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According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), smallholder farms provide up to 80 percent of the food supply in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Although farmers work small plots of land (average size is 2 hectares), they produce a variety of crops with high yields and very few inputs such as manufactured fertilizer. These cost savings are passed on to the consumer in affordable sustenance for the rural and urban poor. These individually-held farms provide economic opportunities and are the primary source of income for women. This helps reduce migration to the city for work; when farmers leave they cease to be producers and become dependent consumers living in informal settlements.

Lack of food security is an agent for civil unrest, particularly in countries where the government is the primary supplier of food. A global shortage caused a spike in wheat prices that sparked protests across the Middle East; the Arab Spring was a revolution of the hungry. Feeding the population prevents internal conflicts and social uprising against the government. Smallholder farms fill the gap in imported foodstuffs by providing locally grown produce and livestock at affordable prices. However, smallholder farms are being attacked from many sides, including encroachment of industrialized farms, changes in rainfall patterns, droughts and floods, rising temperatures, and urbanization.

Maintaining food sovereignty of smallholder farms solves many economic, social and environmental issues, particularly when the farms are managed using sustainable methods. Agroecology is a hybrid approach that blends rustic methods of community-based farming with modern agricultural methods of production. The rural farms provide food for the household as well as cash crops, including fruit, coffee and tubers. This method addresses many of the Sustainable Development Goals, including: poverty eradication, zero hunger, good health and well-being, promotion of gender equality, clean water and sanitation, decent work and economic growth, life on land, and environmental sustainability. 

The farming region of Kikandwa, Uganda, is an example of the successful implementation of agroecology. John Kaganaga, a local resident, returned to his home after many years away and discovered that deforestation, caused by clear-cutting for livestock and charcoal production, was ruining the village. The individually-held farms were not productive and there was theft between neighbors who were unable to adequately feed themselves. He formed the Kikandwa Environmental Association to address natural resource issues and begin a reforestation project. He worked with the community to define appropriate solutions and introduced agroecology to the region. He obtained grant money from the government and NGOs to build a computer lab and research center. Over the last decade, Mr. Kaganaga has helped turn the tide and empowered rural farmers with information and training. Local farmers now produce enough crops to feed their households as well as grow cash crops including bananas, passion fruit and paw paws that are exported to the capital city, Kampala.

A unique characteristic of Uganda is that smallholder farms are still the predominant method of food production. Their sustainable farming methods need to be documented as a more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable approach versus industrialized farming before large scale farms can gain a foothold in the country.

One of the non-profits that is working with Mr. Kaganaga to document these methods, and expand upon them, is A Growing Culture (AGC), which advances the culture of farmer autonomy and agroecological innovation through outreach, advocacy, and information exchange. They document sustainable farming practices and share methodologies in workshops to guide rural farmers into sustainable practices that are localized for the environment and community. Their sustainable farming methods also provide a response to climate change by creating rich carbon sinks, raising resilient crops, better water management, and protecting biodiversity. Some of these methodologies are: intercropping, crop rotation, soil enrichment, water conservation, natural fertilizers, and effective non-chemical pest controls. For example, AGC held a workshop on beekeeping, which a resilient source of income for farmers.

Returning to proven methods of sustainable farming, composting, and natural pest control, not only provides economic opportunities for rural farmers, particularly women, it also reduces the use of chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides while improving soil quality and crop yield. These farmers are also protecting the rich biodiversity of their region by working with local varieties; this creates a more resilient approach to farming.

Image Credit: Pesticide Action Network