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Lunedì, 12 Ottobre 2015 02:00

Farmers in India and climate change

In another series of short videos about small-scale farmers facing the challenges of climate change in various parts of the world we pay a visit to farmers in India who tell about their ways of adapting to the consequences of the changing climate.

Ardaman Singh is an experienced farmer who has been cultivating various crops for 35 years. In the video he describes problems posed by climate change, and in particular how the increasingly erratic rainfall and changes in the average temperatures negatively impact yields. He is trying to compensate his income losses by growing vegetables and fodder in addition to the traditional grain crops. Local farmers have also adapted to the changing climate conditions by including in their production rice varieties which have shorter growth period and require less water. Watch the video here.

Mohamed Fakir is a dairy farmer in Punjab. In the video he explains how his cow milk production has been steadily decreasing, especially due to climate change as well as water scarcity and lack of appropriate infrastructure. Mohamed is also worried about the diminishing number of farmers who decide to produce fodder. He explains that nowadays farmers prefer to grow other cash crops which makes it increasingly difficult for milk producers to get enough food for their animals. Watch the video here.

Indramani Kumari is a female farmer from the Jamnapur village. In the video she describes how water scarcity and problems with crops have been making the villagers' lives increasingly difficult. Due to climate change the yields are lower, the boreholes and rivers are drying out, and young people are leaving the village. What is especially worrying is that a growing number of people experience hunger. Watch the video here.

Anil Kumar-Singh lives with his family in Jamnapur, where he farms on a little plot. In the video he tells about problems for the local agriculture caused by the changing climate. The main consequences of the erratic rainfalls are the decreasing groundwater level and lower yields. Unfortunately, the lack of appropriate infrastructure prevents local farmers from using water pumps which would make it easier to irrigate fields. Watch the video here.

Susila Devi is a female farmer from the Jamnapur village. In the video she talks about the importance of education and training in climate change adaptation. The problems with water, which started during last years in the region, have limited the possibility to use the traditional fodder in the animal husbandry. Due to her education Susila was able to find information about the alternative fodder solutions which she could use in feeding her animals. She found the needed information at the local milk centre. From their information materials she also learnt about different types of weeds and the importance of keeping the animal area clean. Thanks to the new fodder she started giving to the cows, her milk production has increased as well as milk's fat content. Susila is determined to provide good education also to her children so that they could have a chance for a better future. Watch the video here.

Ramniwash Kumar is a young farmer from the Rambad village. In the video he explains how due to climate change and water scarcity he had to switch his production from maize and wheat to growing vegetables and fruits. He also started to use more environmentally friendly farming methods which he had learnt at the agriculture university. Thanks to these methods he is able to better protect the environment and has less work to do in the field. Watch the video here.

Arjun Sharma is the head of the village and the chairman of the farmer cooperative in the Jamnapur village. In the video he describes how the cooperative supports local farmers through various activities such as saving schemes and low-interest loans for individuals who want to expand their farms and adapt to the changing climate. Cooperative members can also insure their crops, which is encouraged every season by the government. Thanks to the cooperative everyone can earn income and have enough food. Watch the video here.

Source: CCAFS

Photo credit: John Isaac / World Bank (Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The public event "4th National Gathering of the Cooperatives" co-organized by Polish Green Network will be held on the 10-11th October 2015 in Warsaw. The event will consist of various lectures, presentations, discussions and meetings.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Water Council (WWC) warn that by 2050 the access to water in many regions of the world could be significantly reduced which would threaten food security and livelihoods of a big number of people. In the face of these predictions it is essential to change policies and increase necessary investments, including climate change adaptation measures.

Even though it is estimated that in 2050 world water resources will remain sufficient for the global population, which is supposed to reach 9 billion people by then, the continuing overconsumption, environmental degradation and the impact of climate change will lead to problems with the access to water in many of the planet's poorest regions. This is the main conclusion of the new report prepared by FAO and WWC. The document, titled "Towards a water and food secure future”, was presented in April this year in Daegu and Gyeongbuk in the South Korea during the VII World Water Forum, which is the largest international event aimed at finding joint solutions to the main water challenges in the world.

The authors of the report call on the international community to implement appropriate policies and investments, both by the public and private sectors, to ensure sustainable food production which would also allow to protect water resources. Without such actions, the efforts aimed at reducing poverty, increasing incomes and ensuring food security for the millions of people in the global South countries will become increasingly difficult.

