SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — For western U.S. states, drought can devastate farming. The amount of water from the Colorado River that replenishes the reservoir is decreasing. The ingenious water management, which made this region habitable, is failing. Therefore, alternative methods are needed for poverty alleviation in farming-reliant communities.
Agriculture accounts for 70% of global water consumption. However, unsustainable irrigation increases food waste. Moreover, climate change impacts food production. Some estimates suggest there will be a 3% to 10% decrease in harvest production by 2050. If conservation through water management is not implemented, poverty alleviation for farming-reliant communities will fail spectacularly. Currently, 65% of impoverished working adults depend on agriculture-related income.
Throughout the 20th century, a sevenfold increase in productivity with “Green Revolution” technology resulted in a decline in poverty for East and Southeast Asia. Interestingly, poverty alleviation in farming-reliant communities was uneven. In China, 100 million farmworkers transitioned out of agriculture between 2001 and 2015. However, negligible improvement in sub-Saharan Africa had the opposite effect and actually increased farming-related employment. Subsequent analysis of these discrepancies created a consensus among researchers that agriculture reform is more effective at poverty alleviation than any other type of economic growth.
Green Revolution productivity improvements are largely attributed to technological advances from fertilizers, GMOs and mechanization. Costly infrastructure upgrades were financed through multinational agribusinesses that increasingly consolidated the industry with specialized monoculture farms, presuming that large-scale operations created higher yields.
Recently, however, several studies questioned tenets of industrial, monoculture agriculture, finding little correlation between size and output. For instance, small farms in India occupied only 33% of cultivated land but accounted for 41% of domestic production. Moreover, with 90% of subsistence farmers utilizing under two hectares, there is a substantial incentive for poverty alleviation in farming-reliant communities.
Ancestral Ideas For Contemporary Solutions
Lack of financing, systemically unavailable to the rural impoverished populations, has led to the adoption of indigenous and regionally suitable agriculture practices developed millennia before the Green Revolution. A 2003 global survey of 8.98 million farmers showed that industry-wide transitions to agroecology with sustainable land cultivation increased from 500,000 to 8.3 million hectares during the 1990s. Skeptical of the findings, the authors recorded an astonishing 93% average increase in productivity. Subsequent domestic food security also correlated with economic and human capital growth across all regions.
Water and Biodiverse Soil
Furthermore, efficient resource management is paramount to sustainable agriculture. The Indo-British Rainfed Farming Project increased water harvesting and reclamation practices that netted a one-meter increase in water table levels over four years, permitting year-round agriculture. By replacing farm-related income, women and children in particular pursued education and skills training to escape poverty. In Burkina Faso, reintroduction of tassas and zaï—”20 to 30-centimeter holes dug in soil”—returned 130,000 hectares to arability, converting production deficits to surpluses via low-cost innovation, which created sustainable employment.
Soil erosion and desertification not only cripple entire agricultural regions but also produce environmental degradation. In Central America, the nitrogen-fixing crop Mucuna pruriens fostered the creation of 30 to 50 tonnes of biomass per hectare and improved soil biodiversity. This increased crop yields for 45,000 farms.
Moreover, improved crop rotation through the ancient milpa system in Mexico permitted better adaptation to climate change and hurricanes, which decimate large-scale farms. Zero tillage, or plantio direto, increased tenfold in some Latin American countries, eliminating reliance on costly imported fertilizer. In Africa, similar practices improved water retention in soil, boosting productivity up to 190%. Additionally, soil biodiversity has allowed women to grow crops in formerly inhospitable soil, reducing hunger by 75%.
Integrated Pest Control
An estimated five billion kilograms of pesticides are used annually, many of which have deleterious ecological consequences. Additionally, crop-specific pesticides make impoverished rural farmers reliant on agribusiness multinationals at a great expense. Concerted efforts to educate rice-producing communities about agrobiodiversity across Southeast Asia decreased pesticide spraying by two-thirds. Moreover, some regions completely eliminated the toxic chemicals, and pest management through native fish species further increased production by 5% to 7%. In Kenya, the adoption of vutu sukuma, or “push-pull,” systems to combat parasites, resulted in productivity gains of 70% in annual maize crops.
Protecting Biodiversity Through Gastronomy
As farmers converted crops for higher-profit export markets, a great deal of cultural gastronomy was lost. Traditional agriculture, however, utilizes native crops that reintroduced long-forgotten foodstuffs. Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez of Central—one of Latin America’s preeminent culinary voices—chose the high-elevation Andes for his locally sourced gastronomy concept, MIL.
Fittingly, the adjacent Incan ruins are believed to be agricultural research facilities, an ancient process that Martinez continues through Mater Inactiva, a program that coordinates with several Peruvian universities to protect agrobiodiversity. In conjunction with local farmers, MIL Gardens grows the formerly threatened local crops that are served in the accompanying restaurant.
Pressure from international markets is ever-increasing, and the two-way street of global trade is prevalent in rural agriculture. The growing frequency of climate-change-induced weather anomalies challenges small, poverty-afflicted farms. To avoid the ravages of globalism, the voices of indigenous populations can no longer be ignored. Structural and social reform from sustainable agriculture is a hopeful opportunity with significant benefits.