How Can Smallholders Sustain the Environment and Farm More Intensely?
This post was written by Sebastian Anti, Associate at One Acre Fund. One Acre Fund is an agriculture organization that helps East African farmers to grow their own way out of hunger. Learn more at oneacrefund.org.
At One Acre Fund, we put farmers first in everything we do. We offer 135,000 farmers in East Africa a simple four-part operating model: (1) improved seed and fertilizer, (2) financing, (3) training, and (4) market facilitation. This model allows us to achieve our mission to help more farmers grow more food. However, we are keenly aware that bringing fertilizer, hybrid seeds, and other new technologies and techniques into agricultural systems carries potential risks to the environment such as land and water degradation, and loss of natural environments.
Land and water degradation is mostly associated with increased inorganic fertilizer use, which can result in negative environmental effects such as soil acidification, disrupting a crop’s ability to absorb nutrients essential to plant growth. Runoff from intensive inorganic fertilizer use also can result in the contamination of rivers and streams used by communities for drinking water, fishing, or bathing.
One Acre Fund mitigates fertilizer use by advocating a micro-dosing approach. Fertilizer micro-dosing involves applying a small amount of fertilizer around each seed at optimal times in the planting season. This approach uses 95 percent less fertilizer for maize than fertilizer applications typically used in the Midwest on U.S. corn crops and can double yields from nutrient-depleted sub-Saharan Africa soils. Additionally, One Acre Fund provides training on organic composting to our clients, which increases organic micronutrients in the soil, leading to long-term soil fertility as well as healthier crops and improved yields.
Some critics of input-intensive agriculture also argue that the practice creates perverse incentives for farmers to clear more land for agricultural purposes, potentially destroying natural vegetation and biodiversity. While clearing wild land can harm the environment, low land productivity actually requires farmers to clear more land to realize greater production. By increasing yields on existing farmland through the responsible use of agricultural technologies, One Acre Fund helps reduce farmers’ need to clear wild land.
One Acre Fund also helps farmers diversify their crops. In western Kenya, where maize monoculture is the norm among the region’s many smallholder farmers, One Acre Fund offers packages with as many as nine different climate-resilient and highly nutritional crops including millet, sorghum, sweet potato, and others. In addition to these food crops, One Acre Fund offers grevillea tree seeds (http://agrilinks.org/blog/one-acre-fund-branches-out-grevillea-tree-program-kenya) to farmers, which allow farmers to practice agroforestry, increasing the biological diversity of farmland and further contributing to long-term soil fertility.
Increasing agriculture productivity does not have to be at the expense of the environment. In fact, “sustainable intensification” can have long-term environmental benefits. As One Acre Fund grows to serve hundreds of thousands of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa in the next few years, we will continue to teach the principles of sustainable intensification to our clients, and to promote best practices in environmental management.