"Food and water security are inextricably linked. We believe that by developing local approaches and making the right investments, world leaders can ensure that there will be sufficient water volume, quality and access to meet food security in 2050 and beyond," said Benedito Braga, President of the World Water Council, on the occasion of the launching of the paper. "Agriculture has to follow the path of sustainability and not the one of immediate profitability," added Braga.

"In an era of accelerated changes unparalleled to any in our past, our ability to provide adequate, safe and nutritious food sustainably and equitably is more relevant than ever. Water, as an irreplaceable element of achieving this end, is already under pressure by increasing demands from other uses, exacerbated by weak governance, inadequate capacities, and underinvestment," pointed out FAO Deputy Director-General Natural Resources, Maria Helena Semedo. "This is an opportune time to re-visit our public policies, investment frameworks, governance structures and institutions. We are entering the post-2015 development era and we should mark it with solid commitments," she added.

Water and agriculture

According to FAO estimates, by 2050 around 60 percent more food - and even up to 100 percent in the global South countries - will be needed to feed the world. This means added pressure on the water supplies which will be required be the world's agriculture in order to meet the growing demand for food. Already now agriculture is the largest user of water globally, accounting in many countries for around two-thirds or more of the water supplies drawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers.

Even with growing urbanization, in 2050 much of the global population and most of the poor will continue to earn their living in agriculture. Yet, as the report notes, the agricultural sector will face the reduction of the available water due to a competing demand from industry and cities. In these circumstances, farmers, and especially smallholders, will have to find new ways to increase their output using limited land and water resources.

Currently, water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of people in the world and this proportion is likely to increase to two thirds by 2050. This is largely due to overconsumption of water in agriculture. For example in large areas of South and East Asia, in the Near East, North Africa and North and Central America, more groundwater is already used than can be replenished naturally. Additionally, in some regions intensive agriculture, industrial development and expanding cities are responsible for polluting water sources.

Policy changes and new investments

As underlined by FAO and WWC, changing the situation is still possible. In their report they call on governments to help farmers so that they could boost food production using increasingly limited water resources and better manage risks connected with water scarcity. All this will require a combination of public and private investments as well as providing farmers with the necessary knowledge.

It is essential also to solve numerous problems connected with the degradation and waste of water resources. Additionally, the water rights must be allocated in just and inclusive ways. The report highlights in particular the need to guarantee farmers with the access to land and water as well as financial resources in ways which enhance the role of women, who in Africa and Asia are responsible for a big part of the agricultural production.

Addressing climate change

The authors of the document warn that the consequences of climate change, including unusual rainfall and temperature patterns as well as more frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts and cyclones, will have a growing impact on agriculture and especially water resources.

Mountain regions provide up to 80 percent of global water supplies, but the ongoing retreat of glaciers due to changing climate threatens the existence of those resources in the future. Forests, on the other hand, not only use water but also provide it - at least one third of the world's largest cities draw a big portion of their drinking water from forested areas. This shows how important it is to increase efforts to protect forested and mountain areas where the majority of the world's freshwater supplies originates.

The report calls for the implementation of policies and investments aimed at enhancing climate change adaptation both at the watershed and households levels. This includes, among other things, improving water storage infrastructure, increasing water capture and reuse as well as expanding research which can help small-scale farmers build more resilient food production systems.

The full document is available here.

Source: UN

Photo credit: Gerardo Pesantez / World Bank (Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Giovedì, 10 Settembre 2015 02:00

Protecting soils crucial for sustainable future

Soil is one of the key natural resources and constitutes the basis for the global food system. Furthermore, as it is a non-renewable resource, its degradation has very serious consequences, which are still too often largely ignored in the discussions about the future of our planet.

In the context of the predicted global population increase to more than 9 billion people by 2050, growing pressure on the finite land and water resources as well as the impact of climate change, our current and future food security depends to a great extent on the state of soils around the world. It is estimated that around 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on soils. Soils are also indispensable for delivering numerous other key ecosystem services. However, in many regions of the world soils are subjected to the increasing pressure caused by agricultural intensification, competing uses of land by livestock farming, forestry and urbanization as well as the necessity to meet food, energy and other needs of the growing population.

