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The UK government is planning to overhaul its agricultural policies in the “biggest farming shakeup in 50 years” in a bid to create more sustainable farming practices, protect wildlife and nature and tackle climate change. 

The £1.6bn subsidy that farmers receive every year for owning or renting land will be phased out by 2028, with the funds used instead to pay them to restore wild habitats, create new woodlands, boost soil quality and curb pesticide use. 

What is Happening?

Environment minister, George Eustice, says, “Over the last century, much of our wildlife-rich habitat has been lost, and many species are in long-term decline. I know many farmers feel this loss keenly and are taking measures to reverse this decline. But we cannot deny that the intensification of agriculture since the 1960s has taken its toll. Our plans for future farming must [also] tackle climate change – one of the most urgent challenges facing the world.”

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Eustice adds that the new government plan is possible due to the UK leaving the EU, whose common agricultural policy is widely regarded as a “disaster for nature.” 

The president of the National Farmers’ Union, Minette Batters, says, “Farming is changing and we look forward to working with ministers and officials to co-create the new schemes.” However, she added, “Expecting farmers to run viable, high-cost farm businesses, continue to produce food and increase their environmental delivery, while phasing out existing support and without a complete replacement scheme for almost three years is high risk and a very big ask.”

She adds, “I am worried. If you take livestock as an example, you’ve got a 60 to 80% shortfall in farm business income by 2024.”

Kate Norgrove of the WWF, says “Our farmers have the potential to be frontline heroes in the climate and nature emergency, and this roadmap starts us on the right path. It must see increased investment in nature as a way to tackle climate change.”

According to a new study, emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) are increasing at a faster rate than any other greenhouse gas, mainly due to a rise in nitrogen fertiliser application for food production. Already, these emissions have surpassed projections by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC). 

Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and it also destroys the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects the planet from most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. N2O remains in the atmosphere for an average of 114 years and it creates a positive climate feedback in which the climate crisis increases N2O emissions from soils. While the gas is found naturally in the atmosphere, industrial processes, fuel combustion and agriculture are some of the human activities responsible for N2O emissions. 

The research, led by scientists at Auburn University, found that nitrous oxide has risen 20% from pre-industrial levels, from 270 parts per billion to 331. Previous research had failed to take into account natural sources of N2O or failed to gather enough data from South American and African nations. 

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The report found that the planet’s growing demand for food and livestock feed is the dominant factor in the N2O increase. Farmers are growing increasingly reliant on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to boost productivity, especially those in emerging economies in Asia, Africa and South America, who are the largest contributors to global nitrous oxide emissions. 

While modern synthetic nitrogen fertilisers allow for billions of people to be fed, as much as 58% of nitrogen that is applied to crops escapes from farms and pollutes the environment. Additionally, nitrogen runoff into nearby water bodies can cause eutrophication, which causes algal blooms that kill marine life and cause “dead zones.” To address this, farmers could use “green manure” using legumes that “fix” much of their own nitrogen from the atmosphere, that farmers can grow and then till into the soil, or they can adopt precision farming equipment that helps them apply just the right amount of fertiliser to their crops. As temperatures rise and food supply looks increasingly threatened, it is not feasible to completely cut out the use of synthetic fertilisers but we need to adopt farming practices that at least reduce nitrous oxide emissions. 

Joseph Canadell, a climate scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Group (CSIRO) and co-author of the study, says, “This new analysis calls for a full-scale rethink in the ways we use and abuse nitrogen fertilisers globally.”

Featured image by: Flickr

What changes has human activity caused to the Earth’s land surface? Farming is a major cause of climate change and biodiversity loss, with species abundance having fallen by over 20% globally since 1900. Diversity within agriculture fares no better, as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that just 9 species of plant account for 66% of global crop production. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of local food crops are heading towards extinction, being replaced by more marketable staples such as wheat, rice and maize. The scale of agriculture’s impact can be attributed to humanity’s influence on land surface changes: more than 70% of Earth’s land surface and two-thirds of marine environments have been significantly altered by human activity. Arable lands and grazing pastures cover one-third of Earth’s land surfaces and consume three-quarters of the world’s limited freshwater resources.

