practice has led to soil degradation and other abuses of the natural environment. By allowing the use of smaller grazing areas while sustaining or even increasing herd sizes, the advent of agroforestry will have a notably positive result in reducing these destructive effects.
Sustainable agriculture in Colombia has significant momentum behind it, as these three projects are only a sample of the initiatives aiming to improve future outcomes for Colombia’s farmers and people. As the nation emerges into relative peace after decades of war, these and other programs will take hold to lead the agricultural sector and the rest of the country into the 21st century.
– Paul Robertson