It is predicted that if the world population exceeds 9 billion by 2050, agricultural production will have to increase by 60% globally and by up to 100% in the global South countries. One needs to remember, however, that agricultural intensification and advances in farming technology in the past 50 years allowed on one hand to increase productivity, but on the other often led to many negative consequences for the environment, in particular to soil degradation, which jeopardizes the ability to maintain production in these areas in the future. Available data suggest that about 33% of global soils are already moderately to highly degraded because of erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, nutrient depletion and chemical pollution. This hampers significantly soil functions and one should not forget that forming 1 cm of soil can take up to 1000 years.

Soil health and its fertility have a direct influence on the nutrient content of food crops and their yields. Soils supply plants with essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support. They are also the living environment for a great number of various organisms which directly influence food producing plants. In the context of climate change soils serve as a buffer protecting delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature. Healthy soils contribute also to mitigating climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content.

In order to effectively protect soils in the world diverse approaches are needed. This include, among others, implementing appropriate policies, investment in sustainable soil management, stopping soil degradation and supporting its restoration, development of targeted soil research and education programmes as well as creating soil information systems. Of key importance is wide promotion of sustainable soil management, in other words using agricultural methods which improve soil quality and reduce their degradation. Among these methods are, for example, using ecological and traditional farming techniques, reducing or forgoing the use of agrochemicals, increasing soil organic matter content, promoting crop rotation, keeping soil surface vegetated, using permanent soil cover, reducing or forgoing tillage, agroforestry etc. It is estimated that these and similar practices could lead to an average crop yield increase of 58%.

You can learn more about the importance of soils and their protection from the infographics presented below (click to enlarge), which were produced by FAO in connection with the ongoing International Year of Soils.



Source: FAO

Mercoledì, 19 Agosto 2015 02:00

Climate change and farmers in Mali

Mali is an agricultural country in Western Africa. Its inhabitants increasingly experience the consequences of climate change. We encourage you to see a series of short videos in which farmers from Mali speak about their situation and various climate change adaptation strategies they adopt.

Tidiane Diarra, a young farmer from the Bouwèrè village, cultivates millet, sorghum, sesame and cowpeas. In the video he describes how the rainfall patterns in the region changed in the recent years and how this situation forced local farmers to turn to faster growing crop varieties. What helped farmers in the area to adapt to the changes was setting up a weather station in the village. As a result, they can better monitor and forecast rainfalls. Tidiane underlines also the importance of training for farmers which provides them with the appropriate knowledge and skills needed for the adaptation to the consequences of climate change. Farmers must learn, for example, about different seed varieties which are better suited to new conditions. Watch the video here.

Arouna Bayoko works for the non-governmental organization called AMEDD, which cooperates with local groups of farmers in Mali. In the video he describes how the organization helps local farmers adapt to climate change by testing and disseminating among them seed varieties more suitable for the new climate conditions. Together with farmers they also try to reduce deforestation through better regulated use of trees for firewood. Watch the video here.

Mahamane Diallo is a cattle farmer from the Bouwèrè village. In the video he describes how the increasing problems with rains reduce the grazing area and consequently local farmers are forced to change the feeding habits of their herds and to reduce their numbers. Nowadays, their cattle is allowed to feed also on the crop fields after the harvest and in the dry season they are fed mainly with stover. A big part of the herds is taken for grazing to neighbouring countries. In order to compensate at least partly for the losses of cattle, the villagers started to use water holes as fish ponds which gives them an additional source of food and income. Watch the video here.

Amadou Fane is both a farmer and a blacksmith in the Bouwéré village. In the video he explains how the changing environmental conditions forced him to adopt new farming methods. Among other things he started using manure and built a special seeder to utilize micro-dosing technique on his farm. This helped him optimize the use of fertilizers and increase yields. The seeder and other new agricultural techniques were needed because in the recent years there were big negative changes in soil fertility and farm output in the area. Watch the video here.

Bougouna Sogoba is the director of the local non-governmental organization AMEDD which promotes sustainable development in Mali. In the video he explains how his organization works to connect farmers with the outcomes of the research aimed at the improvement of food security. AMEDD tries to disseminate the use of suitable seed varieties as a means of the adaptation to climate change. Farmers in Mali are especially affected by the changes in the rainfall patterns, which have negative impact on yields and could lead to famine. One of the goals of AMEDD activities is facilitating local farmers' access to needed technologies and markets and enabling easier exchange of knowledge and information among them. Watch the video here.