The Problems

human activity land changes
A graph showing changes to land surface through human activity by sector (Source: OurWorldinData.org). 

Land Changes by Human Activity

Habitat loss and fragmentation are the primary threats to 85% of the species on the IUCN’s Red List of threatened and endangered species. Agriculture is a major driver of this as large swathes of highly productive areas such as forest, meadow and wetland habitats are cleared to make way for fields and grazing land. The homogeneity of agricultural ecosystems (i.e. low variety of plant species and supported wildlife) caused by crop monocultures encourages low genetic biodiversity, dominance of pest species and a greater susceptibility of crops to disease. In places such as the USA, 75% of processed foods in supermarkets contain genetically modified ingredients, including 92% of maize and 94% of soybean products. These crops are cloned, such that a single disease or pest could wipe out the entire field. The resulting fragile agroecosystem fuels a reliance on pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers to promote crop growth and prevent damage.

Soil Erosion

More than 68 billion tonnes of top-soil is eroded every year at a rate 100 times faster than it can naturally be replenished. Laden with biocides and fertiliser, the soil ends up in waterways where it contaminates drinking water and protected areas downstream. Water treatment and healthcare-associated costs alone cost US taxpayers billions a year. Furthermore, exposed and lifeless soil is more vulnerable to wind and water erosion due to lack of root and mycelium systems that hold it together. Healthy soil is rich in humus, which holds more water, and decreases erosion through increased soil density and particle clumping. A key contributor to soil erosion is over-tilling: although it increases productivity in the short-term by mixing in surface nutrients (e.g. fertiliser), tilling is physically destructive to the soil’s structure and in the long-term leads to soil compaction, loss of fertility and surface crust formation that worsens topsoil erosion.   

Toxic Chemicals

Biocides are becoming less effective as pests develop resistance, prompting the development of increasingly deadly formulae. As policymakers ban a growing number of chemicals due to their detrimental effects on health, agriculture will need to turn to natural pest management alternatives. Biocides rarely distinguish between target species and beneficial invertebrates such as earthworms. Important ecosystem engineers that physically alter and regulate their environment, earthworms are vulnerable to pesticides through direct contact or ingestion, with even sublethal doses causing impairment or altered activity. They are also highly sensitive to soil pH which is lowered by the topical application of nitrogen-rich fertiliser.

Eutrophication

Conventional farming not only affects the land it occupies, but its effects are carried by the wind as aerosol particles, and by water runoff into oceans and reservoirs. The fumes from fertilizers and vehicle exhausts combine in the atmosphere to create toxic compounds, leading to respiratory issues in humans and animals, as well as dissolving into acid rain which damages forests and agricultural land, and pollutes waterways. Furthermore, excess nitrogen fertiliser cannot be taken up by the soil and runs off into bodies of water causing eutrophication and hypoxia. Eutrophication refers to the over-enrichment of water with nutrients that leads to massive algal blooms, blocking out sunlight and depleting the dissolved oxygen. This leads to low oxygen levels known as hypoxia, resulting in mass die-offs or migration of species from the affected area creating an oceanic desert. The Gulf of Mexico’s annual summer “dead zone”, which becomes so polluted that no marine life can thrive, is an extreme example of the consequences of fertiliser overuse. The Mississippi River runs through 31 U.S. states with high agricultural and industrial activity before emptying into the Gulf. This year the dead-zone is forecasted to reach 10 700 sq km, about 2 000 sq km larger than the long-term average. This trend is especially worrying because coastal waters are some of the most productive in the ocean, supporting coral reefs as well as economically important fishing and leisure industries.

