Regenerative Agriculture in the Third World


The majority of people in the Less Developed Countries depend more upon the productivity of their land to feed their families, thus the way to improve life for most people is through increased agricultural productivity, and yet, according the UNDP l986 Annual Report, the end of this century will see the world's food-yielding croplands becoming more scare, with only 0.19 hectares per person in developing countries by the end of the century. The report goes on to say that the world has lost about 2,000 million hectares of cropland to soil erosion since the dawn of farming. With some 11 million hectares of tropical forests vanishing each year, not only is valuable topsoil being lost, but an important component of the world's hydrological cycle is being destroyed in the search for fuelwood and land. In 35 years, from l950 to l985, the population of the less developed countries grew to over 3.7 billion people, at a rate more than double that of the developed nations. With these destructive forces, and a history of benign neglect of the subsistence farmer, what is the regenerative potential for the developing countries to produce the food they need and simultaneously to protect the environment?

Regenerative agriculture has the ability to improve the resource base of a farm while increasing productivity and profitability. It is characterized by the increased use of renewable internal resources and the reduction of dependence on external inputs. Those renewable internal resources are the things which come with the farm when it is purchased or occupied. They are things such as the land itself, the sun, air, rainfall, plants, animals, and the people who manage the land. External inputs are those things which are purchased and added to the land to increase productivity. The regenerative approach, while biological in emphasis is not purely organic. The key to regenerative agriculture is that the use of inputs be reduced, and most important, that no input diminish natures own internal capacity to produce food itself. For example, in many soils, the application of nitrogen fertilizer, while initially appearing to have a beneficial affect, can actually incapacitate nature's inherent capacity to fix nitrogen from the air thereby making the soil more dependent on the input of chemical nitrogen fertilizer. Whereas air, an internal resource, is made up of 78 percent nitrogen, and legumes having root-zone bacteria possess the ability to collect nitrogen from the air and let plants use it. This nitrogen is not only inexpensive, but it does not have a negative affect on the environment. On all farms, in all countries, but particularly in the less developed ones, regenerative agriculture makes not only makes good economic sense, it makes good environmental sense.

The challenge we face around the world is not only to stabilize the situation, but to improve, or regenerate the very resource base of agriculture, the land itself. To have a significant impact, we must focus our activities not on individual crops or technologies, but on the development of production systems that not only build soil structure and fertility, but supply necessary food and fuel. Francis, Harwood and Parr in the Journal of Alternative Agriculture, have described this as, ". . .progressive biological sequencing, or how the choice of cultural practices can cause a dynamic change in the production environment. This conscious and directed manipulation of individual fields by farmers through knowledge of biological interactions among species and the natural environment can lead to improved productivity. The combination over time of crops in several fields with animal enterprises can be called the integrative structuring of the farming system." This biological structuring takes advantage of the synergistic relationships existing among all components of the farm, including the farm family.

While not as highly refined as some research projects, farmers are discovering how to reintroduce farming methodologies that do precisely what Francis, Harwood and Parr describe. In the Uttoni area of Machakos District in Kenya, several farmers have rediscovered some of the planting practices of their parents. Joshua Mukusya and his wife Rhoda have discovered that the combined activities of contouring the land, planting grass barriers along the edges which both stabilize the hillside and produce fodder the the animals, using a mix of plants with varying root depths that extract nutrients from different soil levels, and intercropping legumes and grains has had a positive impact not only on the land itself, but on their farm production. Let us look at each component separately:

These are only some of the complex interactions that one finds in regenerative systems. We find farmers in the Philippines, Rwanda, Nepal, Nigera, Ecuador, India and almost every country in the world who have discovered the same thing. Until recently, this has been a neglected area of research among those in the agricultural community. Where research in regenerative agriculture is taking place, it is usually technology specific rather than systems oriented. There is now an opportunity to dramatically improve the efficiency and productivity of these biologically structured traditional systems as the result of concentrated systems oriented research in regenerative agriculture.