The last video presents the work of the research station in the Cinzana village. Its staff selects different local varieties of cultivated crops, study them and afterwards gives them to farmers so that they could test their adaptability, productivity and resistance to various diseases and pests. The station also organizes trainings for farmers in micro-dosing of fertilizers. Watch the video here.

Source: CCAFS

Photo credit: Dominic Chavez / World Bank (Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Giovedì, 06 Agosto 2015 02:00

Drought-resistant agriculture

Food production is not possible without water. But in the increasing number of places one of the main consequences of climate change is less and more erratic rainfall. This is especially dangerous in the regions with very low food security where most food is produced on rain-dependent farms.

The impact of climate change will be felt the most by the poor inhabitants of rural areas. For this reason they will require cheap and accessible strategies allowing to adapt to increasingly unpredictable and volatile weather. This adaptation to changing climate will have to take into account not only the impeded access to water and more droughts, but also the increased risk of extreme weather events like floods.

One important way for small-scale farmers to adapt to the changing climate is by implementing on their farms more sustainable practices. Through this agriculture can become more drought-resistant and more resilient to other dangerous weather conditions, meaning that it can build the capacity to deal with the changes and recover from the crises caused by them. Central to these ecological approaches are most of all biodiversity and healthy soils. Practices that improve the ability of soils to hold moisture and reduce its erosion as well as increase biodiversity on farms help in making agricultural production and farmers' income more stable and resilient.

Building a healthy soil is crucial in aiding farms cope with the increased occurrence of droughts. There are numerous proven practices already available to farmers which can help them in improving the state of soils. Using cover plants and crop residues to protect soils from wind and water erosion; legume inter-crops as well as manure and compost use to increase organic matter; enhancing soil structure - these are all ways to increase water infiltration, water storage and accessibility of nutrients to plants.

In order to feed the world and guarantee agriculture's resilience it is essential to increase productivity of the rain-fed areas where poor farmers should implement the current know-how on soil protection and water conservation. Ecological farms that turn to biodiversity and knowledge rather than intensive use of agrochemicals might be the best solution in the context of drier and more unstable climate.

In addition to ecological farming methods mentioned earlier, what is needed are also crop varieties which can produce enough yield even in the increasingly dry conditions. Many new drought-resistant seed varieties are being developed using advanced methods in conventional plant breeding without the need of genetic engineering. There are examples of drought-resistant varieties of soybean, maize, wheat and rice that farmers could take advantage of already right now.

Furthermore, it turns out that genetic engineering is not a well suited technology to develop drought-resistant seeds. Plants' tolerance of dry conditions is a complex trait which often involves the interaction of many genes and thus is beyond the capability of the technology based on high expression of few well-characterized genes. For now there is no evidence that genetically modified crops could play a role in improving food security in the situation of changing climate.

You can learn more about the importance of ecological farming methods in the context of climate change in the report published by Greenpeace which is available here (click to download PDF file).

Source: Greenpeace

Photo credit: Danilo Pinzon / World Bank (Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

We continue the presentation of short videos about the attempts to adapt to the changing climate undertaken by small-scale farmers in the global South countries. This time we pay a visit to farmers in Burkina Faso in Western Africa.

The first video tells the story of Helene Nana, a female farmer from the Yatenga Province. She describes how the local climate has changed in the last 20 years and how it has impacted the crop yields. Local farmers are forced to adapt to the new conditions. Helen decided to complement her not enough rainy season's harvest with the additional cultivation of various vegetables. As a result she has now sufficient income to send her children to school and provide them with medical care. Since the vegetable cultivation requires adequate watering, Helene took a micro-loan in order to install a small pump which enables her to get water from the nearby dam. Currently, more than 100 women in the area started vegetable gardens and consequently the local communities have work as well as food and income source also during the dry season. Watch the video here.

Ganame Ousseni is a farmer from Ninguni village. He cultivates 9 ha of land and have 20 cows. In the video he explains how in the last decades the local environment has changed. He describes also how the climate change forces local farmers to transform their agricultural practices by undertaking at the same time land cultivation and cattle farming. Watch the video here.

Hermann Togo from Ouahigouya in the Yatenga province works for a local farmer association where he provides advisory services for family farms. In the video he explains how the association responds to the needs of local farmers and helps them adapt to the changing climate. One of the methods used by the association is running a radio station for farmers. It is called "La Voix du Paysan" ("The farmer's voice") and serves as a communication tool which allows farmers to quickly disseminate over a large area various information, for example related to weather, new farming techniques etc. The activities of the association aimed at diversification of production and boosting yields have helped to increase income and improve the quality of life of many local farmer families. Watch the video here.