The Solutions

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human activity land changes
John Pickett et al. Push–pull farming systems, Current Opinion in Biotechnology, (2014).

Reintegrating Nature into the Countryside

There are already many solutions to these environmental issues, yet they are not being implemented on the scale that is required to halt biodiversity loss. A simple way of reintegrating nature into arable land is the creation of wild zones and hedgerows on the margins of fields, or other unused spaces. Not only would these small pockets of unmanaged land provide valuable habitats for native plants and animals, they would reconnect fragmented habitats, allowing larger ranges for populations and promoting genetic diversity. These wildlife corridors are particularly important for non-flying migratory species, and to help mitigate local extinctions as habitat ranges shift towards higher latitudes as a result of the climate crisis.

No-Till and Cover Cropping

No-till or reduced-till farming is a re-emerging technique that seeks to minimise soil disturbance and promote healthy soil ecosystems. No-till often includes planting perennial plants that retain their roots for more than one growing season. Perennials have stronger and deeper roots than annual crops, reducing soil compaction and improving aeration. These roots also provide a steady supply of soil nutrients in the form of liquid exudates to support a healthy community of microbes and macro-organisms. No-till is often combined with cover cropping to protect against erosion and improve soil health. The cover crop’s roots bind the soil in place and offer physical protection from wind and water erosion, while adding plant diversity in monoculture cropland. Some cover crops also create habitats for natural pollinators, whose presence increases crop yield and shortens the growing season. The most popular types of cover crops are grasses and legumes that scavenge nitrogen and carbon from the soil as well as sequester it from the atmosphere, add fertile humus to the soil as they break down, and provide weed control. 

Biocontrol

Biological pest control and biopesticides are two natural alternatives to conventional biocides that can also be used in conjunction with cover crops. In natural systems, pests rarely cause problems because the complex web of predator-prey interactions, competition and genetic diversity keeps the ecosystem in balance. Recreating these relationships through either the introduction or augmentation of existing predator or parasite populations is a form of biocontrol that protects crops while reducing the need for synthetic pesticides. Another technique, known as “Push-Pull”, involves planting repellent plants between crop rows to discourage pest colonisation, while establishing “pull” plants that are more attractive to the pest than the crop around the perimeter of the field. This draws pests away from the centre of the field and towards margins where predator populations are more strongly established. As a natural alternative to pesticides, biopesticides work in a multitude of ways, some imitating biochemical signals, while others introduce fungal, viral or bacterial diseases that infect the pest.

Natural fertilisers

Green manure, or mulch, is dead plant matter that is spread over a field and left to decompose. Legumes, such as vetch and clover, make especially great manure as they store carbon and nitrogen in their roots as they grow, creating high quality natural fertiliser. Unlike conventional nitrogen fertilisers that saturate the soil to achieve maximal yield, green manure releases nitrogen into the soil gradually thus preventing run-off, with major beneficial consequences for water quality. Green manure often comes from cover crops that are planted in the field and then either cut or left to wilt in place. They provide ground cover while alive, and return nutrients upon decomposition, mimicking naturally-evolved ecosystems. 

Just like in nature, the effects of individual sustainable practices overlap and integrate with each other to forge a cohesive whole. The tools and strategies for building healthy agricultural systems able to feed over 8 billion humans while preserving the environment already exist; it is simply a case of rediscovering what past agriculturalists and indigenous peoples already knew: that nature will provide on condition we work with it, not against it, and that we give back as much as we take. Moreover, investing in the study of ecosystem interactions will lead to healthier, more productive soils and a decreased reliance on toxic fertilisers and biocides. This will have overwhelmingly positive consequences for global food security, nutrition and health, as well as for the reduction of environmental damage and pollution.

A common misconception about the climate crisis is that warmer temperatures result in plants growing larger and for longer periods. While rising temperatures are causing the shifting of seasons, prompting plants to sprout and turn green sooner than usual, the reality is that the climate crisis is causing plants to become less nutritious, signalling a nutrient collapse and threatening food security. 

