Earlier today I posted about a Heifer project participant being included in The Economist's report, The 9 billion-people question: A special report on feeding the world. And if you're keyed in to media coverage of sustainable agriculture, you've probably seen the conversation around the web on the United Nations Report, Agroecology and the Right to Food (Mark Bittman has written about it on the New York Times Opinionator blog, and Paula Crossfield for Huffington Post, to name a couple).
Both reports look at the seemingly impossible challenge of feeding all 9 billion people who are estimated to be living on Earth by 2050, and they offer different perspectives. Will we feed the world by investing in the highest-yielding crop or livestock species? Or by investing in agroecology? (Heifer has been practicing agroecology all over the world since the mid 1980s and established an Agroecology Initiative in 2000.)
I worry, though, that the theme of "feeding the world" diverts our attention from the local, on-the-ground work that needs to be done. Heifer takes on the task of ending hunger and poverty with this sort of community approach, and it's an approach that we've proven works.
Ours is a bottom-up approach. We work with the very poor to help them rebuild assets and develop agriculturally and economically active livelihoods. We build strong community groups where people work together to share their limited resources and to plan their vision of a better life. At this stage, much training takes place. Participants learn improved ways to tend animals, how to best use animal by-products, water management and erosion control practices, and often even improved literacy and leadership skills.
A transformation process begins to happen within the community when the members realize that improvements in knowledge lead to improvements in health, income, relationships and eventually to their values. We call this a holistic transformation.
Once this transformation is underway, the community uses their knowledge to impact the policies, systems and practices that impact their surroundings (both societal and environmental). Community empowerment at the grassroots level can lead to changes in infrastructure to help build local commerce--roads, electricity, commodity storage and transportation, as well as market associations and structures.
We've seen our model work again and again, in all corners of the world (and even in our own backyard). Our challenge now is to ratchet up this model so we can begin to see our impacts on a larger scale, as we have with our East Africa Dairy Development Project. As communities begin to feed themselves, international hunger statistics will begin to come down. The need for wealthy countries to ship commodities to poor countries will decrease--countries will be growing their own food.
Left: Bolivia (photo by Geoff Bugbee), Top: Cambodia (photo by Matt Bradley)
Botton: Armenia (photo by Russ Powell), Right: Zambia (photo by Jake Lyell
And then the question of whether conventional agriculture is more productive or if sustainable/organic/agroecological agriculture is better will become a non-issue.
Can we do it alone? Of course not. We need help from individuals like you, from partner nonprofits and non-government organizations, and from governments--wealthy and poor alike.