Ganame Adama is a farmer living in Ninigui village. In the video he describes how he managed to successfully adapt to the changes in the rainfall patterns and is able to feed his family. He achieved that by using more sustainable farming techniques, protecting the trees on his land and optimizing the use of water by building, for example, small stone dams. He explains that along with the changing climate also farmers need to change. They can not just sit back and wait until someone else tells them what to do or does their work for them. Watch the video here.

Source: CCAFS

Photo credit: Dominic Chavez / World Bank (Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Lunedì, 20 Luglio 2015 02:00

Adapting agriculture to climate change

Farmers around the world must deal with consequences of the changing climate for food production. Available data and models suggest that in the foreseeable future climate change can not be avoided. This means that farmers - especially in the global South countries - will be forced to implement various adaptation strategies as fast and as cheaply as possible. The aim is to adapt to the new environmental conditions in a way that will allow farmers to continue to produce food at the needed level.

The issue of feeding the world in the context of climate change is often perceived as solely a technological challenge. It is argued that crop yields can increase enough if farmers receive new and improved seeds resistant to unfavorable weather conditions or if they use more fertilizers. However, numerous scientists researching the connections between climate change, agriculture and food security point out that in reality farms can become more resilient to climate change by using various uncomplicated adaptation strategies and practices.

A good example is increasing the content of organic matter in soil which helps store more water in it. By adopting this simple method farmers can become more prepared for the prolonged dry periods.

The info-graphic below presents a number of strategies for climate change adaptation which are considered crucial especially from the point of view of farmers in the global South countries. More diverse production on farms, cultivation of crop varieties better suited to new climate conditions, easier access to weather information, agroforestry, improved water management and implementation of more sustainable agricultural techniques are just some of the methods which can help to make food production more resilient to the consequences of climate change.

Click the info-graphic to enlarge and learn more:


Source: CCAFS

Venerdì, 26 Giugno 2015 02:00

Alternative food systems: food cooperatives

During ClimATE Change project events organized by PGN, the participants from Polish cities often want to know how they can support the environment- and climate-friendly agriculture in their everyday life. One of the directions we usually point them to is building alternative food systems based on local and more sustainable food production and consumption. In one of the recent articles we wrote about community supported agriculture. Today we take a closer look at food cooperatives.

Why food cooperatives?

Imagine a city in which small food cooperatives operate in every district or even in each neighbourhood. They organize group food purchases but also animate local community life. Anyone can become their member. They serve as a platform for intergenerational and social cooperation, a school of direct democracy and resourcefulness. Food bought through them is fresh, organic and affordable. This is the vision which inspires the fledgling food cooperatives movement in Poland.

Food coops usually operate informally and not for profit. This differentiates them from other more typical agricultural cooperatives. Despite the fact that group food purchases constitute the main part of their activity, their goal is to initiate a type of a social change. This is why starting a food cooperative can be seen as having the socio-political meaning.

The operational logic of food coops is entirely different from typical business initiatives. It is not about generating profit but creating opportunities for people to satisfy their everyday food needs in a way that contributes to building more just and sustainable world. Cooperatives strive to shorten the distance between consumers and farmers by eliminating unnecessary intermediaries and base their activity on the mutual respect between all participating parties.

Working together

Theoretically, anyone can start a food cooperative and shape it according to the needs and organizational capacity of its members. But food coops are based on the idea that one never acts alone, thus they always entail building a community. Only the common effort of all members guarantees the initiative's success. Carrying out different tasks brings the group together and successes give more joy if they can be shared with others. Even though cooperatives usually start with practical challenges, they achieve a lot more by building relationships between their members. Being in a community is also a chance to create new projects. The experience shows that food coops often lead to other similar initiatives such as community supported agriculture.

How does it work?

Food cooperatives have various ways of operating. Usually, food purchases are made during one chosen day once a week or every two weeks. In the morning, designated people go to buy food products which were earlier ordered by the coop members. The orders are most often made using web-based ordering system. After the shopping is finished, the food is brought to the meeting place of the cooperative, where it is weighed and packed for each member. At the agreed time, the members arrive to pay and receive their orders. Sometimes the payment might include extra 10% for the coop's common fund. This money can be used, for example, to buy necessary equipment (such as scales) or to finance the purchases for cooperative members who might be temporarily in need.