Impact of Climate Change on Food Security

The climate crisis poses a significant threat to agriculture as changes in temperature and precipitation affect crop yield and shift agricultural zones. The impact of rising CO2 levels on the quantity of crops grown has been carefully researched, but the outcome of the climate crisis on crop quality is harder to predict and remains less studied.  

In 1998, Irakli Loladze, then pursuing a mathematics PhD at Arizona State University, started to explore the relationship between increasing CO2 levels and plant nutrition. His interest was piqued when colleagues in the biology department demonstrated that algae grows faster when exposed to more light, but the zooplankton that feed on that algae become malnourished.  

Loladze further investigated the problem and discovered that although increased light produces more algae, the algae has fewer nutrients, resulting in the zooplankton’s malnourishment. “It was kind of a watershed moment for me when I started thinking about human nutrition,” he said

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Expanding his research to human nutrition inspired Loladze to consider the relationship between CO2 and nutrient density. Studies have found that some agricultural crop yields are increased when exposed to higher rates of CO2, which is essential for plant growth. But similar to the algae, faster agricultural growth rates may be resulting in fewer nutrients. 

“Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising,” Loladze said. “We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history- an injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply,” he adds.

The Department of Environmental Health at Harvard conducted a meta-analysis to investigate the nutritional density of crops grown in CO2 levels that the world is expected to experience by 2050 (550ppm). The research team found that this significantly reduced crops’ zinc content; by 9.1% for wheat, 13.6% for barley and 3.1% for rice. The planet is currently experiencing CO2 levels of 415 ppm

17% of the global population already suffers from zinc deficiency and these findings suggest that crops’ changing nutritional value will threaten a further 138 million people in the coming decades. This does not account for population growth.

Zinc deficiency is associated with compromised immune function resulting in over 100 000 deaths among children under the age of five annually, according to the team from Harvard. Zinc deficiencies have also been linked to depression and a number of other mental disorders that have been on the rise for the past two decades. 

The density of other nutrients in plant-based food sources is also expected to decline. A study by the US Departure of Agriculture found that ‘43 foods show apparent, statistically reliable decline’ for protein, calcium, potassium, iron, riboflavin and ascorbic acid. Further research found that globally, protein intake from plant sources is expected to decrease by over 7% by 2050 as CO2 levels rise. 

climate crisis food security
Crops’ changing nutritional value caused by the climate crisis will threaten the food security of a further 138 million people in the coming decades (Source: Luke Milliron). 

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that wheat and rice, which are highly sensitive to changes in CO2,  are the main source of protein for 71% of the world’s population. A paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives predicts that given this dependence on plant-based proteins, more than 15% of the global population will be protein deficient, resulting in 90.9 million days lost to illness and 2 million deaths annually by 2050. 

When asked by POLITICO, a media company focusing on politics and policy in the US and beyond, about how changing carbohydrate ratios could affect public health, Robin Foroutan, an integrative medicine nutritionist, commented on the lack of research. “We don’t know what a minor shift in the carbohydrate ratio in the diet is ultimately going to do,” she said, pointing out that increased carbohydrates are also correlated with increases in obesity and diabetes. “To what degree would a shift in the food system contribute to that? We can’t really say.”

One way to manage the decline in nutrients is to fortify staple food crops with nutrients such as zinc, iron and calcium. Fortified foods have historically been used to treat vitamin deficiencies in wider populations. For example, Vitamin D is commonly added to orange juice to deliver this nutrient to children who cannot drink milk. 

It’s clear from Loladze’s findings, and the work conducted by teams around the world, that increasing CO2 levels and the climate crisis are changing the nutritional content of our food and threatening food security. Research indicates that this will result in mineral deficiencies and their associated health risks. What isn’t understood is the impact of increased plant-based carbohydrates on the human diet. It is imperative that more research be done on this to establish the risks that it poses, which will allow countries more time to adapt their agricultural practices to keep up with this decline in food nutrition.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), urban farming or urban agriculture is ‘a part of a local food system where food is produced within an urban area and marketed to consumers within that area’. It has been touted as a means to ensure food security in urban areas, but there are some barriers that may prevent it from being employed on a large-enough scale. 

What problems does urban agriculture solve?

Apart from growing produce, urban farming also consists of beekeeping, animal husbandry, aquaculture (fish farming) and aquaponics (integrating fish farming and agriculture). It can also encompass activities like nurturing seedlings and growing flowers. The EPA also observes that urban farms can ‘contribute to the revitalisation of abandoned or underutilised urban land and offer social and economic benefits to urban communities and on the urban landscape’. The main difference between urban agriculture and community gardens is that the former has an aspect of commerce whereby the product is grown to be sold, whereas the latter does not, instead focusing on personal consumption or sharing in the local community. 

One of the most interesting aspects of urban farming is that it thrives in city spaces like backyards, rooftops, balconies, vacant lots and car parks. Urban farming also includes community gardening, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space. The Guardian describes how urban farming is being employed in unlikely places such as an underground car park in Paris, underground farms in New York and a Second World War air raid shelter in London. There are also proposals to convert abandoned mines, barges on the Thames and bunkers into sites of urban farming. Incidentally, the largest urban farm in Europe, spanning approximately 14 000 sq metres (150 695 sq. feet) will open in Paris in early 2020. The farm plans to grow more than thirty different plant species and produce around 1 000 kg of fruit and vegetables daily in high season. Urban farming is being undertaken in the US, Singapore and Japan, among others. 

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A study conducted by Cornell University, “The Promise of Urban Agriculture,” postulates that urban farms can be ‘commercially viable and economically self-sufficient’, while also offering benefits for residents in the local community. Some of these benefits include promoting financial security, empowering small business owners, providing opportunities for employment, allowing more access to healthy food, beautifying the community and allowing for more occasions for social interaction. Greensgrow, an educational urban farm and demonstration garden in Philadelphia, USA, suggests that ‘urban farms can be the front line of the food system’ and can be ‘a way of reintroducing the public to the many aspects of food that we have lost as a culture’. Greensgrow also proposes that knowing how food grows and what kind of produce grows in different regions and seasons are important for urban consumers. 

However, a study published by NCAT (National Center for Appropriate Technology) in the US found problems with urban agriculture, like the high cost of land needed, difficulty accessing capital resources and limited availability of technical assistance. Another study published by the American Society of Agronomy lists some major issues with urban farming: potential ingestion of lead present in the soil, finding reliable and safe water for irrigation and temperature and atmospheric changes in urban versus rural areas that might adversely affect photosynthesis. Dr. Francois Mancebo, professor of urban planning and sustainability at Rheims University and director of IRCS (International Research Center on Sustainability) and IATEUR (Institute of Regional Development, Environment and Urban Planning), establishes other issues with urban farming, such as ‘dissemination of pesticides and fertilisers as well as waste and by-products of industrial urban agriculture’. 

An article in the Anthropocene Magazine focuses on a case study of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) in New York City. This type of urban agriculture leaves a greater energy footprint than regular farms because it uses artificial lights in indoor farms. Additionally, high-tech systems, such as wind, rain, temperature and humidity detectors and indoor heating to enhance growing conditions in environments that aren’t naturally suited to agriculture, raise energy costs. Next, lettuce- which is predominantly grown- is not of much nutritional value to people struggling with food security. Lastly, new farming startups might not have the money to pay for urban spaces because of the rising prices of real estate. 

There are numerous benefits to urban agriculture but there are also numerous political, legal and logistical issues that must be considered. Nevertheless, the benefits far outweigh the problems and urban farming is a potential solution to ease the impacts of future pollution, food shortages, environmental degradation and health concerns.  