During the shopping day, cooperatives often have also the organizational meeting for their participants. This is the time to evaluate the current round of purchases, plan the next one and decide together about possible improvements of the whole process. In cooperatives all members are equal, there are no bosses, and everyone can express their opinion. At the end of the day, designated members clean the room where the food was distributed.

Until the next shopping round the cooperative participants usually communicate with each other only through Internet. Some of the members work additionally in various task groups. In one of the cooperatives in Warsaw, for example, there is a group whose task is to find new suppliers and another one which deals with the issues connected to the web-based ordering system. Sometimes cooperatives organize also various cultural events.

Organic or cheap?

Access to certified organic food in Poland is not a big problem anymore. However, taking into account the price of products sold in organic shops, organic food is still not affordable on the regular basis for the majority of the Polish society. The solution to this problem is still to be found and constitutes also the biggest challenge for the food cooperatives movement in Poland. Creating a way to supply city inhabitants with affordable healthy food might be a key element to making food cooperatives a practical and functioning model.

At the moment, there are still too few organic farmers in Poland willing to engage in this type of pilot and, for now, not very profitable initiatives. Those producers who are ready usually offer relatively high prices. It is understandable as the price must reflect high production cost and include a fair remuneration for hard work on farms. Food coops do not want to pressure farmers to sell their produce at cost. Food prices should be fair but at the same time acceptable to less affluent consumers. This could be achieved by increasing the size of purchases, which means going in the direction of the wholesale buying. This requires, however, greater number of ordering parties, which means building bigger cooperatives or creating networks of coops operating in one district or city and making purchases together.

Organizational challenges

The very first food cooperative in Poland was started a few years ago in Warsaw. Soon it was followed by groups in other cities. Currently, there are food coops operating also in Krakow, Łódź, Gdańsk, Poznań, Lublin, Białystok and other places.

Food cooperatives face many organizational challenges. On one hand, they want to work in the democratic manner, but at the same time they need to make sure that the responsibility for carrying out various tasks does not become diluted. What is the best way to take decisions? Through voting or by trying to reach a consensus? If a coop chooses the latter, how can it make sure that everyone is able to voice their opinions? There is also the issue of members' commitment. How to make sure that the workload in a cooperative is divided more less equally? Even the biggest enthusiasm can quickly fade away when the whole work is carried out by just a few people.

The future

Food cooperatives are still a relatively new phenomenon in Poland and thus have not lost their novelty appeal. Moreover, people can engage in them without any specialist knowledge or skills. The interest in the food coops movement in Poland is undoubtedly growing so the are good prospects of its further development.

The above article was written on the basis of the excerpt from the action guide "Time for change. Choose locality! How to support environment- and people-friendly agriculture?" published in Polish by PGN.

Photo credit: Meagan Perosha / USDA (Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Patrick Whitefield is one of the leading permaculture teachers in the UK. He has written three books on permaculture: "Permaculture in a Nutshell", "How to Make a Forest Garden" and "The Earth Care Manual". His latest book is "The Living Landscape: How to Read and Understand It", a subject especially close to his heart. He also practices as a design consultant. The interview was conducted by Marcin Gerwin.

Marcin Gerwin: With temperatures rising and changing weather patterns, agriculture will most certainly feel the effects of climate change. Do you think permaculture has the potential to help farmers to deal with the changing climate?

Patrick Whitefield: One specific way in which permaculture can tackle climate change is through diversity, which we emphasize. In terms of trees, one of the big problems with planting trees is that we don't know what the climate will be when those trees mature. So if we plant a large variety of trees, lots of different kinds — some of which are suited to hotter or cooler climates — then hopefully we'll get the ones that will survive and be still thriving in 50 or 100 years. The ones which don't thrive can be taken out as thinning.

In terms of the short-lived plants, vegetables, cereals, and so forth, I think that planting mixtures is important, because one of the main effects of climate change is not so much steady increase in temperature but an increase in extremes — of drought, of flood, of hot or of cold. For example, in cereals it is probably worthwhile to sow a mixture of varieties in the field. So in a dry year one variety will do well, in a wet year another variety will do well.

Are the techniques that are used in permaculture for soil management useful in this regard as well?