Industrial agriculture and food production is the second biggest contributor of global carbon emissions behind the energy industry. The 2019 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on land-use suggests that the key to reducing agricultural emissions is through changing current land use, mainly by reducing fertilisation and by planting a variety of native crops that are suitable for that environment. 

The re-adoption of native crops to improve agro-biodiversity is another way to bring about a sustainable change in food production. In most developing countries, several indigenous crops were, and are still being, abandoned or their cultivation threatened by the adoption of high-yielding varieties as part of so-called ‘green revolutions’ powered by large-scale industrial agriculture, often involving multinational corporations. These corporations are generally unconcerned with their high carbon footprint and soil is saturated with chemicals which damages the crops and the soil itself. 

In recent years, there have been numerous movements in countries like India, Mexico and Malawi by a consortium of farmers, environmentalists, scientists and other stake-holders to revive the fading agro-biodiversity and move towards sustainable agricultural methods. 

Save Our Rice

The Save Our Rice campaign, launched in 2004 in India, is one such movement that aims for sustainability and self-sufficiency in rice production by reviving and popularising native rice varieties that were abandoned in the decades following India’s ‘green revolution’ in the 1970s.  

In Panavally, a village in the Southern Indian state of Kerala, is the Rice Diversity Block (RDB), made of around 300 indigenous varieties of rice, maintained by the green NGO, Thanal’s agro-ecology centre. Most of these were collected from individual farmers who had conserved the seeds that they had traditionally cultivated. “We produce more seeds for our seed banks from RDBs. Interested farmers can visit our centre, see the paddy varieties in all their glory and get the seeds from us for their own sustainable cultivation of native varieties,” says Ushakumari S., the executive director of Thanal and the national coordinator of the Save Our Rice (SOR) campaign.

The campaign was launched as a statement against the introduction of Golden Rice- the genetically modified high-yielding rice aimed to reduce Vitamin A deficiency. Initially focused on training farmers, it has developed into a full-fledged seed conservation and sustainability movement, spread across several states, linking seed conservators to farmers and farmers to consumers. Usha, a trained horticulturist, says, “India used to be home to more than 100 000 native varieties of paddy and Kerala alone cultivated more than 3 000 landraces. They are not only more nutritious than white rice, but they offer more medical benefits in some cases. Today less than 4 000 varieties are being raised by farmers in the entire country. That is a serious loss of diversity and something that needs to be reclaimed, especially in the current context of the food security threat we are facing from the climate crisis.”

Resisting the Climate Crisis

SOR participants first noticed the resilience of indigenous rice during the early years of the last decade when rice-growing regions in South India were struck by untimely dry spells. “It is something that has become evident to us in the last few years when we had severe variations in temperature and rainfall here in Wayanad. Native varieties weathered the storms while the conventionally-cultivated hybrid paddies suffered,” says Rajesh Krishnan, a former Greenpeace campaigner who is now a farmer of an indigenous paddy. 

“Hybrids, or what we call ‘semi-dwarf’ paddies, were developed for fertiliser and pesticide-aided agriculture for higher yields. They performed well during the early years. But then overuse of chemicals began to maximise the yield. This is counter-productive as it makes the plant more succulent, thus attracting various pests, not all of which can be effectively controlled using pesticides. Higher levels of fertiliser and pesticide use can also severely impact organic matter in the soil, which is necessary for nitrification,” says Dr. Leena Kumari, former head of Kerala Agricultural University’s Rice Research Stations. However, most native varieties, she adds, are resistant to local pests as well as adverse local climatic conditions. In that regard, indigenous crops have a clear advantage over the hybrids. 

Also, since these landraces are grown without the usage of synthetic fertilisers on a relatively smaller scale without any machinery, the greenhouse gas emissions are far less than conventional industrial agriculture. For rice cultivation, going native means reduction in pesticide use since native paddies are naturally resistant to pests. This reduction is a major achievement considering rice ranks higher than any other crop in pesticide use.

Going native also sustains local economies. “There is an attempt to sell the produce to the local community itself rather than try to export it to faraway places. It is similar to the 100-mile movement in the US where people try to buy food that has been produced within their own locality. Such a focus to produce as well as sell locally helps cut transportation- a major factor in agricultural carbon emissions,” adds Usha.

Support and Yield

Farming of indigenous crops using traditional organic methods is widely acknowledged by mainstream agro-researchers to be more eco-friendly than industrial agriculture. However, it has yet to receive significant institutional support. Dr. Leena says, “This is the biggest challenge that farmers transitioning into cultivating native paddies face. There needs to be a proper system for procuring produce at a fair price and processing it. There used to be several small mills for processing local varieties. Today most of the big mills are geared for processing hybrid grains and mill owners won’t buy native breeds.”

This could be overcome by farmers organising themselves like in Wayanad, where 10 farmers who cultivate landraces have formed a company, the Thirunelly Agri Producers Company, to procure and process the grain at a decent minimum price. 

Then there is the question of yield. The popular argument is that landrace crops cultivated organically yield less produce than hybrids. “This is a myth from what we see here in Wayanad. We have noticed that careful simultaneous cultivation of various native breeds through traditional methods provides consistently better yields than conventional mono-culture of hybrids,” says Rajesh. Farmers from across India side with Rajesh’s observation. 

Dr. Leena strikes a cautious tone when it comes to yields. “There aren’t enough studies that confirm the high yields of landraces, so I can’t say for sure if we can completely replace hybrids with native paddies. The key is to adopt the right method along with the right variety depending upon the local climate and pest and soil type.” However in many regions, native breeds suitable for the local setting, can no longer be found. 

Similar Movements

The story of SOR is not an isolated one. There are multiple movements across the world with similar aims. Corn farmers and activists in Mexico have been fighting for years to protect the highly diverse native corn varieties. This is in light of agrochemical company Monsanto’s years-long attempt to introduce their hybrid corn variety in Mexico; farmers say that this would threaten the 23 000 native corn varieties of Mexico. It would also mean heavy use of the fertilisers and pesticides also produced by Monsanto, which has been fiercely resisted for years by a network of farmers, environmentalists and lawmakers.

The Local Seed Restoration Project by the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation in Malawi is another movement that encourages farmers to cultivate local seeds using natural fertiliser like cow dung and crop residues.

In light of the ever-growing global population and fast-approaching food insecurity faced by many regions, going native could be the way forward. 

Featured image by: StateofIsrael

The ecological degradation and the role of cities as major polluters has become more relevant than ever, with currently half of the world’s population and a projected 68% to be living in urban areas by 2050. While not a recent phenomenon, urban greening agriculture has emerged as a solution to reduce the ecological footprint of urban areas, with additional benefits of improving food security, social cohesion and the well-being of citizens.

The image of the concrete jungle has become well-ingrained in the minds of the public, as has its harmful effects on the environment. This has elicited response from the UN in its Sustainable Development Goals in SDG 11, which identifies air quality, waste production and poor-quality public spaces as key environmental issues. The establishment of organisations such as the US Green Building Council are proving to be instrumental in encouraging architecture firms to adopt sustainability as a core design tenet, as have planning organisations such as Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority (URA). 

Urban Greening Examples:

Discussion around transforming environments into more eco-friendly spaces has referred to this process as ‘greening’ (see Greening Hong Kong and London’s Environment Strategy for examples). The term has often been used in the literal sense of planting trees and smaller plants on any available surface, with some achieving success in improving air quality such as Beijing’s ‘Great Green Wall’ tree planting campaign, which has helped disperse the city’s smog. Nevertheless, urban greening has also generated a host of other benefits beyond its original scope of reducing cities’ environmental footprint, including the reduction of noise pollution. With the rising popularity of urban agriculture, urban greening has the potential to generate food security and promote community engagement for those in need.