With the management of the soil there is always a tension between long-term health of the soil and short-term management needs. When people plow the soil or dig the soil it is usually to gain some immediate benefit. But the long-term effect is usually detrimental in terms of soil fertility, particularly in terms of humus content. One of the main principles of permaculture is that we try to avoid digging or plowing — we try to leave the soil as undisturbed as possible. This allows for a long-term buildup of humus, of soil structure and beneficial soil organisms. This will give a much more resilient soil, a soil which is much more capable of withstanding the extremes of weather.

It works both ways — humus, which is stored in the soil, is actually carbon which is taken out of the atmosphere. Someone has even calculated that if everyone in the world were to stop plowing and digging immediately, the change would be big enough to control global warming, because that much more carbon would be taken out of the atmosphere. I don't know whether that is true or not. What I would say is that four times as much carbon is stored in the Earth's soil as all the living plants and animals. People talk about planting trees to mitigate global warming, but it is the wrong idea. The most important thing we can do is to stop disturbing the soil.

Is it possible to practice no-digging on a large scale farm? Or is it something that people can do only in their backyard gardens?

Yes, it is. In my book "The Earth Care Manual" I give some detail of a method called bi-cropping where we have a perennial sward of white clover at ground level and then we grow cereals or other crops through that permanent cover. There is special cultivation equipment to help with that. That is one particular method which I think is quite well suited to the British climate, but probably less so to drier climates, because you have rather a lot of competition for water between the clover and the cereals. That is an example of something that could be done at any scale. You can have a farm that has a thousand hectares where you are using that method.

I saw a very interesting video recently on the internet of a North American farmer who was managing three thousand acres. He was doing it conventionally, and although he wasn't an organic farmer, he was doing away with plowing. And the effect on his soil was amazing – you could really see the buildup in organic matter. I was really impressed by that. This was not from one of the usual people you would expect — someone who has been doing it organically for years or who was well known in the permaculture circuit. This was a mainstream farmer working on a very large scale. And he was doing more or less the same thing with the soil that we would do in permaculture.

One of the possible effects of climate change is increased occurrence of droughts and floods. Is there something that could be done to reduce their impact by using permaculture design?

The thing about flooding is that nothing can really be done on the scale of the individual farm or even individual small district. It has to be done on the scale of the whole river catchment – from the top to the sea. What we must do is to hold more water in the upper reaches of the river, up in the hills. There is also to some extent a tension between water and food production. Most farmers want to get excess water off their land quickly. But in those higher reaches, where we need to store water, the potential for food production is relatively low (most of it is animal production). So the most important output of these areas may be in terms of water storage rather than in terms of food production. When they go out of food production it won't make very big difference compared to the more fertile, low-lying flat areas further downstream — the ones that suffer from flooding. This is something that can only be done on the political level.

In permaculture we tend to emphasize those things which can be done on the level of individual, the family, or the community, but there will always remain some things which can only be done on the political level.

And what about droughts?

Windbreaks are one important thing because the wind dries out the land, it dries out the plant. It increases the amount of water that the plants need in order to produce. Also keeping the soil covered – using mulches. But mulches are only practical on fairly small scale.

What would you suggest for a large scale farms then? A vegetable farm for example?

It is more difficult. On a large scale the only way to keep the soil covered really is to have living plants covering it. And living plants use water. The most important thing to protect ourselves from droughts is again to have diversity in what we sow and what we plant. If you grow a mixture of plants — the ones that yield best under ideal conditions and the drought-tolerant ones — then you know that you will get a crop every year.

I think we need a certain change in mentality. The attitude of farmers is to go for maximum every time. So very often the aim of the farming system is to get the maximum yield. And in order to get maximum yield you need ideal conditions. We've been used to a climate which is remarkably stable, but this may not be a case in the future. So we need to move away from the idea of always going to the maximum, but to go for a stability of yield — in other words to know that every year we will harvest something, rather than hope that this year we will harvest the maximum.

Some people recommend the use of biochar — a charcoal as a soil amendment — to improve soil fertility and to help mitigate climate change because it means taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in the soil. What is your opinion about this? Would you recommend it as well?

We are at the very beginning of understanding how biochar works. Of the many trials which have been done with it as many have been unsuccessful as successful. One thing which is emerging is that it seems you need to mix it with compost before applying it for it to really work. If it can work reliably it will certainly be worthwhile, both for farmers and for climate change.

The interview was first published by Polish Green Network on its website

Photo credit: London Permaculture (Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)