Urban agriculture is hardly a new phenomenon, and occurs at a variety of scales and locations, ranging from backyards to rooftops and even abandoned subway tunnels. For example, Cuba’s urban agriculture movement developed during the 90s in response to trade sanctions and the food crisis that followed. The absence of fuel, fertiliser and feed imports from the recently-collapsed Soviet Union resulted in an overhaul of Cuba’s agricultural system, now known as Cuba’s Green Revolution, promoting small-scale grassroots level organic farming to combat the food crisis. An estimated 8 500 tons of agricultural produce were produced through urban farming in Havana in 1996, mainly in ‘popular gardens’. These were small plots of state-owned land and vacant lots of urban land that were distributed and organised around individual households. It is estimated that 5 000 of these gardens generated 1 854 hectares of arable land in Havana. Other farms were set up privately in the backyards and rooftops of households, alongside state-sponsored intensive farming and hydroponics, which were too costly for locals to afford and required expertise they did not have.

For poorer communities, popular gardens transformed dilapidated and disused areas into areas of leisure and production, as well as points of community pride because of the self-sufficiency the farms provided. Ironically, prior to the food crisis, urban gardening was perceived as a sign of poverty. As a result, many of the new urban farmers were growing for the first time, and those who had experience mostly worked in large-scale agriculture involving pesticides and fertiliser and employed monoculture practices. Knowledge was passed initially through word-of-mouth, and eventually community organisations such as farming associations were developed to create a framework where new discoveries could be spread quickly. As food production occurred locally, distribution logistics were not an issue and food went directly to those in need. Today, with the food crisis over, urban agriculture has become more of a recreational activity, however 90% of Havana’s food still comes from these urban farmers

Elsewhere, urban agriculture is gaining popularity in high-density metropolises of the developed world. Some city authorities such as New York have set up resources to connect with and promote urban farming initiatives, although most initiatives remain privately-run. In Hong Kong, the social enterprise Rooftop Republic has installed 61 urban farms across the city, providing technical support and expertise to clients to maintain these farms and running training sessions for prospective urban farmers. Their first farm on the roof of the Bank of America building opened in 2014. With other clients including hotels and schools across the city, these farms are operated voluntarily by workers during their spare time. The food produced is donated to charities such as Feeding Hong Kong, and the enterprise claims to have given more than 2 400 meals to those in need. 

Urban farming brings a new dimension to urban greening; it increases the sustainability of cities by encouraging food self-sufficiency and creates frameworks to organise and encourage community spirit. Currently, modern urban agriculture is rarely employed on a city-wide scale and is instead employed on a building-by-building basis, but is quickly gaining popularity worldwide. Future developments could mean cities producing more of their own food, reducing the need for environmentally-damaging agriculture. Agriculture occupies 40-50% of the world’s land surface and accounts for 60% of the total nitrous oxide as well as 50% of all methane emissions. 

Disadvantages of Urban Greening

Nevertheless, considerable obstacles remain before urban greening can be implemented successfully on a larger scale. The high start-up costs of setting up a rooftop farm limits the scale at which urban farms can be developed which has relegated it to a recreational activity. 

As of now, there is little incentive to shift from conventional farming to urban greening, which produces crops in far larger quantities and for much less. Additionally, highly-skilled labour is required to set up, maintain and train others to set up urban farms, which will take time to develop for such a new sector, especially without the motivation that Cubans had during the food crisis. Government support will be instrumental in developing urban agriculture on a larger level, addressing land-use and ownership problems, setting up necessary infrastructure, as well as providing training.

Despite these setbacks, urban farming holds excellent potential, and with more support and development, can transform cities into spaces that can both address the ecological problems of now as well as sustain the generations of the future.

Featured image by: Charlie Marchant

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